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ONCE THERE was just the game, and either you were there or you weren't. Then came radio, and those who staged the games worried it might cheapen their product. A few decades later television arrived, and again there was concern, for who would buy a ticket when the game was available in one's living room?
Now, the latest supposed danger to the game is blogging. Once derided as young men living in their parents' basement, typing up rants in their underwear, bloggers now not only wear pants, but if recent events are any indication, are also both feared and courted in the sports world.
First, the fear. On June 10 Brian Bennett, a reporter for The- Courier-Journal in Louisville, was tossed from the press box at an NCAA Super Regional game for live blogging. The NCAA said the reporter was infringing upon broadcast rights by providing description of the action. This contention begs to be mocked, for it's hard to imagine a fan preferring to read a hastily typed account of a baseball game rather than watch it. Especially considering the content of most live blogs. A representative post from Bennett during a Louisville game reads, "The Cards didn't get this kind of pitching in Missouri. If they can pitch like this and keep hitting like they do, whoa."
The NCAA contends that banning such scintillating in-game commentary is an extension of long-established rights. "The limitation against play-by-play on the Internet is intended to support our media partners' efforts to provide guaranteed, comprehensive coverage," says NCAA spokesman Bob Williams. "The policy provides ample opportunity for other media to cover NCAA events." His reference is to NCAA guidelines that say bloggers can only describe "the atmosphere, crowd and other details during a game." The CWS blog at ncaasports.com provides an example. During last week's games it noted a "jazzy rendition" of the national anthem, a "spectacular fireworks finale" and the observation that "ballpark food smells soooo good—I hope I can fit in my jeans by the end of the week."
From a business and common-sense standpoint, the NCAA's stance seems about as wise as author Jonathan Franzen's short-lived (and hastily reversed) objection to the selection of his novel The Corrections by Oprah's Book Club. This is especially true for college baseball, which is largely ignored until the College World Series (and often still then). If Oprah wanted to do a live feed from a series game, would the NCAA tell her it would rather not have the publicity?
The Courier-Journal case has inspired a discussion of First Amendment rights (the paper is considering a legal challenge) and the limits of credentials. As Bennett noted, what was to stop him from going across the street, watching the game on TV and blogging from there? And where does description end and analysis begin? Jeffrey Neuburger, chair of the technology, media and communications department at the New York law firm Thelen Reid, Brown Raysman & Steiner, says it's more a copyright than a First Amendment issue. "Since the blogger is annotating results with his own views, at least a part of that wouldn't be subject to the NCAA copyright," says Neuburger. "If he's saying the team screwed up, that's his own copyright."
The larger issue is how the NCAA and pro leagues will address the expanding world of online coverage. Fans aren't going to stop posting on the Web, and they're only going to become better organized. "Leagues have to realize that we're here, and they're going to have to deal with it," says Tyler Bleszinski, president of SBNation, a community of sports blogs that gets 8.5 million page views a month. "You don't embrace the blogosphere, you're giving fans the middle finger."
The decision for leagues then: Do they bring bloggers in and find a way to profit? Or do they sue? "They probably could take some advice from the record industry," says Neuburger. "They tried to deal with this through litigation and ultimately came to the conclusion that if you can't beat them, join them."
Some already have. The New York Islanders announced last week the creation of a "blog box." A small group of bloggers will attend "a few games next season" and sit at Nassau Coliseum "away from the scribes and broadcasters because we know you want to cheer, shout, have a pretzel." Afterward they can "toss a few questions at a coach or players." The rules? "All you have to do is bring your note pad and/or voice recorder. And please, passionate Islanders FANS only!"
As transparent as the Islanders' endeavor may be, it shows a far better grasp of the changing world of sports coverage than the NCAA's move. There are a lot of different games out there. Why in the world would you stop people from following yours?