When Tyler Hansbrough led North Carolina to the national title in 2009, Dana O’Neil left her seat on the floor and climbed a few rows into the stands to talk to his family. The access allowed the ESPN.com reporter to get a quote from Hansbrough’s father, Gene, on how it was the culmination of a dream for his son.
O’Neil cited that anecdote when she told NCAA officials why it is important for reporters to have courtside seating during the men’s basketball tournament.
“It allowed me to tell a much more compelling story,” O’Neil said. “If you put me in [a far-away press box], I’m not going to have that kind of access. I won’t be able to write that story.”
O’Neil, now the president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is on the frontlines of a difficult struggle. She and USBWA are trying to protect the premium reporting positions for the NCAA tournament.It already is a losing battle in the context of what had existed previously. The NCAA delivered a huge blow prior to the 2013 tournament, telling the USBWA that it intended to use much of the media floor seating for players’ family and other key supporters [think corporate sponsors]. There was an estimated reduction from 180 courtside seats to 70 for that Final Four. O’Neil called it “a year of Armageddon” with veteran NCAA reporters wailing about being relegated to the rafters or other poor viewing locations in arenas and stadiums.
Since then, the USBWA, along with assistance from the Associated Press Sports Editors, have worked with the NCAA on improving conditions. O’Neil said progress has been made with some courtside seats restored. However, she emphasized, “It’s not near what it was.”
“We recognize we’ll never get it back to what we had,” O’Neil said. “What we’re trying to do is get as many people as humanly possible closer to the floor.”
The basketball writers are not alone in losing their prime locations. Several baseball teams have moved their press boxes down the lines in the outfield and many NFL teams have shifted their media facilities towards the end zone. Follow the money, as the teams are able to reap big bucks for those 50-yard-line and behind-the-plate seats.
College basketball teams also have followed suit. O’Neil said if she gets a traditional courtside seat at a school, she “feels like I hit the lottery.”
David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination, said in an email that the association is trying to achieve a balance in serving all of its constituents.
“Part of my job is to be an advocate for [the media’s] needs, while understanding the NCAA’s commitment to our member schools, their fans and our corporate partners,” Worlock said.
The changes, though, have resulted in a different tournament experience for many reporters, and not for the better. Brett Friedlander of the Wilmington Star-News has been covering NCAA basketball since 1988. He said it used to be his favorite time of year.
However, Friedlander recently has been forced to cover NCAA games sitting in hockey and football press boxes, “where the players looked like a bunch of ants running around on a marshmallow.”
Last week in Jacksonville, Friedlander, despite covering most of North Carolina’s games this year, was placed in the “overflow” area in the stands behind one of the baskets.
“Even though the ‘overflow’ area here isn’t as far away from the court as most, the sightlines are still awful because of their proximity to the top row of the stands,” Friedlander said. “Anytime someone decided to go to the restroom or concession stand, they blocked my view as they walked by. And when the fans in those top rows stood up — as they did on almost every important play, including the final possession of the game I was covering — I had to stand on my chair in an attempt to get a glimpse of the action.
“Then, once the game was over, I had to fight my way through the crowd, then down a row of stairs in which everyone was trying to walk up to get to the press room in time for the postgame interview sessions. All on a deadline.”
O’Neil and the USBWA have been trying to explain to the NCAA the constraints resulting from the poor seat locations. The biggest negative, she said, is the inability to feel the game and monitor the reactions of players and coaches.
“You can experience the energy of what’s going on if you’re near the court,” O’Neil said. “There are so many little things that occur that require you to have a vision. You can’t get that from [a football press box]. Covering basketball is different than football.”
When the discussions first started, the NCAA actually asked if the reporters needed a table at their press locations. “Yes, we have laptops,” O’Neil said of her reply.
Since then, O’Neil credits the NCAA’s Worlock for working with the USBWA to improve the situation. O’Neil also said the APSE’s involvement has been critical. An APSE official now is on hand at each NCAA site to assist with seating assignments and monitor for any problems.
As a result, O’Neil said there are better seat locations for this year’s tournament. However, there’s a catch, she said. The majority of the courtside seats are behind the baskets, not on the sidelines.
“How do you define courtside?” O’Neil said. “These are not the same courtside seats. The seats are great when the action is close to your basket. It’s a little more difficult to see when it’s 94 feet away.”
O’Neil said the USBWA will continue to have discussions with the NCAA for seating in future tournaments. However, she is realistic that the clock can’t be completely turned back on this one.
“The NCAA is working with us, but there are limits to how far they are willing to go,” O’Neil said. “They can make money [with the premium seat locations]. That’s what we’re up against.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
Bob Ryan is this year’s winner of the APSE’s Red Smith Award.
Nick Peters, who covered the San Francisco Giants for nearly 50 years, has passed away.
Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing writes about a different way to measure online metrics for a story.
Shackelford.com has an interview with Dan Jenkins, who has yet another book coming out about golf.
Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report.