Online media fight for legitimacy and credentials

Mark Heller

How bad does Jason Groth want to be sitting in a pressbox, media luncheon and post-game news conference?

Bad enough to launch his own Gopher sports Web site – located at Gopherhole.com – five years ago.

Bad enough to have five others working with him to maintain a message board and analysis of every football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey game.

Bad enough to spend 30 hours per week maintaining it, after he comes home from his regular job.

But Groth is reminded that wishing and receiving are two entirely different entities. For a variety of reasons, most Web sites and online publications are frozen out of high-profile sporting events.

And it doesn’t stop here.

The NCAA, professional sports and the Olympics are all giving online media a courtside squeeze.

According to Minnesota men’s athletics media relations director Bill Crumley, online media credentials are given to Web sites that are part of an “accredited media source,” in keeping with the NCAA regulations.

Startribune.com, Pioneerplanet.com, CNN/SI.com and ESPN.com are all accredited Web sites because their partners are legitimate print, radio or TV media outlets.

Although Gopherhole.com is part of Rivals.com – a ring of more than 60 unofficial college and high school Web sites – it remains a fan-based site at its core.

“If they credential one Web site, then a bunch of other sites will come in and say they want access,” Groth said. “There’s cost to put up a newspaper or magazine, where anyone can throw up a Web site and put a picture of Goldy up there and say we want credentials.”

Groth and Crumley have met a few times, and Groth was allowed to attend Gopher football, basketball and hockey media days, but not practices or games.

Rivals.com president Shannon Terry said approximately 45 of the 60 Web sites within Rivals “are established” and have received game credentials within the past two years.

Another 20, like Gopherhole.com are “up and coming” and four or five are in their infant stages and are not established enough to bother asking for credentials.

Terry is peeved at the logic that only affiliated Web publications are allowed in the pressbox, and even legitimate Web site writers get left out.

“It’s pretty easy to determine by looking at the site whether they’re worthy of a media credential,” Terry said. “It’s much easier for SIDs to say that unless you have a print version or are a magazine we’re not going to credential you. That’s what we’ve seen, blanket assumptions.”

 

New technology blues

Two years ago, Crumley fielded about 20 single-game or season requests among football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey. Those numbers have taken a dive since, largely due to the economic swoon online businesses and publications have taken.

This year, Crumley said Gopherhole.com is the only Web publication to show interest in team coverage. But three Internet wrestling publications were issued credentials last year on a game-by-game basis: Intermat.com, Thewrestlingmall.com and Theguillotine.com, a branch of their print magazine.

Still, Terry said it was nearly impossible to get a credential for a Web publication in the mid-1990s, until the Internet became a concrete part of a traditional media’s operation.

A wave of sports writers and editors jumped online in the late 1990s, and the legitimacy of full-time, reputable journalists made credentials easier to obtain.

The vast majority of bigger sport venues remain Internet-free, with the exception of the NFL and Major League Baseball, if the publications:

ï are part of a news-gathering agency.

ï reach a “broad” audience.

ï produce and develop original content.

ï employ full-time journalists.

The NBA credentials major sites (ESPN, CNN, MSNBC, etc.), but the NCAA denies online sites at the Final Four. Online reporters were allowed at the 2001 Masters, but no play-by-play was allowed, and video could not be posted until the day’s live play was over.

The International Olympic Committee banned Internet journalists from the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano and the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, largely because NBC has a $3.5 billion TV pact through 2008, and feared huge money losses.

Rather than allow the first “Internet Olympics,” the games were tape delayed and run on NBC in its entirety, 15 hours after they happened.

As it turns out, NBC made close to $1 billion in advertising revenue.

After the IOC took major heat for the snub, the U.S. Olympic Committee sat down with prominent sports editors last May in Salt Lake City, the site of February’s Winter Games. In January, a decision was reached to issue 50 Internet credentials worldwide.

 

An improving relationship

The Twins, Vikings, Wild and Timberwolves are relatively free to issue Web credentials at their own discretion.

And outside of two minor incidences in 1999 involving an online baseball reporter trying to get player autographs in the clubhouse and another attempting to sneak a relative into the pressbox, there have been few problems with issuing credentials.

“I know we are the most lenient, and by far the most season and daily credentials,” said Twins media relations coordinator Denise Johnson. “We’ve been the most pro-active. (Senior Vice President of Business Affairs) Dave St. Peter’s a big believer in that. If you want to come out and give us some publicity, we’re not going to deny them access.”

The Twins require all credential requests to be faxed-only on letterhead, which Johnson said weeds out a lot of requests. They also keep books of every request for future reference.

Until the Twins’ success this season, interest – and therefore, space – wasn’t an issue in the pressbox for years. Since their 15-1 campaign in 1998, however, a seat for a Vikings game is harder to obtain.

Vikings public relations director Bob Hagen – as well as the other local teams – looks at all Web sites applying for credentials first. He is also in contact with the NFL as to exactly how many “hits” a Web site receives, another criteria used.

Two pressbox seats are always reserved for Vikings.com, the team’s official site, and a writer for Dennisgreen.com.

“There’s a few we’ve told are too small, and we don’t see them at other events,” Hagen said. “If they’re not at other events, why do they just want to come to the games when all other media we credential follow us consistently?”

Some media outlets – including Gopherhole.com – aren’t developed enough financially to be taken seriously by teams’ media relations.

In the case of Gopherhole.com, Crumley said a detriment has been the support behind them: Rivals became Alliance Sports in 1999, before Rivals made a return less than a year ago.

So at this point, Groth doesn’t have many options. He will keep maintaining the content on his Web site, hang on with Rivals and make sure Crumley knows Gopherhole.com is not another fan’s hack Web site with a thumbnail of Goldy in the corner.

“Being someone who runs a Web site and takes pride in doing a good job, I’d like to see us more along the lines of a traditional, useful site than some two-bit hack,” Groth said.

“And I see us in that light.”

 

Mark Heller welcomes comments at [email protected]