Sports taking lead spots in news as consumer interest soars

Some may find this hard to believe, but there are people — even some from these United States — who are completely indifferent to sports.

Although 112.2 million viewed Super Bowl XLVIII, according to Dan Bell of Fox Sports, that still means upwards of 201 million people across America were spending their Sunday afternoon doing something else, something that in all likelihood didn’t involve a sporting event.

That said, it’s clear that sports — along with extreme weather, celebrity news and political scandal — has not only grown in coverage nationally and locally, it now regularly breaks into general news and grabs the lead spots on front pages and homepages.

Take for example the New York market, home to nine professional teams in the big four North American sports leagues. The front pages of the two biggest tabloids in the area — the New York Post and Daily News — put either a sporting event or an athlete on their cover 23 times in the month of December 2013. That doesn’t even include the papers’ “back pages” which are dedicated to sports every day.

Whenever scandals break out in the world of sports — Alex Rodriguez’s now-conceded battle with Major League Baseball, Richard Sherman’s post-NFC championship game interview — local news affiliates, be they newspapers or local, no longer hesitate to give airtime or print space to the athletes.

“Sports really represents a lot of other things in our country,” says Bob Mann, Communication Arts department chairman at Caldwell College. “It’s not just what goes on on the field. We believe in these people — I pay a lot of money to the Yankees to go and see them. I want to know what’s going on on a broader scale. The issues of steroids and legal issues, all of these stories are indicative of greater stories than just the sports themselves.”

That deep interest in sports is evident in audience numbers. Examining the viewership of President Obama’s State of the Union address, Mann said, “would be a staggering comparison, and the President would not win that one.” He did not, drawing only 33.3 million average viewers to the Super Bowl’s 112.2 million.

Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news and Poynter national advisory board member, said national media are just catching up to the importance of sports, something that local media have long recognized.”I think there’s always been regional importance,” King said.

College basketball rivalries in states like North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky have historically been strong, he said, and the same with college football in the Southeastern Conference and Pac-12. In the region between Pennsylvania and Ohio, high school football is rich in tradition.

In its State of the News Media 2013 report, Pew Research Center noted how sports and topics other than hard news have changed the content mix for local stations:

In local television, newscasts in recent years have placed an even greater emphasis on traffic, weather and sports, reduced the number of edited package stories on the air and shortened the lengths of stories, trends that may reflect the economic strains affecting the industry.

Broadcast time devoted to sports, weather and traffic rose from 32 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2012, according to the Pew study. “The biggest increase came in the airtime devoted to sports, to 12% from 7%,” the researchers reported.

So what’s lost from the local news as categories like sports take a larger share of the news? Among the stations studied, Pew cites the decline from 2005 to 2012 in stories on crime and trials, human interest and lifestyle, politics and government, foreign affairs and defense, and science and technology.

Helping to drive the ascendency of sports as top news may well be the sheer number of outlets covering games and athletes. Regional networks like YES and SNY are covering teams 24/7/365, and shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. The Dodgers are launching a network with Time Warner Cable that will pay the team $7 billion over 25 years. ESPN has launched regionally focused websites in markets like New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. 60 Minutes Sports launched last year with investigations that turn into major news stories. Every team in the four major North American sports has a channel dedicated to at least all game programming.

Why has sports become such an important part of the news?

“I don’t really know that I buy the notion that TV is the catalyst,” King said. “I think fans are the catalyst. Smart television producers and smart media companies have recognized that this is where the audiences have the highest level of passion.”

In fact, King has a familiar example of fans dictating content. “ESPN started with a guy named Bill Rasmussen who decided that he wanted to have a network to watch more Connecticut sports. I think that’s always been in the zeitgeist. It may seem as though there’s a new trend, because these networks are now becoming bigger and more expensive and targeting audiences with great energy and passion like the Dodgers and Lakers deals approaching Hispanic audiences.”

Consumer interest is critical in calculating the economics of media coverage since where there are large audiences, advertisers follow.

“Everybody’s looking at the resources they have available and assign those resources in ways that are going to meet the needs of their audience and businesses,” King said.

Mann thinks sports will continue to permeate national and local news, because of what he observes among his students. “One of the problems that I’ve often had when teaching broadcast journalism is that traditionally students find the news ‘boring’. Yet, I find they understand what’s going on in sports. I think that sports is just going to bleed more and more into the mainstream news because people get it, people follow it, people are passionate about it.”

Stephen Lepore is a special projects writer and editor for USA Today, and a sports media and NHL writer for the Bloguin network. He has contributed to The Hockey News print edition, SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio, USA Today’s For the Win and SB Nation.

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