Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Blogging a sports event: What’s ‘live’ and what isn’t?

An NCAA official ejected a sports reporter Sunday from the press box at a college baseball tournament game for providing “live” blog updates on his paper’s Web site.

The NCAA booted Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal sports reporter Brian Bennett during the Louisville-Oklahoma State “Super Regional” game. The beef, it seems is over the word “live.” Sayeth the wire services:

Rights to the Super Regional games were owned by ESPN, and memos were circulated in the Louisville press box that said blogs were a “live representation” of the game and thus not permitted.

The evolution of sports reporting to include blogs written as an athletic contest unfolds has collided with the NCAA’s desire to protect its contractual commitments with broadcasters such as ESPN. The NCAA owns the television rights to all 88 of its championships. It sells these rights through bidding. CBS and ESPN are the primary broadcast television rights holders for NCAA championship events. This commercialization of college sports began in earnest decades ago — and blogging constitutes a complication of and perhaps a threat to that culture of college sports as a profit center.

Money has flowed into colleges and universities through broadcast contracts for decades since a 1984 Supreme Court decision allowed colleges to individually pursue broadcast contracts. Revenue sports have seen a surge in funding over that time. Successful coaches in big conference revenue sports signed multi-million-dollar contracts. But the NCAA retained broadcast rights to championships.

They’re worth a lot of money. Congress was told last year that under its men’s basketball tournament contract “CBS will pay the NCAA an average of $545 million per year in tax-free money.” And that “[t]otal annual operating revenues for all NCAA divisions are approximately $7.8 billion.” And that “[t]he NCAA receives 85 percent of its revenues from the sale of television rights.”

As they say, money is the root of all evil. According to a 2001 Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report, abuses accompanied the money.

NCAA censures, sanctions and probations rose. Players received illicit payments. Recruiting violations increased. Crimes sprees by athletes made news. Now it has to be noted that NCAA provides extraordinary opportunities for more than 380,000 student-athletes. But more about that at another time.

College sports can be viewed as a business. In fact, it has to be. Ask any athletic director how much fundraising and marketing is needed beyond a college or university’s budgetary support to field a creditable program. (Disclosure: I serve as faculty athletics representative at my university.)

So along comes a sports reporter writing a blog during a game. Good heavens, says the NCAA. That contravenes our contract with ESPN! Bennett, through his blog, is “televising” a live performance! Can’t have that! Out of the press box he went — and he reported his ejection on the paper’s blog.

Bennett had blogged earlier games without incident but those had not been televised. The paper says it will pursue this as a First Amendment issue. Says Courier-Journal Executive Editor Bennie L. Ivory:

This is part of the evolution of how we present the news to our readers. It’s what we did during the Orange Bowl. It’s what we did during the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s what we do.

Online reporting through blogs has become common for newspapers, especially in sports. But it seems the NCAA and its broadcasting partners see this as a threat to their revenues.

This may end up with a court deciding on the definition of “live” — as in live Internet updates. Says the paper’s lawyer, Jon Fleischaker:

Once a player hits a home run, that’s a fact. It’s on TV, everybody sees it. [The NCAA] can’t copyright that fact. The blog wasn’t a simulcast or a recreation of the game. It was an analysis.

As blogging becomes more sophisticated, more routine — and used more by the mainstreams folks — situations like this will crop up more often.

xpost: 5th Estate

4 replies »

  1. Great post, Denny – it will be interesting, to say the least, to see how the money twists this issue.

    I wonder, for instance, if one of’s writers were doing live Internet updates if this would have been the “problem” it became. Or if the ESPN guy had been blogging a game broadcast on CBS (or vice versa with a writer blogging an ESPN broadcast).

    BTW – any idea what the NCAA does with all that money? I mean besides NOT give it to the athletes who make it for them?

  2. Maybe you can help me understand how this is a 1st Amendment issue. No, I don’t like that he was evicted, but I don’t know that I see in the Constitution a guarantee of access to entertainment events.

    In any case, it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens around that word “live,” isn’t it? I hadn’t thought of it in quite this context before, but unless you type a LOT faster than I do, you’re not going to be able to really LIVEblog the action.


  3. This is a really important issue. What happens if he had recorded using his mobile phone and posted to YouTube? We discussed in earlier posts about when a blogger is a journalist? It cuts both ways though. If bloggers want the protection that comes with being considered a professional journalist, then they also have to accept the consequences – that you can’t just muscle in and hijack other people’s contracts.

    Consider a rock concert. Soon you can, in high resolution, transmit via 3G in full sound and colour, the event. I’m not sure how anyone can stop you taking a phone in.

    Gives bootlegging a whole new flavour.

  4. Jim,

    I’d say the NCAA does a great deal of good with all that money. For example, it runs the clearinghouse and compliance systems that determines eligibility of student-athletes. (We can talk about standards another time.)

    It seeks (again, effectiveness is another issue) to increase graduate rates of all student-athletes. For example, I teach at a Division I school. The NCAA pays for the academic support sector of our athletics program — the salaries of the ass’t AD for student services and the facility, computers and such.

    The NCAA funnels monies from championships earnings back to schools. Take men’s basketball: Sure, the schools that get into the tournament get money — but there’s a trickle-down to all schools in a conference that has a team in the tourney.

    The NCAA has problems, I’ll admit freely. But given an intercollegiate athletics environment without an NCAA, I’ll take what we’ve got now.