It's already happening. Some NBA bloggers are getting credentials to some NBA events. The bloggers who cover the Lakers for the L.A. Times, for instance, and those hard-working smart guys over at Sonics Central.
That's a trickle.
I want to take Steve Rubel’s suggestion a step further (to allow bloggers limited access to sporting events, like a “Blogger’s Day” during spring training). If we bloggers are working hard to cover NBA basketball, why shouldn’t we get the chance to attend the games and interview the players the same way and just as often as the mainstream media do?
Bloggers don’t want special treatment. We just want to be recognized for our contributions. I think we have just as much to contribute (if not more) on the sport of NBA basketball than most mainstream media. Why can’t we play their reindeer games?
This is an issue of the moment. A couple of days ago I was interviewed for a Sports Business Journal story on this very topic.
I have a lot of thoughts.
First of all, there's no point in pretending that teams will credential bloggers because it's "fair." They will credential bloggers if and only if it makes business sense. If your blog--like the local newspaper--has a big, passionate audience that might buy tickets and other stuff from the team, well then I'd be sure to mention that when you're trying to get a credential. If your blog is an essential part of the online conversation surrounding the team, then I'd mention that. But if those things aren't true, and you're a part-timer with a tiny audience, why would the team give you a valuable seat night in and night out?
That said, smart teams will be credentialling the best bloggers, because it certainly does make business sense. The people who read blogs are a smart, affluent, involved audience.
The teams decide most of the credentials, but another important player is the league itself. At the All-Star game, the NBA Finals, and other cool events like the Rookie Transitions Program, the league decides who gets in. When the league starts credentialing bloggers, it will become much tougher for teams to deny them.
One thing I love about this debate is that it lays bare one of the core promises of the internet: that things will become more of a meritocracy. Used to be that if you wanted a chance to cover the NBA, you essentially had to know somebody. It was no good just being good. But there are a lot of great writers out there who don't know anybody. If they get to go head to head against the establishment writers, and readers prefer the blogger--well then that's competition that's good for the marketplace of writers. Some of the duds will be shuffled along, some new young lions will get seats at the table.
Another little thing I can see happening will be for there to be bitterness and rivalry developing between credentialed mainstream media journalists and bloggers. Most of that would be a real shame--us writers and bloggers are all bit players in a game of advertising dollars. Sure, as blogs develop a growing audience they will be getting more and more of those dollars. But the net effect will be multi-faceted. Perhaps bloggers can make more people interested in the NBA, and will buoy everybody a little. Perhaps bloggers can help to make reporting better. In any case, if the writers from one paper can be friendly with the writers from another, surely they can be friendly with bloggers. We needn't hate each other just for being around during this latest phase of media evolution.
Another big question: do beat writers partake in quid pro quo with the teams and the league? Do they make the team look unfairly good to keep their relationship with the team, and their credential, in good standing? Would bloggers lose something by having credentials? I can't really say, to be honest. The premise of Deadspin's tagline "sports news without access, favor, or discretion" is that you might be better off getting your sports news from someone who isn't so cozy with the team. There might be some merit to that (and, I might add, some tough decisions for Deadspin when they will have to either change that tagline or turn down the opportunity to talk to players directly.) My thought is if I love the NBA, and want to know what's really going on, why wouldn't I talk to the people on the front lines? And as for being ethical, as always, it's on us. There are plenty of people covering the NBA who do a good honest job. If you're a blogger thinking about getting a credential, make sure that, to the best of your ability, you are always one of those.
There's irony in my even weighing in on this. The fact is, if you really want to know what's going on in the NBA, I'm not sure a credential is so great. Thanks to my continued relationship with HOOP magazine, I can get credentials to games. But I only go if I absolutely have to. I used to go a lot more. Some of that's because now that I'm a father I want to spend every second I can with my family.
The biggest factor, however, is that I have learned it's simply not a good setting for the kind of journalism that I do.
The access at games is all about the beat reporters. For the longer articles I tend to write, I usually want to ask players about wacky personal stuff, like their childhood, some long-term rivalry, or something that no other reporters are interested in. I almost never want to talk about that night's game (it can be months before my story comes out). The conversations I have to have are much better one-on-one on the phone, in a car, or after a shoot-around. Before games most players don't talk. After the game, players face a pack of reporters with a few minutes to bang out game coverage. They trot out all the sports platitudes that Kevin Costner's character teaches in Bull Durham. There is talk of rebounding, taking good shots, and making smart passes. There's precious little that's usable in a magazine cover story.
What's more, the beat writers get annoyed if someone like me holds them up from meeting their deadlines by getting a player to talk about the kinds of non-pressing character issues and anecdotes that are the bricks and mortar of longer stories.
So, in the big picture: yes, I think teams should selectively credential many bloggers, and I can't imagine that they won't all be doing so in the hext year or so. I'm counting on it. I'm sure the day will some soon enough when I will ask a team to credential me not as Henry Abbott from HOOP or Inside Stuff magazines, but as Henry Abbott from TrueHoop. If they turn me down, I'm convinced they'd be making a big mistake, and the same is true for dozens of NBA bloggers out there. It's just about time to start testing those waters.