Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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Sports Bloggers: Respect Us or Suffer the Consequences

Whether you like it or not, the practice of sports blogging has grown into a powerful force in the world of sports and entertainment and is being recognized, more and more, as a respected and legitimate form of media.

Because the digital platform offers anybody - regardless of age, sex, background, education - the opportunity to write about sports in their own unique style, sports blogs are quickly becoming a main source for sports news.

The sports blogging community came together for a special industry event on Saturday (June 13) and this rookie blogger was treated to an absolutely incredible day of panel discussions featuring some of the most prominent sports bloggers and personalities in the country.

Hosted by HHR Media Group, “Blogs with Balls” took place in the large basement of Stout NYC, a New York City pub and restaurant located less than a block from Madison Square Garden.

The program was divided up into eight separate panel discussions covering the following topics:

• The Future of Sports Media
• Confirm or Ignore: Leveraging Social Media
• Hi Mom! Claiming That Earned Media
• Making it Big: The Secret of My Success
• Power in Numbers: Content Networks
• Make the Leap, Make It Your Job
• Show Me The Money: Advertising
• Why We Hate You: The Media’s Take

After a video greeting from Sports Illustrated senior writer (and senior blogger) Peter King, the eight 45-minute panel discussions began and, except for a lunch break, ran virtually back-to-back throughout the entire event (more than seven hours).

Each of the panels dove into many interesting discussions about sports bloggers and their place in the media climate. Perhaps the most discussed topic was how sports bloggers compare to traditional journalists and whether they now garner equal respect in the sports industry.

Up until a few years ago, sports blogging was considered by most to counter the media culture and serve more as just baseless renegade rants – maybe something like pirate radio.
But the evolution of sports blogging has forced the medium into the mainstream and has been rapidly earning industry respect.

Sarah Spain, a panelist and nationally-known sports blogger (MouthPieceSports.com) discussed how when she first began blogging about the Chicago sports scene she needed to use her credential from her primary job (associate producer at Fox Sports Net) to get access to locker rooms, clubhouses and athletes. A few years ago, no one would ever have granted a credential to a sports blogger. But bloggers are no longer outcasts in the sports media world.

Now a days, bloggers are contacted by sports teams and organizations and invited to cover games and interview athletes.

A landmark incident in the sports blogosphere may have contributed to the acceptance of sports blogging.

Michael Tunison (KissingSuzyKolber.com) discussed his termination by the Washington Post because in a blog post he had mentioned being intoxicated in a sports bar.

At the time his sports blog wasn’t nearly as well known as it is today. So the Post easily discarded him to avoid any further embarrassment it claimed to have suffered as a result of the blog post.

The incident had a strong ripple effect throughout the sports blogging community because the news initially hurt the medium, perpetuating the stereotype that most sports bloggers are talentless drunks.

Tunison made an interesting point during his panel discussion, pointing out the double standard of the attacks on sports bloggers. “The New York Times doesn’t have to apologize for something the New York Daily News writes.”
But the media buzz surrounding the incident ended up benefiting Tunison as his blog took off in popularity and allowed him the time to write and promote his book, “The Football Fan’s Manifesto”.

Social networking was certainly a major topic during the event as the historic rise of Twitter has made the micro blog a major force in sports marketing and public relations.

Panelist Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge and industry blogger, has led the charge of athletes promoting themselves via Twitter. Her company setup Shaquille O’Neal, a client, with a Twitter account and instructed him on how to issue tweets.

Shaq, of course, is widely regarded as the most active and popular sports personality (maybe overall entertainer) on Twitter and has trail blazed the social media platform for all other athletes.

Although Shaq’s outgoing and wild persona is a perfect fit for Twitter, Hessert warned about the importance of understanding what works best for each individual client. Where Shaq is obviously a great fit for Twitter other clients like Peyton Manning, a much less socialable and gregarious personality, would not translate well on the Twitter platform.

Panelist and podcaster Dan Levy (On the DL) also praised Twitter’s impact on the sports media world, and mentioned that a great way to cut through the sometimes endless and generic posts and stand out is to be creative with your profile image. People may not remember your name on Twitter, but a clever or interesting image will resonate with your audience.

Twitter, and all social media, has changed the way athletes are connecting with fans, said panelist Richard Ting (VP & Executive Creative Director of R/GA Media Group). In the past, Ting explained, there were numerous barriers and hurdles separating athletes and their fans (agents, teams, PR reps, etc.). But today, athletes on their own can reach out and personally communicate with their fan base.

Probably the most fascinating statistic about social media in sports is the fact that Shaq has about 1.3 million followers on Twitter. That’s more than the daily circulation of the New York Times. So Shaq reaches more people than the most respected newspaper in the country – that’s powerful stuff.

Panelist Jim Bankoff (CEO of SB Nation) boasted that his roster of bloggers exceeded more than 25,000 posts for the month of May. That’s more content then the Associated Press, the country’s largest news wire service, produced during the same block of time.

So with thousands and thousands of bloggers out in cyberspace writing about sports, is the medium overexposed and diluted? No way, said panelist Adam Best (senior editor, FanSided.com). Best firmly believes the more sports bloggers, the better. There’s no such thing as competition in the sports blogosphere.

Sports blogging should be interactive, panelist and blogger Dan Shanoff (DanShanoff.com) said. There’s value in feedback from your readers. So encourage them to post comments, Shanoff said, respond as best you can and pay close attention to what they’re saying.

However, it’s very important not to let the inevitable criticism affect your writing and over all approach. Panelist and sports blogger Matt Ufford (WithLeather.com) contends that when it comes to negative feedback and harsh criticism you have to be thick skinned as a sports blogger.

In her sports blogging career, Spain has had to endure 10 times the criticism and nasty remarks that most sports bloggers will ever face.

Spain, you might remember, became a national story when she posted an ad on eBay asking for help with acquiring Super Bowl tickets. Super Bowl XLI was between the Bears and Indianapolis Colts, so as a lark Spain asked if anyone could help her financially to get a ticket to the big game via an eBay post.

Because she’s an attractive and aggressive sports reporter, apparently some people misinterpreted the zany promotion and saw Spain as something besides a reputable sports media personality. Ever since, she’s been a victim of rude and insulting comments.

When working in social media it’s imperative to manage your digital tools, said panelist and blogger Julia Roy (Undercrrent.com, JuliaRoy.com). Roy recommends utilizing such tools as RSS Reader and Tweet Deck to better organize and arrange the specific content you seek.

Although not a sports-specific blogger, she cited the Web site 12Seconds.tv as another great way to promote a client. The video-sharing site is similar to Flickr and Photobucket, where you can create your own video albums (each video just 12 seconds) and share with friends or a specific community.

Panelist Matt Sebek (JoeSportsFan.com) stressed the importance of Google Analytics as a digital tool to help bloggers gain insight into specific information regarding your Web site traffic. This could be a very powerful tool, especially if your blog is at the level of generating advertising revenue.

The recent economic downturn has severely hurt just about every industry in America. But according to panelist Dan Kelly (CEO of the Bleacher Report), the sports blogosphere wasn’t hit nearly as hard as expected.

Kelly said his industry’s economic rebound is already underway as ad dollars are continuing to move towards digital media.

Pete Vlastelica, panelist and CEO of YardBarker.com, agreed with Kelly and said he sees ad dollars now being spent disproportionally in the sports blogger’s favor.

The best discussion was saved for last when panelists Jeff Pearlman (noted author and SI.com contributor) and Amy Nelson (ESPN’s First Take) broached the issue of accountability for sports bloggers.

Newspaper and television reporters are frequently in the locker rooms and clubhouses. So if they make critical statements regarding a particular athlete they’ll have to face that athlete the next day and continue to work with him/her.

Pearlman was the Sports Illustrated writer responsible for the John Rocker media storm in early 2000 when his feature story about the Atlanta Braves pitcher included some racially insensitive and mean spirited quotes spewed by his subject.

Pearlman said following the media blow up, his editor made him go into the Braves clubhouse the next time Rocker was playing in New York because a reporter must be available and accountable in case an athlete has a problem with something he/she wrote.

It turned out Rocker went nuts when he saw Pearlman and immediately went after him. But Pearlman had to show his face out of fairness to Rocker and Sports Illustrated.

The event concluded with a 15-minute address by featured speaker Gary Vaynerchuk (author, entrepreneur and video blogger). An unusual choice, perhaps, to close out a sports blogging conference, Vaynerchuk delivered a speech that was part Donald Trump and part Tony Robbins.

Vaynerchuk has made millions of dollars promoting wine through his creation of Wine Library TV. Successfully leveraging social media, his Webisodes carry an estimated audience of one hundred thousand people - making him a powerful voice in the wine industry.

Along with his brother, Vaynerchuk has recently launched a media company and intends to dominate the world of sports.

The value of attending the “Blogs with Balls” event was immeasurable.

The collection of talented and experiences bloggers, reporters and media executives under one roof, discussing the emerging sports blogging medium for more than seven hours, was an intense and incredible experience.

I encourage anyone interested in sports blogs to visit the various Web sites I’ve linked throughout this post and read what these folks have to say.

Their voices are here to stay.

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