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Football, Media, MLB, Norwich City, Sport

Do sports organisations need the media?

Thanks to the Nieman Media Lab twitter feed I found myself reading a an interesting post on the blog of Indiana University’s National Sport’s Journalism Center’s blog.

The post by Jason Fry was referring to a comment by Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who wondered aloud whether his organisation actually needed the media anymore? Were they, in effect, more hassle than they were worth? It’s a great post by Jason Fry – and you can read the whole thing here.

Mark Cuban

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: James Duncan Davidson/OReilly Media

But the more I think about it, the more I think Cuban has a point. Unlike Cuban I wouldn’t necessarily single out any particular aspect of the media, but I think his broader question is interesting.

Do you need to use existing media outlets if they don’t fit your main sporting and business objectives of a) winning things b) generating revenue by selling tickets, merchandise and promoting events and c) building an audience?

Leaving aside the networks (TV and Radio) who pay for broadcast rights,  I think the answer is No.

The media isn’t going to help you accomplish objective A – but until now it has helped in building a sense of community and ownership.

The media, especially local media provide the stories that link location to MY club, MY team.  It’s also played a vital role in creating interest in fixtures, and thus generating revenue in ticket sales. But the brutal truth is – clubs have begun to realise they can do it themselves.

Digital media has, excuse the pun, shifted the goalposts and exposed a truth.  Blogs and forums offer instant community that aren’t dependent on a 30 second mention on the TV news, or a once a day fix from the newspaper stand.

The web allows anyone to provide analysis about anything. It just takes the ability to build both brand awareness and the trust of your audience. It has also highlighted that sports fans only loyalty is to the team they support. If I think the writer on a blog does a better job than the write on a paid for daily – guess where I’m going to consume the news?

This shift is something that folk like the savvy Mr Cuban have realised too.  If, as Clay Shirky says, the web has enabled us to all be publishers now – it’s also made sports organisations realise that they aren’t just in the business of sport, they’re in the media business too.

In the US, where the three tributaries of technology, media and sports have been converging for the longest, this is becoming increasingly apparent. Stateside, all the major sports organisations the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB,  control the rights to their product much more stringently than in the UK.

The majority of  video material is housed on the web networks owned by the league. As a baseball fan if you want to listen to the live game on the net than that’s a $19.99 subscription to MLB’s Gameday.  Football, basketball and Hockey offer similar deals. Crucially it is access you can’t get anywhere else.

Sports organisations are mini-media organisations. Sticking with MLB as an example, Go to any team site, you’ll see video feeds, interviews, audio and beat reporting. They’ve not been slow to use social media too.  MLB has more than 1.1m followers on Twitter. The current World Series champions San Francisco Giants boast over 1m followers on Facebook. It gives them more instant feedback, reaction and information about their fans than a back page lead ever could.

All well and good, but are fans going to part with their hard-earned cash to watch this stuff? It’s the same pay wall argument – if the content is exclusive, compelling and of value to the purchaser then they probably will.

In broadcasting you tend to hear a lot about the need to own format and provide jeopardy, it’s what keeps the audience coming back.  It’s why shows such as the X-Factor are a hit, the format is repeatable and the excitement of the show keeps the viewers tuning in (and spending money on their phone votes.)

Well sports organisations are the same. They ARE the format and the format has built-in jeopardy, drama, and emotion – it’s in their DNA. If people are prepared to spend £1.50 on a phone vote for JLS, they’ll probably pay the same to watch a live streamed sporting event.

Back in Britain and it’s beginning to shape up the same way. Norwich City Football Club, a team in the second tier of English football, now boasts a burgeoning social media operation, website provide by Football League digital arm FL Interactive, video unit, events team and press team.

A recent feature in FC Business on FLi states the network as a whole now has 6m visitors and 80,000 paid subscribers. Admittedly that’s not a lot when you divide by total audience but you can see with a price point adjustment (currently around £35 for the season) and more functionality this is going to grow. Especially if online highlights become even more restricted than they are now.

The web has enabled a strong community to be built around the club, one which the club encourages, supports and exploits. Likewise its business partners, like sponsor Aviva have not been slow to use social media to exploit its connection with Norwich City and its followers.

Like Fry, I think the notion of cutting out the local media is unpalatable. The role of sports journalism is important one, reporters help hold owners to account, give voice to the supporters and act as a check against the power of the sport authorities. But the relationship has changed, the web has created new opportunities and business models for sport and to quote Bob Dylan – you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

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