Blogs, Credibility and the NBA

Kurt —  February 18, 2008

Sparked by emailed questions and conversations with people in the business of NBA information, I’m using the All-Star Break to look at some bigger picture questions about NBA blogging. Today’s topic: How credible are blogs? And how NBA teams are dealing with them?

It’s the first question asked about bloggers, the first charge thrown out by those criticizing something written on a blog — what makes this person credible? In the case of an NBA blog like this one, why put any credence in what I write? What other NBA bloggers write?

I asked that question of Clipper Blog’s Kevin Arnovitz and his answer matches my own thinking — obsession-compulsion combined with the ability to work the TiVo rewind button. I’ve said before I could never do this blog without my DVR. Plus I went to the old John Wooden Basketball Camp for two straight summers as a kid, so that should count for something, you’d think.

Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty (and AOL FanHouse) gives better-phrased version of a more common answer I often give:

What qualifies me is the same thing which qualifies the newspaper’s beat writer or the national columnist: I watch the games. I pay attention to what the players and coaches say. I understand the league. The great thing about new media and especially the blogdome: It’s all meritorious. We’re obligated to read the beat writer’s take (especially in one-paper towns), we have to go through him or her to get the info. You don’t have to read the local team blogger. If you do, it’s because you appreciate what they do and gain something from it. Having an audience, that vindicates your opinion, I think.

The Lakers have some great beat writers in guys like Mike Bresnahan at the LA Times and Kevin Ding of the OC Register. But you don’t have to go through them to get the information. You don’t have to take their word for what Phil Jackson or Luke Walton said after practice. Instead, you can go to Lakers.com and watch the video posted of those interviews after practice.

And in a world where there is more access like that, fans are looking for something different when they read up on a team. That’s at the heart of why Arnovitz said blogs are both credible and popular.

Blogs are filling a vacuum with more concentrate in-depth analysis of the team. Beat writers suffer from the constraints of their media. Once upon a time — before Tivo, before the internet — if you went out to dinner at 7:30, or had an evening class, or worked nights, then you missed the game. When you got out of the restaurant, maybe you’d be lucky enough to catch the score on the radio. Otherwise, you’d have to call a friend, get thirty seconds at 11:28 p.m. on your local news, or wait for the thwack of the paper on your driveway the next morning. The sports section was the only place to get any detailed description of what happened, and for that, it had intrinsic value. But these days, you can get a live box score and even a play-by-play rundown of the game instantly. By the time the beat writer finishes his recap, the dedicated fan is already informed of the game’s general narrative. If he saw the game live or on television, the beat writer doesn’t really add anything other than a pat quote from a coach or a couple of players. What the fan wants to know is *why* the defense fell apart in the second half. Who was slow on the defensive rotation? Why did the zone fail? How did the opposing PG manage, time and time again, to penetrate without resistance? But the beat writer can’t do this — or isn’t allowed to, or doesn’t care to. The rare exceptions are pros like Brian Windhorst at the Akron Beacon-Journal, who does a stellar job of breaking stuff down. But most beat writers either can’t or refuse to inject the kind of subjectivity that would elucidate the game for the loyal fan.

I think in Los Angeles, for all the media attention paid the Lakers are given, that vacuum of analysis is seems even larger. Outside of Frank Burlison at the Press Telegram (who spends the vast majority of his writing on high school and college) there is precious little insight onto the Xs and Os, the analysis of the NBA game and players. The soap opera is the focus — not a shock for a bottom-line driven media where drawing a large audience is all that really matters at the end of the day.

For the readers, from what you said when I asked you, credibility is something is earned. And in today’s crowded media marketplace, that is true for the columnists at ESPN or the NY Times or the LA Times as it is for bloggers. Commenter Underbruin summed up many commmenter’s thinking when he wrote:

I feel that trust can be earned pretty quickly. When I read a site that makes a fair amount of sense in its visible front-page posts, that gives me a good reason to believe it’s worth at least coming back to check out again. I don’t feel specific institutions such as print media automatically deserve more or less trust than a blog. If anything, they sometimes have financial concerns that make them less trustworthy because they have to keep in mind that the team is their ‘meal ticket,’ so to speak.

Clearly readers did not equate with credibility was access — it wasn’t handed out with media passes.

Still, getting some of that access matters to many bloggers, both for what insights might be gleaned being that close, and as a matter of respect. But teams are not sure how to deal with bloggers, and the level of treatment varies from city to city. Golden State has been receptive to bloggers (of course, Golden State of Mind has put together events that helped fill seats, and money always talks).

One interesting event has taken place the last couple of years in Atlanta, where the Hawks hosted a “bloggers night.” For one night, bloggers of the Atlanta Hawks (who should be pretty happy the last few days) got a chance to sit in on press row. Micah Hart, manager of Websites for the Hawks (and Thrashers of the NHL) explains the night and adds some perspective.

We have done Blog Night the past two seasons (and once so far with the Atlanta Thrashers, with their second night still to come). My rationale for doing it is with a team like the Hawks, we lack for national coverage because we have been so bad the past several years. I/We want to get more people talking about the team (good or bad), so I am hoping that by doing these kinds of activities it will inspire more of our fans to take an active interest in following the team.

I thought both years Blog Night was successful. In terms of how we decided who to invite – last year we basically cast a wide net, inviting any local bloggers (hawks-related or not) to come out and join in. This year, we were a little more selective, but that’s more because there are more Hawks bloggers out there now. We had about 10 people each year, which I thought was a pretty solid turnout. And, most importantly, the amount of posting these bloggers have done on the team seems to have spiked afterwards, which is really what we as the team were hoping to get out of it.

In terms of access, the Hawks have been pretty careful about doling it out. The bloggers were invited to listen to the coach’s post-game presser live, but not ask questions. Also, as it turned out, I got to take them into the locker room to talk with Al Horford, which I think everyone got a huge kick out of.

I don’t think you’ll see us giving credentials to bloggers any time soon, but that’s a PR decision, not a website one…. I do think it will happen in time as blogs become more mainstream.

Brian Kamenetzky from the LA Times Lakers blog has season media passes (which he puts to good use) and he adds some thoughts to this:

Some teams are more progressive than others in terms of recognizing the role of the blogger, though I understand the need for quality control. In terms of providing regular access, it does make sense for teams to be discriminating in which outlets they’d let in. Not all sites are created equal. It would be smart, though, for teams to differentiate between those independent sights with a well-established readership and reputation for quality content and provide access to those writers.

I have not personally ever asked the Lakers for access or an interview (other than questions sent to Ty Nowell, the guy who oversees content on the Lakers Website). There are really two reasons for this. First, this is still a hobby to me, I have a family and a job that take priority in my life. I can’t skip work to go to practice, I’m not going to go to a ton of games whether I have a pass or not because those are nights away from my kids.

But the second part is this: What can I do with a pass that would add to the insight of this site? Going to practice, scribbling down the same quotes as everyone else and putting them up here with some witty commentary is not adding to the understanding of the team or the game. We’ve got good beat writers doing that already. What I picture doing is more stuff like the Henry Abbot True Hoop interview with Kurt Rambis, which gave some interesting insight into the triangle and the Lakers thinking. (Although, I would have had to ask about growing the moustache back.)

As passes become available to bloggers, we need to ask ourselves how we are using this passes. What are we doing that is different and special? How do we not become like the media we think is often lacking?

Maybe as long as we’re asking those questions, we stand a better chance of keeping our credibility.


Kurt

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