NBA Media: In the Nosebleeds and Cranky

Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake Tribune speaks for many journalists when he writes:

I mentioned that the current media setup at EnergySolutions Arena is among the worst in the league because it does not allow reporters a decent view of the game or access to it. In response, reader Tim Ormond replied that I should quit complaining since I get my "ticket" for free.

Here's the deal, Tim.

I go to those games to report on it for fans like you. When I can't do the best job I can because of the way a team's media setup is arranged, it doesn't hurt me. In reality, however, it hurts fans like you who want to know what's happening with the team they follow -- in the case, the Jazz.

You ask, "What did Jerry Sloan do to deserve that technical foul?" I reply, "I can't tell you because I wasn't close enough to hear anything."

You ask, "What sparked that fight between the players?" I reply, "I wish I knew, but it happened 100 yards from where I am supposed to sit and chronicle the game?"

See what I mean?

Another point: I don't get a free "ticket" to the game. I get a media credential. With a ticket, I could drink beer, yell at the players, boo the officials, arrive in the second quarter and leave in the third.

With a press credential, I go to the game like you do to work and try to write accurately and with some degree of insight about what I am seeing and hearing. When I can't see a game or hear the game or the interaction among the players, coaches and officials, it limits my opportunity to do the best job I possibly can for the people who buy our newspaper or read our Web site.

I hope that makes sense.

The bottom line: the press setup at the EnergySolutions Arena used to be one of the best in the NBA. Now, it is one of the worst. Nearly every reporter who comes to Utah goes away shaking his or her head at the profound change in the way this franchise operates in regard to the media.

It is creepy that the public's representatives at games -- the people who are there to ask the tough questions in a business enterprise that gets a lot of taxpayer and public support -- can be shuffled into the rafters at the whim of the team's business office.

I understand that a lot of teams are not making money, and those seats can be sold for a pretty penny. Business is business, and that doesn't mean the team enjoys booting the writers.

But it's one more wall between reporters and players.

It used to be that reporters were with players all day -- in planes, on buses, in bars. Now they're not near the players really anywhere, except after practices and games. The "during" games sense of what teams are like is going away too.

And even more worrisome, the people who are on the planes, getting the killer access and writing about it, are increasingly on the team's payroll. Dave from BlazersEdge just interviewed Blazer broadcaster Mike Barrett, who says:

We sit up in the front of the plane, in a little room, and one or two players usually come up during flights to hang out with us. Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake will plop down on the couch and just talk for a while, and the other night Travis Outlaw came up and spent about an hour with us. He did all the talking. At one point I looked across at our executive producer, Scott Zachry, and we both agreed that it was probably the longest conversation we've ever had with Travis. He talked of his family, his childhood in Mississippi, and went on and on. Sergio always comes up and chats. He's easily one of the most popular players on this team, and is certainly the funniest. Even though he's got a much better command of the English language than he did when he first arrived, the terms he uses, and even the slang he's picked up from his teammates always makes us laugh.

It might sound like no big deal: an airplane chat with Travis Outlaw. But that's exactly the kind of honest exchange that is totally lacking from most sports coverage. Talk to me Travis, baby. What are you like? Tell us a story about your childhood! Whether we want to admit it or not, I think that's what most of us want to know.

And it's not really available. The beat writers aren't welcome on the plane, and the team employees have a lot of reason not to write about it if it's not safe from a PR perspective. And there are lots of good people who have done some things that are not safe.

Presumably, out of their commitment to keeping bad news well away from the public eye, teams keep players and reporters from building the kind of rapport that can result in more nuanced coverage. If I were a player, I wouldn't swap funny stories with one of those media jackals unleashed on the locker room for a few minutes after games. (It's just not an environment conducive to that kind of talk. I have the utmost respect for NBA journalists and players who can manage to have meaningful exchanges in that intense setting.) But the guy next to me on a long flight? I might talk meaningfully to him.

One little example of how this plays out: people seem to want to know which players are "good guys" and which ones are knuckleheads. I'm not talking about who gives money away, necessarily, but stuff like who might let babysit your kids. It's really really really hard to tell that from reading the paper. And the main reason it's so hard is because of the many PR barriers between the two groups, and this is just one more. Instead of some players being distant, they all are.

All that said, I think there is also pressure on writers to make the most of what access they have to prove that it's worth protecting. After Luhm's post, a commenter called admin responded by saying:

prove me wrong and start giving in-depth analysis of what you see and hear when you're up close, rather than the same stuff that i can get from an AP report.

until i start recognizing when you are at an arena with sub-par media set up because the quality of the reporting also lags, then i will just consider it whining.