Borrelli Summit looks at impact of media on U.S. sports

By Ken Kerschbaumer

The Louis A. Borrelli, Jr. Media Summit at the State University of New York Oswego last Friday was highlighted by a lively discussion of the impact media has on U.S. sports that featured, among others George Bodenheimer, ESPN president and Myles Brand, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

For Borrelli, CEO of NEP Broadcasting, the day provided a chance to give back to his alma mater while students, teachers and local media had a chance to learn from some of the sports industry’s most important thinkers.

The discussion, moderated by Linda Cohn, ESPN anchor, centered around the fundamental question of whether of who benefits most from the current sports media environment. The media, teams, athletes or fans? Who wins, it appears, depends on how one views things.

“I look at the glass as half-full,” said Bodenheimer who added that he believes all aspects of the industry are doing well. “There has never been a better time to be a sports fan if you judge it by the amount of access fans get to a product. And there is more flooding into the market has there is more attention on athletics at the pro and collegiate level.”

Much of that flood is the result of new distribution platforms, like the Internet which ESPN’s takes advantage of for ESPN360, delivering live video coverage of college sporting events over broadband connections.

“Viewing habits are changing,” said Brand. “Last year CBS let viewers watch the early rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four through the Internet for free.”

While the fans win with all of the access to the players and teams Bud Poliquin, sports columnist for “The Syracuse Post-Standard” ironically said it was the media that was the loser. With athletes and franchises more aware of the fallout of a scandal or off-color comment access to athletes and coaches in the locker room access is becoming more difficult.

“So much today seems to be choreographed,” said Poliquin. “We don’t get a chance to get to the athletes as much as used to.”

Stuart Robinson, SUNY New Paltz athletic director and head coach of the men’s soccer team, however, added that at the college level media is getting more access. “As an athletic director the challenge is handling what I call the professionalization of amateur sports,” he said. “We’ve created an environment where amateur sports are covered in a similar way to professional. And that is both good and bad.”

Poliquin countered that he has a hard time portraying big-time college athletes as amateurs. “They’re poorly paid professionals,” he said, pointing to a scholarship that can easily be worth $150,000 during a college career. “The whole idea of being an amateur is you’re not being compensated but they are and they should be given the demands of their coaches.”

Brand, however, defined amateur as being not for profit. “Schools like Oswego require multiple sports and they need the revenues to enhance participation opportunities for students,” he explained. “So on the front end it will act like any other business a be a billion dollar operation but on the output side the money is dedicated to the students.”

At the end of the day, however, college sports is a business, said Linda Bruno, commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference. “Seventy percent of the conferences are funded by success in NCAA sports and ESPN funds us,” she explained. “But we have to get to a point where we can keep the athletes as amateur student athletes.”

That perception of amateur athletics as a business may be one of the reasons the media engages in the classic ‘build them up and tear them down” mentality that can lead to lengthy coverage of off-the-field incidents and the “tear them down” media attitude that seems hell-bent on destroying athletic heroes.

“Media has taught us to want news 24/7,” says Bruno. “When I was growing up we didn’t know what Mickey Mantle did when he left the stadium and that wouldn’t happen now. Today society is more interested in the bad and you’re seeing things and reading about things you would have never seen 15 years ago. There’s a need to know everything.”

“Right now we have a culture that is uneasy with heroes and heroines,” added Brand. “And there’s a sense of cynicism and distrust of the written word that is having a long-term effect on citizenship.”

With the media seemingly shifting out of hero-making mode Poliquin said that simply isn’t the case. “The guy who hits 50 home runs doesn’t have to be a hero,” he explained. “The hero could be someone else.”

Bodenheimer added that for ESPN the attitude is to simply report the news, both good and bad. Stories like the Terrell Owens saga, said Bodenheimer, drive ratings. But other stories, like a recent piece on ESPN about Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman who was killed in Afghanistan, reflect better aspects of the athletic experience.

The Internet and age of 24/7 news has required less reflection from members of the media. “We’re in an age of instant commentary,” said Bodenheimer. “Analysts and anchors in the ESPN studio comment on what they see within a minute of it happening and then they’ll be killed in comments from viewers who didn’t like what they said.”

But consumers, said Robinson, need to constantly draw their own opinion when it comes to digesting sports news. “It’s a sad state if we took what was on ESPN as the gospel of a situation,” he said.

So what is the impact of media on U.S. sports? The underlying flow of billions of dollars from advertiser to sports network to rights holder wasn’t a major focus of the discussion. But when the recent fight between the University of Miami and Florida International football team showed college athletics at its ugliest it showed two ways media impacts: one in perception and the second in reaction.

“The major issue from my perspective is that there isn’t a trickle down to other schools,” said Robinson. “We can’t have the idea that the potential for that type of situation exists everywhere and therefore enough University police need to be in the stadium in case things got out of hand.”

As ugly as the situation was on the field during the football fight it was what happened afterwards, when the University of Miami only suspended one player indefinitely and 12 others for just one game. Reaction among TV analysts and reporters was swift with many feeling the suspensions were too lenient. But in an age when losses on the field can endanger the viability of a school’s entire program and threaten TV, radio and Internet revenues is it any surprise? More importantly, are there any winners?

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