Media Coverage and the Alternatives: Paper, Pods, Streams, and Blogs

Even as we track the steady growth in popularity of women’s basketball, it’s not unusual for coaches, players and fans to feel that media coverage has not kept pace.

“Progress doesn’t necessarily move on a linear line in terms of coverage of sports,” explained Mechelle Voepel, sportswriter for the Kansas City Star and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. “It really depends on the personalities that are involved at a newspaper and the commitment of that newspaper to diversify its coverage. Also, it can follow an economic cycle. And all those things can change over time. For instance, you could have a newspaper that ten years ago might have been doing a much better job of women’s basketball than it is doing now, just because of one of those factors.”

RECRUITING WRITERS
So, what have coaches and programs done to cultivate media coverage?

“A lot of things that aren’t legal by NCAA rules now,” laughed Jody Conradt, recalling her time at Texas. “We played against some of the guys who were with the stations and the print media. They got to know the players. Our teams were good enough to compete against those people, so they gained immediate respect.”

While the “means” may have changed over the years, the underlying strategies are the same. “You have got to get to know the most important people who can market and publicize your product,” said Chris Kielsmeier, head coach at Howard Payne University. “We’ve only got one newspaper here, the Brownwood Bulletin,” he said. “I was really good friends with the sports guy – not just on a business level but on a personal level. Once he left, I made sure I was great friends with the new guy.” As the program has improved and grown in popularity, even the editor of the paper has gotten on board. Now, said Kielsmeier, “they’re putting stuff on the front page in color.”

When Sherri Coale took over at Oklahoma, she tapped in to the media presence already on campus. “I was at every football game, every men’s basketball game saying ‘hi’ to those guys — building personal relationships with them. You know, ‘Are you going to be at our game?’” If it meant driving to Oklahoma City once a week to do guest sports radio spots, she did it. “If they wanted to do a live shot and it was right in the middle of when I want to be getting ready for pre-game, I’d go down and take a few minutes and do the shot. Was it perfect? No. But did it help drive business early? Yes. And now I don’t have to do some of the things I had to do earlier. But early on, you’ve got to make some of those concessions.”

DISTRIBUING THE MINUTES
“I always believe there should be a respect from both parties in terms of both parties’ time,” said Voepel. Recognizing post-game filing deadlines, as well as the responsibilities journalist must attend to, is key. “It’s really important that every program, if they want to have coverage done, really empowers their media relations people to spend some time with the different reporters, to figure out what all their different situations and needs are. If things aren’t going to be ideal — for instance you could have a program where you don’t even have a commitment [from the paper] to come to every single home game — then you look at ways to maximize what ever time you have.”

“One of the thing that surprises people,” she continued, ”is I don’t work for ESPN.com full time. I work for the Kansas City Star full time. That might mean some weeks I’m out covering a men’s basketball game in Mississippi. That’s time I’m not spending on women’s basketball. We’re still in a world where there are very, very few people who spend their entire time writing about women’s basketball. It’s sort of like how it used to be with basketball coaches,” she added. “They’d say, ‘Well, you could also coach the volleyball team….’ We’ve reached a point where [coaching is] a full-time job, but we’re still not there in the press.”

HOME DELIVERY
The challenges and restrictions that “traditional” media coverage can pose has not only encouraged programs to create and distribute their own content, but to develop delivery systems that pro-actively reach out to the fan base.

“The first thing we did was institute our e-newsletter,” said Lisa Champagne, Director of Athletic Communications at the University of Vermont. “Every sport has their own, and people can sign up for it free of charge. We’ve got over 400 people signed up [for women’s basketball] — fans, parents, and alumni. We put our entire athletic department on so all the other coaches know what each other is doing. We’ve even put our media on it to make information distribution more timely.”

Anything that’s put up on the Catamount’s website – press releases, team notes, special announcements – is sent to subscribers. “If the Burlington Free Press, our local paper, publishes an article about one of our kids, we’ll take a part and provide a link to the entire story. For instance, if there’s an article about Amy Rosenkrantz, who is from Tempe, Arizona, her parents will automatically know about it instead of her telling them.”

“You’ve got to be realistic,” cautioned Champagne. “When you go talk to an administrator and you’re at a mid-major level or a Division II or Division III, you can’t go and say, ‘Well, Tennessee does this…’ You have to figure out what works for you – and your constituency.” For instance, Champagne noted, her coaches wanted the media guide available in online. “In Vermont not everyone has high-speed internet. We still get calls in our office asking, ‘Can you send me a schedule?’ I say ‘Yes, but it’s available online,’ and they say, ‘I don’t have a computer.’ In this day and age when people think everyone’s wired and plugged in — it’s not the case.”

HOMEMADE PRESS
Posting blogs on team websites are a popular way to share with fans a “behind the scene view” of a team. Not only that, noted television analyst Beth Mowins, savvy coaches can blog to their advantage. “Now that you can’t text your athletes you may not need to. If your blog is up there every day, [recruits] can keep up with what you’re doing.” The challenge, of course, is time and commitment.

“I’d almost tell people not do it if you’re not going to be consistent,” said Voepel. “Don’t say this is so-and-so’s blog if the last thing up there is from November. It’s just a waste of your time.” And, in a “new media” world where you’re trying to encourage a fan base to visit your team’s website for content, not delivering means no one visits, defeating the whole purpose.

SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES?
Doubtless, any program would give their eyeteeth for the exposure and recruiting bump national television can give. The reality is those opportunities can be few and far between. So, in 1994, the University of Connecticut asked Connecticut Public Television to take a risk: broadcast some of UConn’s games. Fourteen years later, said CPTV executive producer Harriet Unger, “it’s the most successful local franchise in public television.”

Employing a production crew of over 20 people for game broadcast, CPTV also produces a coach’s show, as well senior night and post-season specials. Five years ago, prompted by Connecticut’s out-of-state fan base, they began streaming their broadcasts online. After some initial struggles with technology and computer compatibility, they now boast close to 900 subscribers, both nationally and internationally.

The improved quality of streaming has made it an increasingly attractive alternative to television. “When Vermont can’t be on ESPN or ESPN2 every night like some of the other schools,” said Champagne, “this is the next best thing.” The University recently renewed its partnership with B2 Networks, a company that specializes in television style broadcasting on the internet. “It’s a pay-per-view price of $6 a game, or you can buy a season pass for $50 (men’s and women’s basketball). We’ve had a tremendous response from parents.” This season, over 100 people have purchased women’s games. “We split the money 50-50 with B2 Networks. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

“There is no labor involved on my end, and that’s what I liked about it,” said Champagne. B2 Networks installed a computer onsite and showed Champagne how to use it. Then, she explained, “My athletic communications budget was charged a nominal fee from our IT department to install a jack at our basketball venues. All we do is plug one cable into our video camera — the same camera our coaches use to get game film from. There’s another cable that plugs in to our radio crew’s equipment so you get the audio feed over the video. It’s a matter of turning on the computer at the start of the game, calling B2 to make sure they have everything – audio, video and a link up on our website. After the game, we just turn off the computer.”

PODS ‘R US
Podcasts – recorded audio that can be accessed on-demand through an online link or downloaded onto a portable media player – have become an increasingly affordable way to offer access to post-game news conferences or one-on-one interviews with players and coaches. “Shootaround with Beth and Debbie,” is a slightly more ambitious project. Developed in collaboration with the WBCA and hosts Beth Mowins and Debbie Antonelli, it’s the first weekly podcast offering in-depth coverage of women’s basketball.

“You can hear ten different opinions from ten different guys on the national scene with radio shows and T.V. shows,” observed Mowins, “and we thought there was a need for discussion around the country [about women’s basketball] and nobody’s doing it. Debbie [Antonelli] and I like talking about basketball and so we said, let’s try this.”

Self-admitted technical neophytes, the pair first sought advice from the television and radio people they’d worked with concerning the necessary software and hardware. Now, months later, they’re negotiating the logistics of mixers, time zones and conference calls to produce a half-hour show that features interviews, opinions, and the occasional dose of intriguing stats. “It’s all fallen into place and now it’s a matter of being as creative as we can,” said Mowins. “We’re starting to get more emails from people – folks who know a good story in college basketball or are making suggestions. We’re getting some reaction emails, too: ‘Hey, you said this and I agree or I disagree.’ Now the challenge is trying to build this is — how do you market this, who’s our audience.”

COMING OFF THE BENCH
As technology has allowed both professionals and enthusiasts to step in and fill in perceived gaps in the coverage of women’s basketball, it is not without its pitfalls. It’s not so much a question of quality, but of understanding the nuanced relationship between programs and reporters. “It’s difficult enough for us –because of the nature of women’s basketball and because there’s not that many of us – how close we get,” admitted Voepel. “Everybody’s convinced that they can coach. Everybody’s convinced that they can ref. Everybody’s convinced that they can write or be a journalist. The problem with that is if you don’t have professional boundaries, it can be very difficult.”

It is encouraging to note that there are those in journalism world who advocate for, and independently produce, coverage of the women’s game. It is also important to note that they face very real resistance. “My colleagues in the media – they make fun of it all the time,” said Kris Gardner of the online site Houston Roundball Review. Initially Gardner covered the NBA, but was drawn to women’s basketball by the passion of the Houston Comets’ fans. “You hear the snide comments from people you hang around with – especially the men. ‘Women’s basketball? Who cares about that? Why should we bother even covering it?’”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Gardner, “a couple of years ago I was asking myself, ‘Why am I still doing this? There’s no money in it.’ But I’m stubborn. I do it because I enjoy it and I think the athletes deserve some recognition and acceptance. They deserve some respect. If I get an email from a fan saying, ‘Thank you for what you do, I really appreciate it,’ that’s enough for me.”

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