September 26, 2007

Shane Moreland, of WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va., is a friend of mine and one heck of a news director. He’s also not the first friend of mine to drop sports from its daily slot in a television newscast; another friend, Mike George, did the same thing about seven years ago at KVBC in Las Vegas.

Shane and Mike reflect the frustrations of many news directors and general managers whose market research indicates that sports segments of local television newscasts rank near the bottom of reasons to watch.  Considering the money it costs to produce local sports coverage, some stations simply don’t think the investment makes sense anymore. 

I have a ton of respect for Shane and Mike, who are excellent journalists.  I just wonder whether they would have come to a different decision had they approached the issue from another direction.  Rather than dumping the sports department, we should change our sports philosophy.

If viewers are not interested in your sportscast, it may be because your sportscast doesn’t seem interested in your local viewers. If there is one thing a majority of the local news audience is interested and involved in (besides the weather) it is the athletic endeavor. I’m not talking about whether Phil Garner was the right guy to lead the Astros, or whether Federer versus Nadal is the greatest rivalry in sports.  Yes, large parts of our audience are interested in these things, but ESPN and other networks do an outstanding job covering them.

No, I’m talking about the percentage of our viewers who run, walk, bike and swim for exercise. Those in our audience who spend vast amounts of their leisure time taking kids back and forth to soccer, little league, dance, gymnastics, softball or volleyball practice and games.  Those who needed knee replacements because of their high school football careers 30 years ago.  Those spending — I’m not kidding — over $10,000 each year on local club or select sports or who moonlight as umpires, coaches, assistant coaches, or referees.  Those who spend at least part of their week going to the local minor league, college, high school or little league games just because they enjoy them, not because they have kids playing.

Sports Stats:  the Record Book

In 2002, the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment reported that 86% of Americans participated in some sort of outdoor recreational physical activity (at least walking or more in that 12-month period). Child Trends, Inc. reports that over two-thirds of 8th graders through 10th graders participate in organized sports.  And according to the Centers for Disease Control, 34% of Americans participate in regular, vigorous physical activity while only 23% report no physical activity at all. (I think that means 77% of people do something other than constantly sit on the couch and watch TV newscasts.) The bad news is the number of people participating in regular, vigorous physical activity is declining rapidly, contributing to an epidemic of obesity and other health problems.

My point: Sports is news.

Further, sports is the single most unifying aspect in most if not all of our communities. Unfortunately we are not generally good at covering it.

ESPN has the market nearly cornered on professional sports, and covers it very well. That’s not where local sports journalists should compete any more than we should try to outcover CNN on the war in Iraq. If our viewers want to see coverage of local athletes, local teams and local sports, they certainly won’t go looking at ESPN, they will come to our TV stations.

So if we agree local sports is important why do we allow our local sportscasters to focus on whether the Diamondbacks beat the Angels. That’s a great story in Phoenix, not so much in Oklahoma City or Augusta or Omaha. Our problem, dear news professionals, is not in our viewers, it is in ourselves. With all due respect, I think killing a sportscast is a pretty over-the-top way to address a viewership problem. Kind of like ditching a car that could serve you for years to come, because you don’t feel like making repairs.

We need to change our sports philosophy in order to make it successful. My friend Shane in Norfolk wouldn’t quarrel with that. If being hyper-local is the key to victory in a local newscast, why do we not insist on it in our sportscast? We would never allow our Austin, Texas, weather segment to include a five-day forecast for Seattle, so why would we allow our sportscast to include a piece on whether the Bears can win the Central division? (Personally I think the benching of Rex Grossman will help a lot.)

What’s the Game Plan?

Here at News 8 Austin we have a philosophy: Make sports relevant to a soccer mom. She probably could not care less about whether Brett Favre should be playing another year — as a Packer fan, I pray for him every day — but she sure as heck cares about that new state law mandating urine tests for kids competing in high school baseball, and she likely wants to know why college athlete graduation rates are so low, and she would love to see some coverage of the big city-wide soccer tournament that 800 kids are involved in this weekend.

We believe that a day without professional sports in our sportscast is a good day for us. It means we have so much local sports we didn’t have time for the Rockets-’76ers score. If our viewers want a pro score, they’ll need to go to ESPN or online to get it (as if they haven’t already done that hours before the 10 p.m. sports came on). By the way, did you know that in-line skating is the third-most-popular participant sport in America (behind basketball and running)? You wouldn’t know it by watching local TV sportscasts.

This is a relatively simple concept to understand: You cover sports like you cover news.

  • You get out of the studio and into the community.
  • You do stories on local athletes and teams with great story-telling, characters and themes.
  • You cover hard sports journalism like steroids in high school and graduation rates among local college athletes.
  • You avoid leading a sportscast with professional sports unless you happen to live in or near a professional sports city.
  • You cover in-line skating and local soccer tournaments. (You’d be surprised how many adult soccer leagues and half-pipes there are in your town.)

In short, you make sports relevant to your local audience every day, just like you make the news and weather relevant to your viewers every day. Yes, this is harder, especially on a sports department used to pulling highlights off the feed and throwing them on the air. It means you start talking about journalism and sports in the same sentence. It means you manage sports the way you manage news.

None of this is meant to suggest we ban national sports coverage. Of course not. The Michael Vick story is compelling and important. The recent spate of college football player arrests has community relevance. Just as we cover late-breaking information from the war or flooding in the Midwest we should cover important national sports news. We must simply put the same mandate on our sports producers as we put on our news producers: Make it relevant to a local audience.

Need proof this is important? According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, young people 18-25 who participate in sports are more than 50 percent more likely to watch the news than those who don’t, and more than twice as likely watch sports news.

There are viewers out there for sports in local TV newscasts. I’m afraid we just seem to be running them off.

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News Director at News 8 Austin in Austin, Texas since April, 1999. Assistant News Director at KTBC, AustinPhotojournalist at KTBC-TV, Austin; WRAL-TV, Raleigh; KTRK-TV and…
Kevin Benz

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