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The Constantly Changing World of Media Content in College Athletics

By Stephen W. Dittmore, PhD - University of Arkansas - For D1.ticker

A few weeks ago, the University of Notre Dame’s in-house media division, Fighting Irish Media, won two Emmys at the 58th Annual Chicago/Midwest Regional Emmy Awards presented by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. That Fighting Irish Media was nominated, let alone won, alongside traditional mainstream media outlets and regional sports networks in the nation’s third-largest DMA should erase any doubt about whether collegiate athletic departments are in the media business.

Accomplishments such as this were inevitable. Athletic departments have become increasingly more sophisticated in production over the past five or so years to the point where it is often difficult to distinguish between content on the evening news, and content on a department website. While most departments may lack the scale and reach of traditional mainstream media, the days of them relying on mainstream media to carry their messages to consumers are gone. 

As fans have sought more information about their favorite teams, college athletic operations have become more than willing to engage them on different platforms, ostensibly with the goal of increasing transactions in the form of tickets, donations, and/or merchandise. But it is not just potential ticket purchasers who are the target audience. Departments frequently create specialized content for recruits of individual programs. The Ohio State University football office employs a staff of five, including student assistants, to produce content targeted primarily at recruits, but simultaneously distributed on public social media channels. A byproduct to athletic departments stepping up their creative side in recruiting is the increased expense associated with graphic and creative talent. During a November 30, 2016 1.Question, Alabama Director of Athletics Bill Battle noted this challenge, stating, “Recruits want to see flash and glitz and glamour. We change graphics often to keep them up to date with former players who have made All-American or gone to the NFL.”

In many ways, this is a good thing. It is much easier for a fan to follow a particular sports team at a university. Fans are increasingly able to filter information not interesting or relevant to them and focus specifically on content they wish to consume. I first wrote about the benefits of this convergence between athletic department and media in the June 2014 issue of Athletics Administration.

A question remains as to what skill sets lend themselves best to these roles in content creation. To feed this demand, athletic departments are aggressively seeking employees who are skilled in producing compelling content. As I noted in that previous article, athletic departments have been hiring journalists away from traditional media outlets. This past August, following the example of SEC rivals, Vanderbilt University hired Zac Ellis, a Sports Illustrated writer, to generate content for its website, Additionally, there appears to be a renewed interest academically in journalism programs, including a surge in programs which focus on sport media. 

As this institution-produced content begins to resemble traditional media content, however, concerns arise regarding how fans consume media. This is particularly true in environments in which departments regulate the amount and frequency of access traditional mainstream media have in covering their programs. This was the underlying focus of a paper I authored this past summer for the Marquette Sports Law Review, “College Athletic Departments as Media Organizations and the Regulation of Content: Issues for the Digital Age.”

North Dakota State University provided a more recent example of these restrictions this past summer. Media complained when the Bison athletic department announced access limitations for non-rights holding media. While these restrictions were quickly rescinded, the fallout provided evidence of the problems which can occur when a state institution restricts access for mainstream media, while simultaneously generating its own content.

The court in Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association asserted that a college athletic association functions as a state actor. As such, athletic associations must consider due process when creating policies. In her article for the DePaul Journal of Sports Law and Contemporary Problems, Alicia Wagner Calzada noted, “Typically, a state actor may not deny access to one member of the media while granting access to another” (p. 42). It isn’t clear whether NDSU’s policy would have helped in a court since it sought to provide access to certain media, while excluding others.

College athletic departments recognize their rabid fan bases aggressively seek information about their teams and driving traffic to university-owned media platforms can provide economic benefits to the department through subscriptions and advertising revenues. The court in Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association v. Gannett Co. ruled state actors must be given the discretion to use exclusive contracts to protect the economic value of their games and generate revenue in the same way as private actors. 

It is not clear, however, whether the same holds true for non-game situations, such as practice and press conferences (one of the areas NDSU sought to limit access to rights-holding media only). Coaches will undoubtedly argue there are legitimate competitive reasons to limit media access to practices, but former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman, writing for the Poynter Institute last December, decried the dwindling media access to college athletes. “Access,” he wrote, “or a lack thereof, continues to be a major problem for college football reporters.”

As media access is curtailed, an issue for mainstream media advocates is the ability to hold onto their long-held “watchdog” role. Reduced access to college athletic departments, they will argue, will translate to less objective coverage about the athletic department, many of which are $100 million or more annual businesses. The recent election certainly heightened attention about media bias and objectivity, and sport consumers need to be media literate enough to discern whether the opinions and facts they are reading about their favorite team are written in a manner which provides for multiple points of view. 

While traditional media access to college teams may be shrinking, social media platforms have allowed student-athletes forums for their thoughts. Sometimes this gets the athlete in trouble (who can forget Cardale Jones complaining about going to class), but more often than not it results in what scholars have dubbed “parasocial interaction,” where people interact with athletes because they believe they are in an actual, social relationship with the athlete. Scholarly studies of sports fans’ motivations to use social media to follow college sports teams regularly shows a strong motivation for interactivity (Clavio & Walsh, 2014).

Research indicates sports fans particularly enjoy “behind-the-scenes” (Pegoraro, 2010) and first-person content (Kassing & Sanderson, 2010) which brings them closer to a program and permits them to experience a program in unique ways. The University of Michigan partnership with The Players’ Tribune, a site founded by star athlete Derek Jeter, and billed as a place to “bring fans closer than ever to the games they love,” is a good example of this. The series, titled “Our Michigan”, is illustrative of this parasocial interaction. Designed to provide “an immersive look inside University of Michigan Athletics as it celebrates its 150th season of varsity sports,” the series provides a blend of first-person narratives and athlete profiles. A recent post from current Mackey Award-winning tight end Jake Butt lent personality to a player whose last name and position has made him a popular figure in social media. He even dares readers to Tweet jokes to him. He claims to have heard them all. 

While there is clearly a demand for individuals who can produce value-added content, are these platforms solely communications vehicles? As pointed out above, they often serve to reach multiple stakeholder groups. A study published in late 2013 noted distinct differences in how Division I athletics directors, sports information directors, and marketing heads perceived the role of Twitter. More than one-third of marketers in the study viewed existing ticket holders as the primary audience for Twitter, while greater than 40% of athletic directors identified alumni as the primary audience. Yet, management of these platforms often rests with the department’s communications staff.

This begs the question of how should ADs view the role of communications going forward? Is it a technical function, or a strategic function? Can it be both simultaneously? Students in my class this fall were presented evidence of isomorphism in college athletics. This is the idea that, in the sphere of organizational association, organizations tend to emulate one another when faced with the same set of environmental conditions. Indeed, this is true of the evolving athletic departments as media organization space. Staff directories across Division I athletics now includes job titles such as “Director of New Media” and “Assistant Athletic Director for Video and Broadcast Services.” SIDs may now answer to the title of “Assistant AD for Communications” or “Assistant AD for Media Relations” instead of Sports Information Director. But have these structural changes led a changing of task function, or are they largely cosmetic?

A topic for another day, it may be worthwhile to revisit the on-going conversation around the role of communications professionals in an athletic department. As a former member of CoSIDA who is now an academic, my view is the membership of CoSIDA continues to struggle establishing its identity and place within athletic departments. Traditionally, SIDs functioned primarily in a media service (statistics, interviews) role. That view appears to be cemented in the eyes of athletic directors. Research from Ruihley, Pratt and Carpenter (2016) found Division I ADs believed the top responsibilities of their primary PR officer were maintaining media contacts and working with coaches and athletes - functions which reinforce the idea that the senior most communications person in an athletic department serves a traditional, technician role.

But while athletic departments often mirror each other structurally, isomorphism does not thwart innovation. Last month, the University of Oklahoma announced it was the becoming the only Power Five athletics department to offer live and on-demand content through Apple TV and Roku. Will we see more direct-to-consumer content platforms in the future? Probably. As Matt Roberts has noted previously in this space (link) (link) (link), the media ecosystem is undergoing rapid and profound changes. The ability to exploit the value creation chain in this space - by creating unique content - may well position the athletic department to achieve fiscal goals.

Steve Dittmore is an associate professor and assistant department head at the University of Arkansas. He spent 10 years working in sport public relations prior to entering higher education. He can be found on Twitter at @stevedittmore.

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