Does credibility take a hit when media companies both own teams and employ sports journalists?
By Ryan Mallough
Last year’s 100th Grey Cup game was a major Canadian milestone in sports. It set record television ratings for TSN, making it the most watched CFL final ever with 5.5 million viewers. But while the TSN’s Grey Cup coverage was extensive, its major competitor, Sportsnet, covered the event lightly and in some cases, even disparagingly, says Bruce Dowbiggin, who writes a sports column for The Globe and Mail.
Could journalistic integrity have been compromised by corporate strategy? TSN is after all owned by BCE Inc. – which had exclusive broadcasting rights for the CFL, while Sportsnet is owned by BCE’s competitor Rogers Media. It’s an uncomfortable question to ask, but one that many sports journalists and fans raised following the coverage.
The two sports giants have solidified their claims to sports broadcast supremacy through exclusive broadcast deals (TSN and the CFL) and direct ownership (Rogers and the Toronto Blue Jays). This monopolization of sport has some Canadian journalists worried that the ownership situation has done harm to the Canadian sports journalism landscape.
When media companies own sports teams or exclusive broadcast rights, they are more likely to cover the events “merely [as] a public relations wing of the sports franchise,” says Dustin Parkes, who writes for the Fanatico and Getting Blanked blogs on TheScore.com. And instead of providing critical analysis, it becomes the norm for “the next generation of sports journalists that this is the way the job is done.”
It’s not that there aren’t responsible journalists giving critical press, but the optics have a “long term effect on credibility,” Dowbiggin added.
“On the surface you’d say it’s severely compromised because of the ownership scenario that the teams are being covered by the same people that own them. That’s never a good situation,” Dowbiggin said.
With the Grey Cup coverage, self-affirmed football fan Bob McCown said he was disappointed with the CFL during his Friday, November 23 Sportsnet radio show leading up to the game. He said the game should have been held in Regina, instead of Toronto, because he said the Regina fans were more passionate about the game, even though the Toronto home team Argonauts team was in the final.
Dowbiggin pointed to Sportsnet’s coverage of the Blue Jays as another example.
“It’s the classic media ownership situation – Rogers and the Blue Jays are so synonymous right now you’re never sure what’s a party line and what’s honest [commentary],” he said.
(On Tuesday, the day of the Jay’s opening game, TSN.ca did however have the Rogers-owned team featured front and centre).
At least one sports commentator from the Rogers-owned FAN590 station said that he hadn’t encountered too many conflicts in his time with the Rogers owned radio station.
“It’s similar to any situation where I’m broadcasting on a station where the station is “rights holders” for the play-by-play – that might affect how I’d slant a topic,” said Greg Brady of the Brady and Lang show. “But I’m petrified about losing my objectivity […] Once you go down that road, there’s no going back."
Rogers can point to certain examples were there commentators have maintained editorial distance, for example, Greg Zaun’s critique of what he-called the “entitlement culture” amongst the Jays and the offensive messages Yunel Escobar painted onto his face.
“There was a lot of sensitivity within the network last summer when Zaun was being critical of the team as a broadcaster, which is a problem when you also own the team,” Dowbiggin said.
Dowbiggin wrote in his column, that while “we wondered about repercussions for Zaun within the Rogers empire […] Zaun and the Blue Jays declined requests from The Globe and Mail for comment, but Zaun didn’t miss any games. Sources say the issue might be revisited later.”
Dowbiggin points to change of tune in his column with Zaun later turning “conciliatory, pleading with Toronto fans on Twitter for understanding about Escobar.”
Recently TSN signed a new deal with the CFL league that extends the network’s exclusive broadcasting rights through 2018 at a reported $30-$40million per year. The deal is more than double the current one and is sure to boost the finances of all eight teams, yet there was little, if any, mention of it on Sportsnet.ca or on Bob McCown’s Prime Time Sports the afternoon the deal was announced.
“It’s one of the bigger concerns going forward,” said Dowbiggin. “When you have an exclusive be it with ownership or an exclusive broadcaster, I think you’ve got problems.”
Addressing those concerns may be easier said than done, says Parkes.
“There’s a lack of motivation to change because the two biggest brands in sports journalism are finding success in what they do,” he said.
Also of concern to Dowbiggin is that with their purchase of MLSE, BCE and Rogers now monopolize the industry, from the teams to the broadcast channels, as well as the television and internet carriers. Because the deal is still new, no one is quite sure how Rogers and Bell’s joint ownership of MLSE is going to alter the media landscape in Canada, he said.
“It’s right across the board from carrier to product to broadcast,” he said. “We’ve only been there a couple years and we don’t know what the long term ramifications are going to be.”
It’s likely that whatever happens, it’s the audience that will suffer most, said Dowbiggin.
J. O’Donnell, who writes A Rouge Point, a blog on Canadian sports media, said that it’s the responsibility of print media to keep broadcasters honest.
“I think we’ll see more media organizations owning sports teams because it works so well,” he said, pointing to Fox, Comcast and Time Warner in The U.S. “The best place to hold them accountable is out in the open where everyone can see, like online or in a newspaper, so hopefully print will survive.”
“You’ve just got to trust that the people presenting it are giving you the right information,” added Dowbiggin, noting that many blogs like Grantland and Getting Blanked are on the cutting edge when it comes to discussing new ways to look at sports through analytics, while most mainstream broadcasters have yet to embrace them.
“We’re just about to find out how this thing works and whether these sources will be responsible going forward. Right now anything can happen.”
Ryan Mallough holds a BacSocSc. in political science from the University of Ottawa. He has been published in Maclean’s Magazine and the London Free Press. Ryan is currently pursuing his master of arts in journalism at the University of Western Ontario.
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