In the New York Times today Sam Borden writes about English soccer club, Swindon Town F.C., which has decided that the media isn’t really necessary to what they’re doing. The press is barred from talking to players, coaches and even fans on stadium grounds. There is basically a media blackout and, in place, is Swindon’s own team-controlled press, with their p.r. person as its “reporter.”
Lee Power, the Swindon owner, who put the policy in place, acknowledged the irony of giving an interview to explain the decision but defended the policy because, he said, “at the end of the day, the local paper needs the football club more than the football club needs the local paper . . . As the owner, I didn’t think they were very supportive of the club, and I’m not here to sell newspapers; I’m here to do what I believe is best for the club.”
Rather extreme, but as Borden notes, it’s not a totally novel thing. Rather, it’s merely the vanguard of a growing trend of limited media access in pro sports, particularly in Europe, but to some extent occurring here as well.
We’ve talked about this stuff quite a bit here. On one level it’s somewhat disturbing inasmuch as it’s such a departure from what we’re used to in professional sports. On the other hand, though, it seems inevitable in that sports clubs, while once seen as some sort of weird quasi-public institution which have to answer to the public, are being run like the private businesses that they truly are more and more each day.
Sports teams and leagues have sophisticated P.R. professionals, their own websites, social media presences and in some cases TV networks. They are, if they choose to anyway, capable of running entirely apart of the independent press. Indeed, when you think about it the idea that the press can just walk in and talk to players and team officials in sports is weird. Entertainers such as rock stars and actors don’t let the press into their dressing rooms after performances and allow them to second guess the choices they made while on stage. Middle managers at a software company don’t make themselves available daily and have their decisions questioned. Sports teams could go to a business model pretty easily, actually, and it’d conform with the norm, not represent some weird departure. The sports model is, in fact, the weird departure.
Such a development — or even moves in that general direction — will understandably disturb the press if and when it occurs. But there’s opportunity there too. Freedom. After all, if you don’t have access you don’t have to be worried about losing access. You can free up your editorial voice and be critical in ways that credentialed press aren’t critical these days. Sure, some are, in weekly columns. But not most. I mean, there’s no reason a reporter can’t say, right in the dang game story, that a play was dumb or a player screwed up. They don’t do that now in anything approaching the way that they could if they wanted to. But they could if the option of humanizing the players involved that they now have was taken from them by a team restricting access. And they’d do a great job of it too. I’ve been around beat reporters when they’re just shooting the breeze with one another. They’re funny and insightful and biting. Such an approach in print may not be the most polite thing, but if reporters were forced to be one-sided in their coverage of athletes I think readers would enjoy reading that kind of thing.
None of which is to say that a team cutting off access is a good thing. We’d lose a lot of what we get in the form of stories that are built off of the long term relationships reporters form with players and managers. All I’m saying is if the trend mentioned in Borden’s piece continues and extends to the U.S., that stuff could go away over time. If it does, there are options for sports coverage. Some of which may be surprisingly beneficial for readers. And no small amount of fun too.