When Sports Teams Want to Be the Media

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This one is basically being written because of my reading of a Deadspin article. Yes, I read Deadspin articles.

Many of them are interesting, but this one in particular got my attention. It was one about Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and how he practically got a horde of sports reporters in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to kiss his feet.

And his butt…

And a few other things on his body.

The article basically said that ever since Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, he has tried his damndest to essentially control the flow of information regarding his team. In other words, he wants the entire Washington sports media market to serve as a public relations outfit for his team.

Deadspin mentioned a deal that Snyder just inked with the Washington Times where a weekly Redskins magazine will be distributed via the Times and where its staff will appear on the Redskins’ website.

In other words, don’t expect to see any anti-Redskins stuff (including columns advocating for the changing of the Washington team name) anywhere within the pages of the Washington Times.

This is a newspaper that already is trying to uphold a reputation as one of the most conservative-friendly papers in the nation, rivaling the New York Post, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for that title. It tries to be a conservative alternative to the supposedly liberal-leaning Washington Post.

But, since you already have stated unabashedly that you’re virtually an advocacy rag that tubthumps for right-leaning causes, why should anyone be surprised that you have linked up with the Redskins and its owner, who also happens to be a Republican and donates money to GOP candidates.

So, what else? An announcement that Snyder is also going to be a Washington Times columnist himself?

Political mess aside, this is more about the idea of sports teams (more like, sports owners) being able to control the narrative about their teams especially when their teams’ on-field play is not exactly the best thing going on.

The New York Yankees (YES Network), New York Mets (SNY), Boston Red Sox (NESN), Chicago Cubs/White Sox (Comcast SportsNet Chicago), Los Angeles Dodgers (SportsNet LA), and Houston Astros (Comcast SportsNet Houston) are among the teams with their own RSNs. Even though in the latter cases in Los Angeles, and Houston, those RSNs are not attracting a lot of cable coverage.

The New York Knicks (MSG Network), Los Angeles Lakers (Time Warner Cable Sports Net), Denver Nuggets (Altitude), and Chicago Bulls (Comcast SportsNet Chicago) are among the NBA teams with regional sports networks that they own. The cases with the Time Warner channels in Los Angeles are also striking because, in both cases, the coverage of the teams is relatively soft—even though the Lakers are one of the NBA’s worst teams at the moment.

Many sports teams now own regional sports networks which are able to make a lot of money for their respective teams. Some even own their own radio stations, like the St. Louis Cardinals did a few years back when they moved off of KMOX 1120 for 550 KTRS. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim own their flagship radio station, 830 KLAA-AM.

All four major sports leagues also own their channels, but much to their credit, the on-air talent does not (for the most part) allow the ownership structure of the networks to dictate favorable coverage to a league commissioner. This was illustrated when MLB Network (especially Bob Costas—a common critic of Commissioner Bud Selig) roundly criticized Selig as part of baseball’s problem with performance enhancing drugs when Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was found to have used PEDs.

So, the Snyder case with the Redskins illustrates just how desperate he is in controlling the media narrative around his team. Instead of trying to earn positive coverage with (gasp!) a winning football team, he wants to be lazy and not help in fielding a winning football team, then control the media so no one will say anything negative about him.

In short, that’s what you call an owner who is only using a team as an ATM and could care less if his team has any on-field success or not. Money talks and BS walks.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fact that Snyder owns the flagship station of his team’s radio network—ESPN Radio 980 WTEM. It also has two repeater signals on 92.7 FM WWXT and 94.3 FM WWXX. Needless to say, you won’t hear any more anti-Snyder blabbery on 980 AM moreso than you will see in the pages of the Washington Times thanks to that new deal.

That, perhaps explains why even with its extra sticks, 980 is still not up to par in terms of ratings with its rival across the street, WJFK-FM CBS Radio’s 106.7 The Fan—the flagship station for the Nationals, Capitals, and Wizards as well as an affiliate of Virginia Tech athletics and CBS Sports Radio.

Whereas The Fan does not hold The Fans hostage with pro-Snyder and pro-Redskins coverage motivated only by fattening of paychecks, 980 is essentially Dan Snyder’s PR outlet. In the July PPMs, 106.7 The Fan had a 2.3 whereas ESPN Radio 980 only mustered a 1.5.

Some of that 2.3 can be attributed to the Nationals and the fact that they are having a successful season up to this point. Nats radio ratings on 106.7 the Fan are surging this season, mostly because of the clarity of the FM signal and the success of the team.

But, it also has a lot to do with the fact that (especially) in Washington, DC, people will want to listen to any media outlet that does not have any financial stake in protecting any big boys.

Compare Dan Snyder’s idea of blacklisting any media type that dares to publish or utter one bad word about him in the District to that of the Jaguars and their media relations this year.

Even though the Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the NFL (so bad that they were once rumoured to be allowing fans to watch NFL RedZone on its JumboTron during games at Everbank Field), they seem to be pretty savvy in terms of media relations.

This year, the Jaguars ended a partnership with Cox Radio and its Conservative News/Talk radio station 104.5 WOKV that goes back to when the Jaguars became an NFL franchise in the 1990s. They signed with a new station this year to broadcast Jaguars games—WJXL AM/FM 1010 XL 92.5—owned by Seven Bridges Radio.

That station airs a sports format and is affiliated with ESPN Radio. It also includes for games to air WGNE-FM 99.9 Gator Country (owned by Renda Broadcasting).

The station talked all day on the occasion of the announcement that they landed the Jags’ rights about the deal and how big it was for the station to be the flagship of Duval’s only professional sports franchise. One of the guests on the station that day was Mark Lamping, team president. He said this:

“I want you to support us when we’re doing well and challenge us when we’re not doing so well.”

In my opinion, that was an extremely refreshing quote from a team president regarding a relationship that said team has or is about to enter into with a media outlet. Say what you want about the Jaguars on-field misadventures as of late, but there is no doubt about the fact that their media relations department is leaps and bounds better than that of the Redskins’.

He understood the concern that many in the Jacksonville/Duval area had about the possibility that the coverage on J-ville’s largest sports station could begin to get a little more skewed in favor of good coverage for a bad team. Lamping understood this and knew that he had to put out these concerns with one interview.

Granted, if the station actually stays to this promise is yet to be seen and heard and will be seen and heard by many in the area as the season unfolds. But, it was a refreshing first step.

Colin Cowherd on ESPN once remarked about how earlier in his radio career, he was on radio stations that happened to have rights to air team broadcasts. The on-air personalities had to temper their criticism of (or provide favorable coverage altogether of) those teams because of the financial ramifications of the relationship. He did not like being on those particular stations—and for good reason.

There’s no problem with sports teams becoming media. Sports teams, in fact, are already media by the fact that they have their own websites with their own content. But, does that mean that we can call a lot of these outlets, particularly Snyder’s, journalism?

There’s journalism and there’s public relations. What the Washington Times and ESPN Radio 980 are doing is public relations—and it’s not good PR either. We’ve found something else the Redskins are seemingly bad at.

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