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The Worldwide Leader vs. Local Sports Outlets

"This thing is going to be a financial and cultural disaster." -- Ron Burgundy

Fans of college football programs demand to know why their rival schools get such cush treatment from local media. Alabama fans ask, why weren’t the Auburn beat reporters more aggressive in covering the Cam Newton case? Auburn fans want to know why Alabama reporters so readily accept the University’s talking points on its various issues?

Blame ESPN.

The Worldwide Leader shells out $2.25 billion to the SEC for broadcasting rights as part of a 15-year deal that was signed in 2008. The network has signed a similar deal with the ACC ($155 million). FoxSports snapped up the Big-12 ($1.17 billion over 13 years), while ESPN and Fox are teaming up to pay the Pac-12 $3 billion over 12 years. The Big 10 has its own television network.

The non-SEC information is given for a sense of perspective (or lack thereof, I suppose). But to bring the discussion back home, realize that the SEC is getting $2.25 billion to allow ESPN to broadcast almost all of its games to the SEC’s fans.

That is why ESPN, and not the local broadcast and print media folks, calls the media shots for SEC athletic programs. SEC football programs need ESPN— both for fan reach and for money—more than they need print and broadcast reporters.

Back in the day, of course, it was different. Before cable— yes, there was such a time—college football programs and sports information directors relied on the local newspapers and broadcasters (radio included) to get the word out about their teams’ games and athletes. Broadcasting was limited, not only by opportunity but also by NCAA guidelines. To try to broaden the exposure among all schools, teams were limited to two or three regular-season appearances per year, usually on ABC. Even a national championship-contending team was kept off the air as regularly as a cellar-dwellar.

All of this began to change during the 1980s, as other networks gained an interest in broadcasting games, and ESPN entered the picture. As the opportunities multiplied, traditional media’s influence was as fragmented as its audience and advertising dollars.

Coaches have changed, too. The days of Bobby Bowden, graciously shooting the breeze with the media, are gone. Steve Spurrier is more folksy behind the mic than he used to be. But most coaches—including Gene Chizik—are more measured and careful with their words. (Of course, here, Nick Saban is in a league of his own, going beyond reserve to intimidation. But I fear that he will become a role model for up and coming coaches.)

So that is where we are, particularly in the SEC. As the priorities of SEC college football programs have evolved, so has their approach to press relations. It is in their best interest to keep a tight leash on the players and the media who cover them. I don’t consider this either unethical or mean-spirited on anyone’s part. It’s just the way things are.

In addition, I should note that the public is less tolerant of journalists than they were in the past, for whatever reason. The days of Woodward and Bernstein are long past. One reason is partisan news radio and television, which has encouraged people to avoid news they don’t like. The result is that fans are equally likely to dismiss local reporters and broadcasters as potential troublemakers. Bama fans seem to relish Saban’s condescending treatment of the press.

ESPN has its own reporters and strives for credibility as an objective news source, which creates all sorts of problems. Sometimes it’s good—the reporting on Newton helped fuel interest (and ratings) in Auburn games. Sometimes it’s complicated—witness Bruce Feldman’s recent problems for helping Mike Leach write an autobiography that slammed ESPN game commentator Craig James.

But do local reporters really give the hometown college team a pass? Perhaps they toe the line at times. However, they’re still journalists. If they had the goods on Cam Newton or Nick Saban, they would report it, whether for career advancement or job security.

On a day to day basis, however, it’s tough. Contact a player without media relations knowledge, and your access is threatened. So they choose their battles wisely—because these days, ESPN is the big gun.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau.

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