FOG Roundtable: the media coverage of sports business, Part 2

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

This is Part 2 of the FOG Roundtable on the media coverage of sports business. Here’s Part 1.


Sean Gregory, senior writer, Time Magazine

Abraham Madkour, executive editor, SportsBusiness Journal/Daily

Mark Maske, staff writer and NFL reporter, Washington Post

Richard Sandomir, TV sports and business reporter, New York Times

David Wharton, feature sportswriter, Los Angeles Times


What is the single most significant sports business story you’ve covered during your career and why?

Gregory: NFL, NFL, NFL. Around 10 years ago, one of my colleagues wrote a big takeout about how pro football was booming. And the NFL has only kept exploding since then. Add all the other challenges the NFL has faced – whether it’s the leadership challenges with the recent domestic violence incidents, or the legal-existential challenges surrounding player safety – and you have the type of tension that always drives a big story.

A pretty close second is the exploding revenues in college sports, and how this expansion has forced a serious reappraisal of the amateur model.

Madkour: I still believe Major League Baseball canceling the World Series in 1994 forever changed public perception of sports and leagues and led to a run of labor issues. The sports industry’s reaction to 9/11 was very important and part of the country’s healing. We’ve also seen sports explode on a global scale, fueled by the Olympics in China in 2008. There has been the massive influence of ESPN, the escalation of media rights, the total transformation of college athletics, the increasing value of sports franchises, the impact of Title IX and the stadium building boom.

Maske: I would say the most interesting and significant sports business story that I have covered is the labor confrontation between the NFL and the NFL Players Association that led to the lockout of the players in 2011. This was a challenging and interesting story because it involved coverage of legal as well as bargaining issues, and it was a marked departure from previous sets of NFL labor negotiations in which the two sides negotiated intensely but often acted as business partners with similar goals rather than as adversaries. This was a far different dynamic with Roger Goodell as commissioner and DeMaurice Smith as the executive director of the union than it had been with Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw in those positions. It made for a compelling and long-running story line, one in which the parties came far closer than one ever would have expected to actually losing regular season games. It is also a story that did not end with the end of the lockout and the labor agreement, for many of the issues linger and continue to have a significant effect on the governance of the game today.

Sandomir: There have been two. One was last year’s three-part series about ESPN, a collaboration with my Times colleague Steve Eder and James Andrew Miller, author of the definitive book about ESPN. From start to finish, we spent over a year figuring out how to write about ESPN in a different way than others have. We found that way largely in looking at ESPN’s power in college sports, from the scheduling of football games to its influence in Washington. That series combined extensive interviews, FOIA filings and data mining. I think a lot of people rightly assume ESPN’s power, but many did not know much of what we found out.

Second was the Madoff trustee’s lawsuit against the owners of the New York Mets. It had everything: a massive Ponzi scheme; the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars by Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, and accusations by the trustees that they should have reasonably known that Madoff was a fraud; depositions of the parties that provided grist for many stories; a baseball-loving judge who made life difficult on the trustee and his legal team; a Mets team that was revealed to be too dependent on Madoff’s financing, has not yet fully recovered financially, and along the way, needed a loan from MLB. As a reporter, though, I was disappointed that the case was settled before trial; I always hope for a trial, because it illuminates court records. The judge voiced his regrets that he wouldn’t be able to see Sandy Koufax on the stand. I felt that if the case was so fascinating just on the basis of court documents and a few hearings, then a trial would have been riveting.

Wharton: I have written a series of articles over the years that scrutinized athletic department spending and true cost of attendance for college athletes. These stories have shed light on the business underpinnings of college – so-called amateur – sports. They have won national awards.

DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

How do you see the coverage of sports business changing in the future? For example, what will the coverage look like several years from now?

Gregory: Well, the revenue projections are pretty much in: the NFL and NBA just signed rich TV deals. Local TV revenue is booming for baseball. The College Football Playoff will increase demand for the college game. Conferences are starting networks. March Madness is incredibly popular. And on and on. Sports will remain DVR-proof, so media companies will pay rights-fee premiums to the sports leagues. The coverage of sports business will only grow too.

Madkour: There will be more and more coverage of the sports business from all forms of media. You will see more coverage from the mainstream media and non-traditional media. The reason is because sports business, as an industry, continues on a major growth trajectory and there is a massive amount of interest around it.

Maske: I don’t know that the nature or quality of coverage of sports business will change as much as the volume and timeliness of it will. We have already seen that there is more media than ever before, with the proliferation of online and social media coverage alongside more traditional media outlets. Coverage in all aspects is more immediate, and reactions are seen in real time on social media platforms. When the NFL faced its recent issues related to the legal troubles of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and other players, the feedback of fans and media members alike to the actions taken by the NFL and its teams was immediate. Things can move very quickly now, and the fundamental nature of coverage has been changed because of that.

Sandomir: I’m not good enough at forecasting . . . I can only surmise that what’s going on now will only get bigger.

Wharton: As business reporting continues to mature in the sports department, I suspect we’ll see young reporters entering the field with more knowledge. Dedicated sports business reporters such as Darren Rovell are serving as role models for the next generation.

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