In The Public Eye

April 23, 2010

We live in an age where nothing is really private anymore, especially with the way the Internet dominates our lives. In our world, it’s not just think before you speak or act; it’s think before you type or post.

Athletic departments and college athletic communications professionals everywhere are forced to recognize the reality that, with the prominence of Facebook and Twitter in the lives of their student-athletes, comes the fact that a school’s image is at stake each time these young men or women updates their status or posts a photo album.

CoSIDA recently highlighted several instances where Facebook posts came back to haunt an athletic department, and the solutions some schools have come up with to solve this problem.

Athletic director Tom Osborne instituted a program at the University of Nebraska called UDiligence in which social networking by student-athletes is automatically tracked and e-mail alerts are sent to Nebraska coaches and administrators went inappropriate posts have been flagged.

Tom Osborne

Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne has taken a proactive approach to monitoring his student-athletes' social media use. Photo courtesy of Scout.com.

Not surprisingly, some student-athletes balked at the thought of their “private lives” being so closely monitored by the athletic department. I think this is a brilliant move by Nebraska, though, because the truth of the matter is, nothing is private on the Internet.

Being a student-athlete is a lot like holding a student job. More likely than not, if you post something incriminating on your Twitter and your boss finds out, you’re going to have to face the consequences. The same thinking should apply to student-athletes.

In many ways, these young men and women are the faces of their schools. They hold the school’s image in their hands, and they can easily tarnish it by not using their heads. Consider the shame brought on to the Kansas athletic department when basketball player Tyshawn Taylor bragged about getting into a physical altercation with several of the school’s football players via Facebook.

It’s not just about protecting an athletic department’s image, though. They call these men and women student-athletes for a reason; they’ve come to school to learn in addition to competing. I think more athletic departments need to follow the lead of Nebraska and better educate student-athletes about how to responsibly use tools like Facebook and Twitter.

These social networking sites can be either helpful – or hurtful – to their own personal images when it comes time to find a job when their collegiate careers have ended. It’s really up to the athletic departments to educate and the student-athletes to use the knowledge wisely when it comes to social networking.

Damning Dominance?

April 14, 2010

Once upon a time (1972-73), the UCLA men’s basketball team was absolutely dominating the men’s college basketball landscape in a way that few other teams in any sport at any level ever had. Under the direction of the legendary John Wooden, the Bruins captured back-to-back undefeated national championships, capping off a whopping run of seven straight titles.

Fast forward to the present day. The UConn women’s basketball just duplicated Wooden’s 1972 and ’73 teams’ feat with a 53-47 triumph over Stanford last week. They have won an incredible 78 straight games, beating the opposition by an average margin of 41.6 points. Yet, the history that has been made by the Huskies has been largely unappreciated.

Why? Because fans and media think UConn is bad for women’s college basketball.

Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor examined the issue of UConn’s dominance in the Feb. 1 issue of the magazine. He wrote, The Huskies don’t apologize for their excellence, nor should they, but they realize the conundrum they pose for the sport. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why are you so good?’ and sometimes they ask, ‘Why isn’t anybody else any good?'” says Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. “I don’t really have a great answer for the second one. I don’t think it’s the case, but I don’t have a really good answer.”” You can read the rest of Taylor’s column on “The UConn Conundrum.”

The UConn dominance has a trickle-down effect through women’s college basketball. People are, honestly, a little bored with the Huskies winning so often by so much. Thus, the perception exists that the women’s game isn’t on the same par as the men’s because there is so little parity. The attendance numbers don’t lie. At Kent State, the men’s team drew an average of 54,501 at home games at the M.A.C. Center. The women’s team drew 7,598. Both teams had fairly successful seasons, as both qualified for their respective National Invition Touraments.

What can college athletic communications professionals do about this problem? I think a big first step is promotion. People will come out and support a team if they have a reason to. It’s up to us to get the word out there about these student-athletes. Perhaps having meet-and-greets for the fans at other university sporting events would help build a personal connection and spark a new level of interest in the team. With the state of women’s college basketball as it is, I think we need to promote these teams as much — if not more — as we do the men’s team to fill seats in the arenas and get fans excited about the sport.

Ultimately, though, I think this problem needs to be fixed on the court. I think the NCAA needs to take a close look at evening the playing field as it did in the men’s game by reducing the number of full-ride scholarships women’s coaches can offer. That way, UConn will be unable to snatch up the top-tier talent year-after-year, thus distributing the incoming talent evenly throughout the sport.

UConn should most be applauded for all it has achieved, not criticized. Hopefully, one day soon, a few challengers will emerge and we will be promoting the women’s game the way it deserves to be promoted.

Man vs. Machine

April 9, 2010

Imagine a world where college athletic communications professionals aren’t pitching stories to human sports reporters, but rather robot sports reporters.

Sound crazy? It really isn’t.

Sports statistics company StatSheet is unveiling a software program this summer that will turn a college basketball game box score into a well-written game story in seconds. You can read more about StatSheet and founder Robbie Allen on CoSIDA’s official Web site.

I won’t lie and say I’m not impressed by the development of this technology. Allen’s going as far as to give the software several different “writing voices,” allowing readers to actually pick and choose which writing styles they want to read. StatSheet is planning to expand into sports feature and opinion articles as well.

This technology is genius and will surely be a welcome addition to newspapers around the country who are strapped for cash and have been forced to cut sports staffs significantly. It also may be signaling a sad end to traditional media relations as we as college athletic communications professionals know it.

Robot

Robot - Courtesy of PsychologyToday.com

In one way, this technology is going to potentially give us a whole new way to reach audiences about our schools, especially for those of us who work at the so-called mid-major level where the national coverage isn’t quite as large as it is for an SEC or ACC school. We’ll easily be able to get coverage from our student-athletes’ hometowns. While those newspapers may not always physically be able to come to the games that these athletes are playing in, we can send these computer-generated stories to those papers, thus increasing the visibility of our programs.

On the other hand, I think this technological development presents a bit of an issue for our profession. How do you pitch a feature story to a computer? What do you do when a software program misquotes someone? To me, this technology isn’t so different than the robotic umpiring technology that has been discussed in Major League Baseball in recent years. People complain that human umpires make too many mistakes that could easily be eliminated by today’s technology.

Human Sports Reporter

This is all well and good, but I believe part of the beauty of sports is the human element. It’s the umpires making mistakes. It’s having to work with human sports reporters and pitching stories to them and helping them interact with our student-athletes so the public can hear their stories. Machines might write a convincing game story and be able to sift through stats and records easily, but they’ll never have that emotional connection that a human reporter can tap into.

In the battle of the man vs. machine, I’m picking humans.

Don’t Ruin A Good Thing

March 23, 2010

Healthcare reform may be a hot-button topic in our country right now, but it’s not the issue that is on my mind most these days (guess that shows you where my priorities lie!).

No, the issue that is concerning me is talk of the NCAA expanding its men’s basketball tournament field from 65 teams to 96. I hate this idea. Absolutely loathe it. If you truly care about college sports, you should, too.

First of all, a little bit of background for those who don’t know, courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel. Basically, expanding the tournament field would allow for more participants (obviously), save coaches who are on the proverbial job bubble and generate more money for both the NCAA and for whichever network wins the rights to broadcast the tournament in the next round of television contract negations for the event.

So now that you know, I’ll present my argument as to why tournament expansion would be horrible for college basketball. Actually, I barely even need to present my case because the NCAA men’s basketball tournament did it for me last weekend.

The first and second rounds of the men’s basketball tournament last weekend were, quite frankly, crazy. There were major upsets across the field. No. 1 overall seed Kansas went down in the second round to little-known Northern Iowa. In fact, eight teams that were seeded lower than their opposition came up victorious on the tournament’s opening weekend. Three so-called mid-majors (Saint Mary’s, Cornell and Northern Iowa) will participate in the Sweet Sixteen this weekend.

All of this drama that occurred would effectively be wiped out if the NCAA expands the field. Sure, there could still be a ton of close games in the first round, as was the case this year, should the field expand. The top 32 teams in a 96-team field would receive a bye, though, which basically eliminates the whole “David slays Goliath” scenario that had us on the edge of our seats all weekend. If the big boys of college basketball (I’m looking at you, Kansas and Villanova) weren’t scared of the little guys before this weekend, you better believe they are now. The perceived gap between the power conferences and mid-majors is closing – quick. The NCAA should be embracing it instead of trying to get rid of it with a diluted tournament field.

I also don’t subscribe to the “everyone should get to play/everyone gets trophy” complex that exists in sports today. People affiliated with schools who didn’t quite have the convincing resume to make the field of 65 cry foul every year on Selection Sunday when their school is left out of the dance. I say, BALOGNA. If your school truly deserved to make the tournament, you wouldn’t be on the bubble to begin with. Take care of business during the regular season and conference tournament, and you won’t have the door to the ball slammed in your face. Heartbreak sucks, but it is also part of the beauty of college athletics.

NCAA and TV networks, I know that you’re seeing big dollar signs in your eyes over the thought of expansion. Honestly, I don’t blame you for considering it. For once, though, let’s consider our most important public – the fans, and not ruin a good thing.

For more on the argument against tourney expansion, check out SI’s George Dohrmann’s column.

Press Row Pet Peeves

March 9, 2010

So I’m feeling a little ornery and a certain Facebook group has stirred me a bit.

My colleague at Kent State, Sheila Blackman, directed me to a Facebook group titled “Press Box Etiquette Starts Here.” It is a forum where people who work in sports (be it for a sports organization or the media) can vent their complaints about professionals acting unprofessionally in the world of sports.

Anyone who has worked in sports for any substantial amount of time can relate to this page. We all know the horror stories of unacceptable and rude behavior at sporting events we’ve worked at by people who work right alongside us. The group planted the idea in my head for a post laying out my own personal press row pet peeves. So without further delay…

5. Quit complaining: When you’re sitting on press row or in the press box, be you a member of the media or representing a school or organization, don’t complain. Don’t complain about the game going to overtime. Especially don’t complain about your job. Honestly, you’re getting PAID to work in the world of fun and games for a living. You get to watch great athletes do amazing things for a living. Ask the unemployed autoworker in Detroit; it could be a lot worse for you, my friend.

4. If you’re entitled to own a credential, you’re entitled to work: I can’t help but notice that from time to time, certain “members” of the media are granted credentials, then proceed to do absolutely nothing. By all means, enjoy the pregame meal. Yuck it up with your media brethren. Just make sure you’re actually working and covering the game. Otherwise, you are just taking up space and time for the people who are actually trying to get things done.

3. Clean up after yourself: As part of the crew at Kent State who is in charge of tearing down press row or cleaning up the press box and making sure both look as neat as they did before the game once the game has ended, it would be great if I didn’t have to turn into a full-blown janitor. How hard is it throw away your half-eaten plate of pizza or your empty can of pop? It’s not. I’m not your mom or your spouse, and I wasn’t put on this planet to keep you from being a slob. Part of my job as a public relations professional is to help make your life as a member of the media easier to the best of my ability. It would be nice to see the same respect shown.

2. Save your feature question stories for later: I know many members of the media would agree with me on this one. Nothing is more annoying than holding a press conference after a game, with everyone on a tight deadline, and for a reporter to ask a question that has nothing to do with the said game. We would be happy to arrange a time for you to sit down and interview a player or coach and ask all the feature story questions your heart desires. All you have to do is ask us to help you out. When you do this at a postgame press conference, though, you’re just making the night a little longer for all involved.

1. Don’t cheer: This is the oldest rule in the book for anyone granted credentials to a press box or press row. Do not cheer. You’re working, you’re not a fan. Buy a ticket if you feel the need to foam at the mouth about the officiating or the play calling. It’s just not professional to do, whether you’re representing a school or the media. Act professional.

OK, I’m finished ranting now! Feel free to add your press row pet peeves by commenting on this post.

A Lucrative Partnership

February 23, 2010

Dick Vitale - Photo Courtesy of ESPN

Valentine’s Day was over a week ago, but a lovey-dovey sports relationship was prominently on display over the weekend: ESPN and college athletics.

The 2010 ESPN BracketBusters weekend is one of the most exciting for die-hard fans of men’s basketball. It breaks up the grind of conference play by piting “mid-major” schools from different conferences against each other, providing fans and the media a glance at some sleeper schools that could potentially crash the party come March Madness.

ESPN, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports, even has a special Web site promoting BracketBusters. As I was checking out the site this weekend, I was struck by the final paragraph in the “About BracketBusters” section. It reads: “BracketBusters is an example of ESPN college basketball franchise programming. Others include Rivalry Week Presented by Cisco, Feast Week Presented by Lowe’s, Holiday Hoops Presented by Kay Jewelers, ESPNU Campus Connection Week, Judgment Week and Championship Week Presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods.”

It was at that point where I was really struck by how much of an influence ESPN holds over college athletics. After all, what other media outlet actually determines a game on a team’s schedule, as is the case with the BracketBuster games?

This begs an interesting question for college athletic communication professionals: do we treat ESPN as just a regular media outlet or treat them as a partner?

The answer to this question seems pretty clear to me. ESPN is most definitely a partner in a way that no other media outlet can be. For better, and sometimes for worse, ESPN has a grip and an influence on today’s sporting culture that is unmatched. Nowhere is that more evident than in college sports, where ESPN broadcasts 21 championships on its family of networks.

The biggest example of this is ESPN’s College GameDay for college football and men’s basketball. If your school is picked as GameDay’s site for its weekly pre-game show, your game is viewed as the game of the week. You are legitimate if College GameDay comes and visits your town because it means your program is noteworthy enough to be so highlighted by ESPN.

ESPN College GameDay - Photo Courtesy of Penn State University

The hype surrounding GameDay has reached unbelievable levels. Thousands of fans pack college stadium parking lots or arenas hours before games start to be a part of the pre-game experience of GameDay. When GameDay’s basketball crew came to Champaign, Ill., earlier this month, the Illinois athletic communications department posted a press release announcing GameDay would be at the Fighting Illini’s game against Michigan State months in advance.

This is obviously a lucrative relationship that ESPN and college athletic departments enjoy. It’s great publicity for a school and these marquee primetime match-ups the network televises bring in a huge viewing audience. The games are also bound to help drive up ticket sales because everybody wants to say they were a part of the GameDay experience.

Could this relationship blur the line of ethical journalism? Perhaps. The bottom line is, though, that ESPN has become an essential partner in an athletic department’s public relations efforts. We need them. The truth is, no other media outlet has the pull or influence that ESPN has in sports. We have no choice but to treat them like partners. It’s not unethical; it’s sound business.

Digital Destiny

February 19, 2010

People absorb information much differently now than they did 10, or even five, years ago. We don’t want to be bothered with taking the time to read anything of length. We want things to be to the point and to be stimulating.

This signals a significant shift to the winds of change in the athletic communications field. Go ask a college coach what the people in sports info do. One of the most common answers would probably be, “They make media guides.” Since the sports information dawn of time, we have been printing copies of media guides. As we begin a new decade, though, the days of printing copies of media guides seem to be serious jeopardy.

The University of Michigan, The Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin officially got the media guide boulder rolling down the mountain by announcing they were halting the printing of guides last May. With rising printing costs and tightening budgets, our governing body, the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) called an emergency meeting of sorts a month later to discuss the future of these guides. I’ve provided the near hour-long replay of the teleconference below.

The NCAA has deemed the issue over what the heck to do about media guides important enough that two legislative proposals have been made. No. 2009-41 would eliminate printed media guides, with the exception being game programs, and 2009-42 would prohibit the distribution of media guides to recruits. The NCAA has long had a hand in the rules and regulations of media guides, mainly from a recruiting standpoint. Leilana McKindra of the NCAA News provides an interesting account of the history of guides.

I may be a product of the “Y-generation” but I am the kind of guy that likes to sit down and read a 600-page book for fun. It’s true that technology has made life easier for us, but I am also of the opinion that it has made us lazier.

That being said, I can honestly say that, aside from helping to write and edit our guides at Kent State, I don’t take time out of my day to really thoroughly read any media guides. I don’t think I retain a lot of the information from what I do occasionally read in them, either. I think it would be an enormous stretch to say that the media or recruits exert any more effort than I do when it comes to checking out guides. It’s a resource that I go to when I absolutely need to, but what good does the guide do you once a season starts? I’m more inclined to go to the game notes to see how the school records have changed than I am to check a guide.

When I first heard of the fate of media guides hanging in the balance, I can’t say I shed a tear. After examining some digital guides, though, any hint of sentimentality I had about the printed beasts disappeared.

My favorite digital guides I’ve found come from the University of South Florida. You can check out their latest digital masterpiece – the Bulls softball digital guide – here.

South Florida Softball - Courtesy of the University of South Florida

I think South Florida did it right. The guides are incredibly visually appealing (the intro video is awesome!). I’m a huge fan of the light, but informative text that they used. The guide is personalized by using a video welcome from Director of Athletics Doug Woolard, an interactive tour of the USF campus and the city of Tampa and game-highlight footage. The guide made me want to attend South Florida and gave me plenty of information about the softball program without overloading me like the printed guides often do. This kind of tool can appeal to recruits, media and alumni alike.

The days of sitting down and leafing through a media guide may be coming to an end, but I don’t think this is anything to get depressed about. The digital guides present a wonderful opportunity to reinvent – and maybe most importantly, rejuvenate – athletic communications and the way we connect to our publics. In my opinion, digital guides are money better spent.

Cover Boys

February 9, 2010

Lane Kiffin was all about the orange and white at his introductory press conference as the new University of Tennessee head football coach on Dec. 1, 2008. Just a little over a year later, he bolted the program for his “dream job” at Southern California.

Kiffin promised to restore greatness to the Volunteers. He vowed to sing “Rocky Top” all night long when Tennessee defeated SEC rival Florida. He was bold and brash in his comments to the media and his recruiting tactics. Kiffin was the face of the Volunteers. He was featured on the school’s media guide cover, hands on hips with a look of determination in his eyes. He was going to be the face of the university in the same way that Robert Neyland, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer once were.

Instead, he lasted just one year, a season in which the Vols were an average 7-6. He left the university scrambling to find a new coach, his players feeling betrayed and recruits with a handful of empty promises.

This post could go on and on about the often unfair way that coaches up and leave a program hanging in search of greener pastures at a new job (I’ll leave that up to ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski, though.)

This post will examine the implications of athletic communications departments presenting coaches as the faces of athletic programs. Kiffin being featured on the cover of the Tennessee football media guide is case in point. Although media guides appear to be falling by the wayside in our business (I’ll examine this topic in a later post), they still represent the main piece of literature for a collegiate athletic program. Whether we would like to admit it or not, whomever is chosen to be on the cover of the guide makes a statement about the program.

What does putting a head coach on the cover of a media guide say about a program? It says that we as an athletic department believe that this is the person who is going to take our program to new heights. We may have star athletes on our team, but it is the head coach that will ultimately lead us to the glory we seek. More importantly, it conveys to our publics that we associate words like honesty, trust, loyalty, ethics and morals with this man.

In today’s college sports landscape, this is a dangerous game to play. The movement of big-name coaches such as Kiffin, Nick Saban, Brian Kelly and Pete Carroll over the past few years has (fair or not) left the perception that these men maybe don’t feel the loyalty toward their programs that our publics want them to feel. Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins agrees with the notion.

It would be foolish to state coaches are not an enormous element of the backbone of a program. But it would be equally foolish it seems to make them the ultimate figurehead in the publicity efforts of our programs, be it on media guide covers, stadium banners or roadside billboards.

What is the solution? Leave it to the sports info department for arguably the best football program in the country in the last five years to find one. The University of Florida, having won the 2008 national title, simply used a blown up photo of the team’s championship ring on the cover of its 2009 media guide. There was no picture of head coach Urban Meyer featured on the cover. The statement the ring made was simply greatness and togetherness. Meyer, who ironically couldn’t make up his mind about whether he’d like to keep coaching following the ’09 season, was obviously a big part of the success. But by leaving him off the cover and using the championship ring, Florida made the statement that the tradition and success of the program was bigger than any one person.

Other athletic communications departments may want to consider following Florida’s lead.

Media guide photos courtesy of the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida.