Nov
01
1999

Throwing the Game

Conflicts of interest prevent tough coverage of sports issues

In the 1930s, legendary hockey owner Conn Smythe was displeased by newspaper coverage of his Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe's solution: He approached Toronto Star publisher Joe Atkinson with a promise to take out $20,000 in advertising annually. In exchange, Atkinson would raise his hockey writers' salaries by $20,000 -- as a reward for more "honest" reporting.

If owners of pro sports teams no longer engage in outright bribery, it's only because they no longer need to. No single topic -- not even presidential campaigns or wars -- receives the kind of day-in, day-out coverage that is devoted to sports by every daily media outlet in the nation. And the tone of all this coverage is, to put it mildly, uncritical. Sportswriters tend to assume that their readers and the local teams share the same goal: winning games.

Even when the news moves off the field -- when a team is considering a move to another city, demanding a new stadium, or signing a new cable TV deal -- the media tends to see boosterism, not criticism, as its role. "Sports," as Minneapolis Star-Tribune sportswriter Jay Weiner says, "is sometimes viewed as the toy department."

There’s supposed to be "no cheering in the press box," as the old saying goes, but there's plenty of cheering when it comes time to write news stories. When Connecticut Gov. John Rowland announced last November that he would lure the New England Patriots to town with a $350 million football stadium, the Hartford Courant responded with a one-word banner headline: "Touchdown!"

Teams' off-field successes are routinely portrayed as "wins" for the team and its fans-- even when the "success" comes in the form of a public stadium subsidy or increased profit margins. In the midst of a tight stadium-funding battle for the San Diego Padres last fall, Jacor Broadcasting's KOGO-AM news reporter Whitney Southwick called the vote "the next battle, after winning—what? First the playoffs, and then the Big One, huh?" (See sidebar for more on Jacor's radio sports empire.)

Sports reporters are even quicker to accept the assertions of the teams they cover, especially on off-the-field matters, than city hall reporters are to swallow the press releases of leading politicians. When cable TV giant Cablevision revealed that it was considering buying the New York Mets, Newsday baseball writer Marty Noble (6/26/99) wrote that "the influx of Cablevision money would better equip the Mets to compete for the best available players and help them in their pursuit of a new ballpark"-- without once mentioning the likely impact on cable rates of one company owning three area sports franchises.

Film critics don't usually blame audiences as "unsupportive" if they don’t go to see bad movies, but in sports it's common for columnists and beat reporters to write entire articles expressing concern over low attendance figures, or write that local citizens "had better start showing their pride and interest in the home team." (Tampa Tribune, 5/23/99)

Root for the owned team

One problem behind media bias in sports coverage is that more and more often, when a reporter sets out to interview an athlete or a team executive, their checks are being signed by the same corporate entity.

The first major media mogul to buy into the fraternity of sports owners was Ted Turner, who parlayed his bargain-basement purchase of the near-bankrupt Atlanta Braves into the cornerstone of a global media empire. The Braves helped turn WTBS from an unknown local UHF station, Channel 17, into a national cable superstation -- though Turner did fail in his attempts to have his ace pitcher Andy Messersmith, who wore number 17, wear the word "CHANNEL" on his uniform instead of his name.

Since then, the Chicago Tribune/WGN (Chicago Cubs), Fox (Los Angeles Dodgers and shares of the L.A. Kings, L.A. Lakers, New York Knicks and New York Rangers) and Turner himself (Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Predators) have all gobbled up pro sports franchises at an increasing clip. (Disney/ABC recently put its Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks up for sale, in part because of its inability to leverage the teams' broadcast rights into a local cable sports network.)

The most recent trend has been to involve local media outlets in ownership consortiums, kicking in perhaps 5 or 10 percent of a team's purchase price in exchange for preferred status as a team contractor. (This usually means free ad space at the ballpark.) The Arizona Diamondbacks' roster of owners includes Phoenix Newspapers (publishers of the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Business Gazette), KTAR-AM ("voice of the Phoenix Suns") and local CBS affiliate KPHO-TV.

Clearly, this incestuous boardroom relationship has the potential to skew news coverage. In 1996, Diamondbacks president Richard Dozer wrote to Republic publisher John Oppedahl to complain about a front-page story detailing how the Phoenix Suns’ lease on the America West Arena allowed the basketball team to defer payments until years in the future, by which time the team might well have moved out. (As for why Dozer cares: The Diamondbacks and the Suns have the same principal owner, Jerry Colangelo.)

Dozer demanded that the newspaper run a "rebuttal," that Republic columnist E.J. Montini be "headed off" from writing a column about the story, and that no letters to the editor be printed criticizing the arena deal. He also suggested that "there might be a time for an editorial written by one of your writers about the solid benefits of the Arena and how great of a deal it turned out to be."

The story of the arena lease promptly disappeared from the Republic's pages -- save for an op-ed a week later (12/22/96) by city attorney Paul Meyer, who wrote that the original article "significantly distorted a transaction that should be engendering rare praise for the courage of the City Council in taking the risks of approving such a complex, controversial proposal. The bottom line of this transaction was succinctly stated by Phoenix Suns President Jerry Colangelo: The arena is a ‘win-win’ for the city and the Phoenix Suns."

Publishers as partners

But even at news outlets with no corporate connections to the teams they cover, sports reporting -- and news reporting of sports issues -- is usually skewed toward the interests of local teams. Editorial boards almost invariably come out in favor of the demands of sports teams, and that sentiment can trickle down to the newsroom, though some editors are more heavy-handed about it than others.

John Sugg, now an editor at the alternative Weekly Planet in Tampa, used to work for the Tampa Tribune when the paper was covering the Buccaneers football team's demands for a new stadium -- preferably one the team wouldn't have to pay for. One day his managing editor called a group of staffers into his office. "He looks at us and he says, 'Our coverage of the stadium will be limited to finding solutions for it to be built,'" Sugg recalls. "I looked around at my colleagues who were sitting there, and they were looking at their feet, they were looking at the ceiling."

One reason is that newspaper companies are usually major local corporations with other investments in the region --including in real estate. In 1982, the staff of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune took out an ad in their paper criticizing their publisher, John Cowles, for taking a leading role in getting a new domed stadium built for the local baseball and football teams--in exchange for the right to develop 200 acres of land surrounding the site.

Once Cowles sold the paper, there was less pressure on stadium demands-- but it was another story when it came to the U.S. Olympic Festival, a local amateur sports event in the early ’90s that was chaired by the new publisher. "That was a pain in the ass, because it was a little event, and he was concerned about its coverage," says Star-Tribune sports business reporter Jay Weiner. "It was a clear conflict of interest -- I had to go and interview him about the finances of this event that was using public money. He was like the general manager of the team, but he was also the publisher of the newspaper. That was not comfortable."

There are other ways that newspapers see themselves as sports teams' business partners, first and foremost being that sports sells papers. John Stebbins, a former Tampa Tribune sportswriter who is now with Bloomberg News, observes, "I don't think it was any secret in the Tampa Tribune newsroom that if we lose the Bucs, there's going to be a good chunk of advertising revenue out the window."

"When the Timberwolves first came here, we were the official newspaper of the Timberwolves," says the Star-Tribune’s Weiner.

What does that mean? Does it mean we have to do better coverage?... When the world figure skating championships were here and the newspaper was a sponsor, do we have to give it special coverage? And sometimes it's hard to tell if we're having a special section because we want to sell more advertisements [or] because we're the official sponsors. Those are always a little icky.

Adds Sugg,

This is an especially insidious thing, where newspapers become involved in these marketing deals, and they don't disclose it-- even though you might guess if you go to the arena, and you see the Tampa Tribune's name underneath the ice, that there's something going on. You're not going to write about your marketing partners in the same way you're going to write about other people.

Access and other favors

Even more important than corporate censorship of sports reporting, though, is self-censorship. No matter who owns your newspaper or radio station, the business of sportswriting is inextricably linked with the business of pro sports.

In an effort to keep the media on their good side, teams routinely supply journalists with everything from free buffets in the press room to holiday gifts. (The Maple Leaf’s Conn Smythe used to brag that he could get "any story I wanted in the paper for $50 or less," because "sportswriters were very low paid and always had their hands out.") Sugg recalls that when he worked at the Miami Herald, "the Herald had this very strict ethics policy, but nobody ever questioned the fact that on Christmas, you'd see [sports editor] Eddie Pope's desk piled up to the ceiling with bottles of booze and presents and stuff. For him, the ethics policy did not apply."

The practice isn't limited to beat reporters. Last October, as the New York Yankees pushed toward both a World Series championship and a city decision on whether to spend a billion dollars on a new stadium, owner George Steinbrenner invited the top editors at each of the four city dailies to attend the playoffs in his private box. "They said they paid for the tickets, but the thing is that they had access to them -- most people would pay for them if they had access," says Phil Mushnick, who reported the invitations in his New York Post column (10/16/98). "It was a big favor, is what it was." More recently, the Houston Chronicle reported on how Astros owner Drayton McLane was hosting local political leaders in his Astrodome box -- but omitted that he had also treated Chronicle execs to freebies (Houston Press, 8/2/99).

And when the carrot fails, there's always the stick. In a profile of Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo (3/26/98), the Phoenix New Times noted, "Until the interviews granted for this story, New Times has not had access to Colangelo or the Suns organization since June of '94, when former New Times reporter Darrin Hostetler broke the sex-party story based on a police report of what was described by a victim as a 'rape' by [Suns player] Oliver Miller." Stories of reporters who were cut off from the locker room quotes and inside stories that are a staple of the sports reporting biz have created "a big fear factor" in the press rooms, according to one big-city sports reporter—who was afraid to be identified.

Perhaps more than any other industry, sports leagues control the access to players, and therefore the ability to write the game-day stories that are sports journalism's bread and butter, with a sophisticated PR machine. The NFL, says Daily News sportswriter Luke Cyphers, "basically keeps a lot of writers happy because it's so solid, and isn't as chaotic as other sports like baseball. You're less likely to get beaten in competition, but it also makes it an incentive not to work as hard."

And unlike in say, political reporting, in the sports world there are no political opponents to feed stories when the teams' PR teams decide to shut them down. "There's no organized opposition to sports teams -- the media are it," says Cyphers. "And I think sportswriters sometimes get a disproportionate amount of hatred from the people they cover, because you can't blame it on that senator or that Ralph Nader guy."

Occasionally, reporters who cover sports will grow tired of their role as whipping boys and PR conduits. The Daily News' Mike McAlary once grew so tired of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner calling him night and day to plant stories that he attributed a Steinbrenner quote to "an anonymous Yankee owner."

After that, as McAlary would later write (10/16/96), "I lost him as a source."

This article was funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Reporting.

Sidebar:

Murdoch: World Domination Through Sports

Last winter, Rupert Murdoch stunned the sports world by announcing his intention to buy Manchester United, the most popular soccer team in the world. Murdoch, who reportedly had never seen a major-league baseball game before his purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers last spring, had already built his Australian media empire on the backs of sports, at times buying up or forming entire leagues to ensure himself a broadcast monopoly. With Manchester United in his stable, Murdoch hoped to be able to control broadcast rights to England's Premier League, or possibly to form a new European super league to carry on his cable networks.

The move horrified Britain's soccer-crazed public, but Murdoch was only following the successful formula he had worked in his native Australia to take control of that country's rugby leagues. Unable to secure the broadcast rights to the existing leagues, Murdoch promptly invented a new sport: Super Rugby League, with some minor rules changes from existing rugby.