SPORTS

Sports editors, leagues concede they're struggling to settle media access concerns

09/15/2011 06:12 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:10 EST
DENVER - Sports editors and athletic leagues discussing tense negotiations over media access agree that both sides are trying to make money, but both sides are struggling to figure out how to adapt to instant mobile news.

A discussion at the annual Associated Press Media Editors meeting in Denver on Thursday grew heated when an attorney for the news co-operative clashed with Bob Bowman, the CEO of MLB Advanced Media, the interactive media and Internet company of Major League Baseball.

AP attorney Dave Tomlin argued that sports fans need multiple voices, not just a league voice covering the sport. Bowman insisted that his company's 125 baseball writers are independent.

"We may be the newest one around, but that doesn't mean we don't care about our content. We employ a lot of baseball writers, too," Bowman said.

The disagreement came at a time of bitter disagreements between sports leagues and the sporting media. Reporters and photographers argue they're being increasingly curbed by leagues that want an independent press to promote their games and athletes, but want to provide the best content themselves.

"When I first started, the sports PR people were there to help the press," said John Cherwa, deputy sports editor for the Los Angeles Times. "And now they're there to protect the team."

The panel included John Leyba, a 27-year sports photographer for The Denver Post who said that sports leagues have ratcheted back media access so tightly that he fears teams aim to eliminate independent sports coverage completely.

"I think where it's going to go is, pretty soon it's going to be one entity supplying all the newspapers with photos, and newspapers are going to have to buy from those entities," Leyba said.

It's a painful time for those covering sports, as well as for sports leagues trying to protect valuable live coverage as mobile media as simple as a cellphone can be used to air games.

Last month, a U.S. federal appeals court sided with the high school athletics association in Wisconsin, saying that the schools have the right to enter into exclusive contracts for live streaming of their sporting events, and that the First Amendment doesn't entitle other media outlets to claim the same broadcasting rights without paying for them. That decision has sent a chill through local newsrooms looking to expand real-time sports reporting on their websites.

In June, Australia's largest newspaper publisher threatened to boycott Rugby World Cup match venues over accreditation limits to restrict online coverage of the tournament.

Mike Colbrese, who has worked with high school athletics associations in Washington, Wyoming and Montana, said the disputes are caused by the competition for revenue by struggling newspapers and sports leagues.

"Quite honestly folks, the tug of war comes from the fact that we're all looking for that dollar," Colbrese said.

Colbrese predicted more high schools will limit local media rights to live coverage of a game, especially online broadcasts.

"We're making some money doing that, and we don't want to see that money jeopardized by the fact a local newspaper decides it wants to live-stream a game," he said.

Tomlin, the AP lawyer, said the media and athletics have grown up together in a "symbiotic relationship," and that the technology is simply forcing both sides to adjust.

"Really it's quite natural that conflicts have taken place, and really it's surprising they haven't been more serious," he said.

"It's not good against evil, it's not the First Amendment and the Constitution against people who want to stifle us, it's two competing business interests."

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