By Dennis Read
The relationship between sports teams and the media has long been a complicated one. Daily coverage from newspapers, television, and radio drives interest in games while rights fees fuel most sporting organizations' financial engines. Media outlets would find a lot of dead air and blanks pages on their hands were it not for the games played by athletes at the high school, college and professional levels. But a recent addition to this equation has challenged existing rules, causing both sides to re-examine their place in this ongoing dance.
The rise of the Internet and expansion of cable and satellite TV has changed the face of today's sports media. Professional leagues and college conferences have their own television channels and athletes release major announcements on their own Web sites. Newspapers are running video from press conferences and selling pictures of sporting events on their Web sites. Average fans blog about their viewing experiences for other fans to read, bypassing the media and teams completely. With so many different parties claiming so much overlapping territory, it’s no surprise that skirmishes have broken out, especially when access to events is at stake.
The latest dust-up occurred in Illinois, where the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and the Illinois Press Association (IPA) battled throughout the school year over access to state championships and newspapers’ rights to sell unpublished photos from these events. After signing a contract with Visual Image Photography (VIP) giving the firm the exclusive right to sell pictures from state championship events, the IHSA told newspaper photographers that they would not receive press passes unless they agreed not to sell unpublished photos.
The IHSA was upset that papers were posting galleries of unpublished pictures and offering them for sale. The papers countered that they were free to publish pictures in whatever form they decided was best, be it in print or on the Web, and the IPA filed suit against the IHSA, which then responded with a counter-suit.
The state legislature eventually became involved with the state senate, passing a bill that would have prohibited high schools, elementary schools, and any organization that regulates competition among them from attempting to control the use of pictures by media outlets. Before the measure was voted on by the state house, however, the IPA and IHSA announced that they had reached their own agreement that would end their suits and govern both parties.
The agreement had four main points:
1. The unrestricted use and sale of images by newspapers.
2. The IHSA retains the right to hire an official photographer that will not have preferential access to events except for training, promotional and educational purposes.
3. The IHSA may continue to credential newspaper representatives and establish shooting zones for safety purposes.
4. The press credentialing process will not be used to limit floor, field or site access for newspaper photographers.
A similar argument in Louisiana ended with the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) adopting standards modeled after those used by Louisiana State University, which “prohibits any non-editorial, commercial, or other unauthorized use.”
The next battleground may be in Wisconsin where the state association wanted to see what happened in Illinois before deciding whether to enforce its rules that call for a $100 licensing fee for the right to sell unlimited photos from regionals and section playoff games, but not state finals, since VIP holds the license for those events.
But photos are only part of the picture. A year ago, the College World Series was the talk of the electronic sports media market, but little of the discussion had to do with baseball. The blogosphere, the loose collection of Web bloggers who operate Web sites tracking everything from politics to Division III softball were abuzz over the NCAA’s decision to kick a blogger out of the press box during a Super Regional game in Louisville.
The general consensus was that the NCAA was way behind the times in going after bloggers, who in their view , publicize the sport. For its part, the NCAA said it needed to enforce its policy and protect its media rights holders.
Part of the problem was the lack of understanding on what constituted live blogging. The blogger thrown out in Louisville, for example, was working for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and had blogged at games throughout the season. Before the start of the school year, the NCAA had established guidelines for how often bloggers could post from NCAA championship events. Schools, however, are still free to set their own policies at their own events.
These skirmishes aren’t limited to high schools and colleges. This spring, NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban opened the team’s locker room to any and all bloggers after the NBA told him he couldn’t keep a blogger from the Dallas Morning News out.
It’s doubtful that any of these conflicts will see more than an uneasy truce. But, as history has shown us, those on the media side usually have the final word.
As Tommy Henry, Commissioner of the LHSAA, said after his experience in the fight over photos:
"Never get in a dispute with people who buy ink by the gallon."
Dennis Read is Associate Editor at Athletic Management.