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Letting Sports Information Spread

This is one of the great weeks of the sports year. Monday marked the opening of the Major League Baseball season and the finale of NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Tonight the women will crown their own NCAA basketball champion. And Thursday, in Augusta, Georgia, the best golfers in the world will tee off for the the first major tournament of the year, The Masters.

This is one of the great weeks of the sports year. Monday marked the opening of the Major League Baseball season and the finale of NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Tonight the women will crown their own NCAA basketball champion. And Thursday, in Augusta, Georgia, the best golfers in the world will tee off for the the first major tournament of the year, The Masters.

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Online sports reporting and discussion is big business — fantasy sports leagues are a $1.5 billion business that is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. And, thousands of sports blogs and other sites are buzzing around the clock with debates about everything from wins and losses to trades and scandals. But all is not well in the world of sports.

The New York Times reported this morning that the Pan American Games, an Olympic-style multi-sport event held every four years between competitors from all nations of the Americas, was banning blogging. This is the latest in a growing trend where the governing bodies for athletic competition around the world impose strict curbs on the flow of information online.

The reason: money.

Sports organizations have two options in responding to the growing influence of technology in the media space — they can hold their ground, cling to control, and hope that the world fan base will be satisfied with what they are given (in dribs and drabs separated by lots of commercials). Or, they can recognize that the sports experience is only enhanced by a free-flow of information and work instead to support the millions of athletes and fans to spread the gospel of sports.

Which do you think they will choose? A quote from this morning’s article:

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“There’s a natural trend among sports organizations to expand their territory,” said Jens Sejer Andersen, director of Play the Game, a nonprofit sports ethics research group in Denmark. “This is normal for any business that tries to expand its control of the market. But it goes to the core of the functioning of the independent media in our society. The danger is that no real discussion about events on and off the sports field can take place, reducing us to millions of passive sports-consuming robots.”

We are seeing this fight play out in several industries right now – music and movies/tv chief among them. The smaller, independent shops are using the internet and other technology aggressively to spread their work and making inroads among fans. The big studios, meanwhile, are resisting change after enjoying huge financial benefits under the old model. In sports, the alignment is similar: The major leagues are clamping down, while the lesser-known sports are embracing new distribution channels (The Times noted as an example that “The America’s Cup sailing match, which starts April 16 in Valencia, Spain, for instance, attracts less television coverage than some international events. It does not restrict blogging and allows liberal use of still photos; a maximum of three pictures a minute can appear online. The Volvo Ocean Race last year actually required its sailors to blog.”) But even the biggest of studios and labels are starting to realize there are other options — note the announcement by EMI yesterday that they would offer up their catalog of songs DRM-free through iTunes.

The major sports leagues and competitions should find and embrace a new model, distribute information widely, and find other, more innovative ways to make money than simply controlling access. I think they will see a long-term benefit that far outweighs anything the strict controls in the short-term will provide them.