February 29, 2016

Stuart Sternberg, the principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, says a pending move to bar reporters from Major League Baseball locker rooms would be a big mistake. Choking off media access could stem the flow of publicity, he says, both positive and negative.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Sternberg said. “You’ve got all these people around writing and caring and covering and photographing and blogging and whatnot. And you wake up one day and nobody’s there.”

Sternberg’s remarks came during a question-and-answer session at The Poynter Institute, which convened the three principal owners of Tampa Bay’s major sports franchises for a conversation with the Associated Press Sports Editors. Also in attendance were Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and Bryan Glazer, the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team.

The question of media access to professional sports was raised by Ron Fritz, the executive sports editor at The Baltimore Sun, who noted that the owners touted transparency but belong to leagues that have a sometimes strained relationship with the press.

Sternberg emphasized the importance of working with journalists to provide “as much access as we possibly can,” especially to local outlets that produce the bulk of coverage.

“I read something in the papers today which I hadn’t even heard before — that the [MLB] Player’s Association in our league is trying…to limit reporter’s access in the locker rooms,” Sternberg said. “And I think it’s an awful thing for us.”

“For us, too,” piped up a journalist from the crowd.

Although the tug-of-war for access between journalists and sports franchises is nothing new, it has gotten somewhat worse in recent years, said Malcolm Moran, the director of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Moran, who was in attendance Monday, said after the conversation that media coverage has gradually become an annoyance, rather than an asset, for America’s major sports franchises. As professional sports have grown increasingly lucrative, highly-paid front office executives, coaches and players no longer need to press to act as boosters for their teams, Moran said.

“Once upon a time when athletes and college coaches were making salaries that were closer to what normal people made, they welcomed engagement because it was good for them to make a living,” Moran said. “They would get more endorsements. They would be able to engage the audience in different ways. Now they’re making so much money, they don’t need us.”

Many professional franchises have built marketing teams in an attempt echo the journalism produced by independent publications, Moran said. The quality of the coverage from these teams varies according to the freedom each franchise gives their employees to tell authentic stories.

The Chicago Bulls, for example, give ex-Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith free reign to write fearlessly about the team, Moran said. As a result, the coverage is better.

“The Bulls, to their credit, realized that if they muzzled Sam Smith, that audience would recognize it in a nanosecond and there would be no point in going to Bulls.com,” he said.

The conversation was moderated by Ernest Hooper, the East Hillsborough Bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times and APSE president Mary Byrne. During the discussion, Hooper and Byrne quizzed the owners on best practices for running a national sports franchise, touching on topics including the prevalence of concussions in the NFL, the dearth of front-office diversity and the proportion of revenue that their teams receive from local and national sources.

For the Buccaneers, national media deals are becoming increasingly important for the franchise’s bottom line, Glazer said.

“In every new media deal, every new TV contract, the percentages get higher and higher for us and the local revenues become a smaller and smaller part of it,” Glazer said.

The Rays, by contrast, are among the bottom rung of teams in the league in terms of revenue earned from national sources, Sternberg said.

When it comes to season ticket sales, roughly two-thirds go to personal customers, with the remaining third going to corporate customers — the opposite of most teams in the MLB. This is owing partly to the lack of Fortune 500 companies in the Tampa Bay area — or even Fortune 1,000 companies.

“You’ll take Fortune 1,500,” Hooper quipped.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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