A Decade of Sports Media Change

I’m pleased to present this guest column from Roy Reiss.

There’s an old saying that nothing ever stays the same. Over the last 10 years the local sports media has undergone many, many changes that has dramatically affected the local media landscape in a myriad of ways. Let’s look closer at some of these developments, what’s happened, and what it means to the information hungry sports public in Greater Boston. .

Sports on local TV News programs.

Back at the turn of the century this was the way most fans got their latest news. Bob Lobel, Mike Lynch, and Gene Lavanchy were the envy of most young aspiring sports broadcasters. They would deliver the latest up to date scores, highlights and breaking news. Lobel, in particular, would be a power broker in the Boston sports community with sources developed over a 20 year career. As the decade moved along, these positions became less and less important as cable developed their own sports related shows with local highlights. You didn’t have to wait until 11 to get the highlights, you could watch 30 minutes of all sports highlights, scores, and interviews on NESN and in November 2009 Comcast threw their local sports program into the ring. Special shows were created to satisfy the sports crazed fan for late Sunday night over and above the regular news show. The truth is with the “new sports” media evolving, most of the highlights on news shows were “old news” by 11. And with the departure of Butch Stearns from Ch. 25 earlier this fall as well as the redesign of NECN news and sports in November, you might be seeing the start of a bold move by the other local affiliates to de-emphasize the sports portion of their local news programs. What used to be a dream job could become an endangered species.

The downhill trend of print journalism.

For a whole generation of sports fans, there was and is nothing like getting that morning Globe or Herald and devouring the sports sections. Box scores, game stories, strong opinions in columns would satisfy the appetite for this sports starved generation. Back in 2002 you couldn’t wait for the February 2nd edition to read everything about the Pats first Super Bowl title. Ditto for 2004 when the Sox finally won the World Series. Trouble is the newer generations of sports fans aren’t as dependent on the print media as that older generation since new technology and means of disseminating material has made sports a “real time” business. Game stories are much less relevant because now you may see highlights and have opportunities to discuss what happened almost immediately following the action. Insight and unique value added information has trumped details of how things happened and pushed game stories to the back burner. Late start times for maximum TV exposure further hinder the print media as they struggle to have 100% of their readership receive the latest news. Newspapers nationwide face some difficult decisions on how to cover their local teams in this new era given all the different media forums, the spiraling cost of travel, mixed in with the loss of circulation and advertising dollars. That along with the challenge to develop a multi level media platform (video, audio, print) remains giant obstacles for the print industry as they try to stay relevant in the changing world of sports coverage.

The continued growth and impact of sports talk radio. 24/7.

Entertain. Shape perceptions. Rush to judgment and paint a picture as quickly and decisively as possible. Never has sports talk radio been as powerful a resource as it is today. Hosts are entertainers who succeed or fail based on how many people listen to them. They need to get people engaged, tap into their emotions, develop controversy, and keep people tuned to their particular station. Talkers like Glenn Ordway are masterful at their craft. And latecomers to the talk radio field like Mike Felger epitomize the new wave of pot stirrers. As we reach the end of the 10 year run, these stations have become more important than the local TV stations sports segments, and one could argue they’ve even replaced the print columnists. They’ve become the power brokers in the sports community. If you need proof look at the number of sports talk stations in each major market. The common thought used to be Boston could only support one sports talk station, but with the emergence of WBZ FM, WEEI now has a very formidable opponent. Down the road there’s even speculation that ESPN will enter the sports radio battle in Boston. Who would have ever thought 3 sports stations could survive in this sports crazy region? Need any more proof of this powerful force and where it stands in sports coverage in Greater Boston.

The emergence of the multi faceted internet.

This is all 3 of the above rolled into one powerful platform. Real-time information. Analysis. Insight. Video or audio easily seen or heard. Plenty of print and entertaining data with no space requirements. Interactive capabilities like chats and mailbags to allow the fans to have a powerful voice. And who knows what else future technology will bring to this intriguing tv/radio/print triple threat combination. There’s growth potential that will be determined by how quickly technology develops, and thus the rush to be on board in this rapidly developing media. In the last 20 months, Boston has seen the emergence of competing local websites, WEEI.com, ESPNBoston.com, and CSNNE.com, join the battle for the local sports fans eyeballs. Throw in the Globe, Herald, NESN, plus the individual pro teams sites and you have a plethora of destinations to cull news from. There’s never been a better job market for aspiring journalists or sportscasters who seek employment in this ever changing media business. If history teaches us one thing, the only constant in this sports media business is that by December 2019 the landscape will be dramatically altered again!

Roy Reiss is a former Channel 7 sportscaster who started in radio working for Curt Gowdy Broadcasting. He is also the father of Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com.

  • mandb97

    Mr. Reiss this is a good article. I really enjoyed it. Here is a couple of observations I have about the future of the media.

    1) I still believe it will be suicide for the newspapers to charge for their content on line. As you mentioned in the article, there are plenty of outlets, with well known writers, to get your local sports info. You have Gammons with NESN, Mike Reiss with ESPN Boston, McAdam with CSNNE just to name a few. If the Globe and Herald start to charge it will be the beginning of the end for them.

    2) The mettle of sports radio will be tested when things are not going so good. How creative will the stations be when the teams are afterthoughts. I still remember 1995 when Cigar running in the Mass Cap was the biggest sports story in Boston. During times like that is when it becomes very challenging for sports radio.

    • Chris

      I agree with #1 and #2 above. First, there are very few print media entities that have been successful at charging for their content using the ‘paid-for’ Internet model. The Wall Street Journal comes to mind, and neither The Globe nor the Herald come anywhere close to the WSJ. If this were a great idea and had any chance of succeeding, both newspapers would have moved in this direction. That neither one has tells you all we need to know: They doubt themselves. And with good reason; they’d end up preaching to their own choirs, which would anger the political columnists to no end.

      #2 also appears on the money. I have no doubt some of the listeners will remain, but gone are the days of confiscatory ad rates. And what kind of growth can come from a business model built on commercial spots going for the price of a Happy Meal? No one will get rich there.

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    • kevin

      there is a lot of truth in this but you also have to account for the amount of programming NESN and Comcast sports and various websites like the patriots site do. Maybe 20 years ago a kid might have dreamed of being Lobel, now they dream of being Gary Tangway (gulp).

      The trend towards internet over print was well under way by 2004 and 2002 but the point is still valid the trend is still heading one way.

      The biggest difference between now and ten years ago is there are more voices in sports. Sure ESPN nationally and WEEI locally are the big guns but there are many other choices. Even with ESPN variety of platforms there are no longer larger than life figures in any sports coverage like Howard Cosell or Vin Scully have been in years past. And the negative is there are a bunch of crappy sites that offer little in the way of entertainment or information but still get a voice, but even crap to one person can be gold to another.

  • Jarred Alexandrov

    I liked this recap a lot. Who knows, but looking forward I am going to predict that the 24/7 sports radio stations will be nothing like they are today. Not only will our phones be our primary source of sports news and entertainment, but the advertising market for radio will continue to decline year after year, making it harder for stations to keep top talent and produce quality content. Look for some college kid to come out of nowhere with a 24/7 live Boston sports video blog and be sponsored by Herb Chambers!
    – Jarred