The way it was for sports media

In sport, as in life, times change. For media dinosaurs like me, there’s a tendency to say something’s not as good as it used to be…the good old days and all that.

Most times in sport, today is better. The players are bigger, faster, stronger, more skilled. Marketing is better. Going to games…most fans say they have more fun. Some even watch the game. Traditional fans find the constant, deafening noise offensive — who ever thought you’d see parents taking a tyke to a game wearing something to protect ear drums?

Media is…different. The line is fine between legitimate media people and wannabes. People build websites and host podcasts to voice opinions, or they tweet, hoping to create a following. If they do, they claim legitimacy and teams have to which “readers” and “listeners” they want to reach.

Is the sports media important? It is if you want answers to questions about “your” team because, like it or not, the media is your link to athletes and executives. Manipulating media is different. Some call it PR, I call it manipulation and, by extension, it’s manipulating the masses.

How has that changed?

The first year I covered the Montreal Expos, the PR director gave me a sheet of paper, at spring training, with all the players’ home phone numbers. Imagine! In that era, there was no voicemail to hide behind, no cell phone to ignore, and I’m not sure anybody even had an answering machine. You called, they answered. Almost without exception.

I had a book (yes, black) full of phone numbers belonging to athletes from many sports. Even when they hadn’t provided them willingly, they answered the phone and didn’t hang up. If I could find that black book in my archive boxes, I’d give you old phone numbers for Wayne Gretzky, Tommy Lasorda, Catfish Hunter and others, including any professional athlete from Montreal.

Today, teams go out of their way to limit access. They decide who talks to the media, and usually for how long. It’s unlikely to be the guy who dropped a touchdown pass, or threw a cookie that some slugger turned into a grand slam, or was suspended for high sticking an opponent.

Decades ago, teams manipulated the media not by denying access but by providing it, and by giving them gifts, in the hope of “buying” their favour. Before I became a baseball writer, the Expos gave colour TVs to beat reporters at Christmas. That was downgraded to black-and-white in my rookie year, which likely upset the thief who broke into our house and stole it the day we left for spring training.

In the National Hockey League, the introduction of home teams is a video show, while the visiting teams aren’t even introduced which, I’m told, was an edict from commissioner Gary Bettman. Fans wear whatever garb is available, often paying more than they did for their ticket. There are no programs, no up-to-date statistics, and “in-depth” stories about players are told on huge scoreboards in milliseconds, and always spun to sell.

Today’s fans, unlike dinosaur fans, don’t seem to care. That is also understandable. It’s all they know. Maybe that’s why today’s media is so undervalued.