Mark McGwire’s admission of steroid use dominated baseball coverage across all media LWIB. Part of what separates Mr. McGwire’s public confession from those of his former peers was how scrupulously and professionally crafted it was. Also notable was that Mr. McGwire chose MLB’s own MLB Network (MLBN) as the platform for his first interview concerning his past steroid use. Some media pundits view the McGwire interview with Bob Costas as the seminal moment in the history of the recently one year old MLBN and a defining event in the evolving role of league owned channels.
As reported by Richard Sandomir in the New York Times, Mr. McGwire’s public admission was orchestrated by Ari Fleischer Sports Communications. (Mr. Fleischer is former White House press secretary for President Bush) Mr. Sandomir noted that Mr. Fleischer’s company is half owned by talent agency heavyweight IMG. The March 2008 press release announcing the joint venture quotes Mr. Fleischer:
Except for presidents and top government officials, no one faces tougher media scrutiny today than sports figures. Athletes now face a public -- and a media -- that demand more. Players and exectives who understand the media and know how to work with them find their careers are launched to higher, more successful and lucrative levels because of the good publicity they receive.
Michael S. Schmidt reported in the New York Times that Mr. McGwire’s announcement was timed as to not provide the impression that it was, in part, a cynical ploy to improve his image amongst Hall of Fame voters.
The admission came five days after the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced its player inductee for 2010, Andre Dawson. Although the voting was completed in December, McGwire — who will start a job as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach this year — did not want to make his admission until that announcement was made because he did not want to appear as if he were trying to affect his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Some wondered why Mr. McGwire choose to “come clean” on MLBN instead of ESPN or a broadcast network. Mr. Sandomir pointed out that MLBN “has a little more than half the subscribers ESPN has”. (ESPN is in approx 99 million homes, MLBN in slightly more than 50 million) And here again, IMG is connected to Mr. McGwire’s public relations campaign. Mr. Sandomir noted that Mr. McGwire’s interviewer for MLBN, Bob Costas, is also an IMG client. And the IMG website lists MLB as a client. Sports media pundits agreed that without the addition last year of Mr. Costas, MLBN would have lacked the gravitas to obtain the first McGwire “steroids” interview. From Mr. Sandomir;
The McGwire interview was a coup for the year-old MLB Network and justifies what the channel is paying Costas. It provided McGwire with a stage for acceptance on a channel that is majority-owned by the league that has, after a long goodbye, welcomed him back to his old team…..MLB had an edge in Costas if, indeed, McGwire wanted to be interviewed at length by a smart interrogator.
MLBN President and CEO Tony Petitti was quoted in the SportsBusiness Daily on the critical contribution of Mr. Costas in obtaining the immensely high profile interview for his channel. "This doesn't happen without Bob," Petitti said. "Bob gives us access to these types of interviews.”
Matt Gelb reported for The Philadelphia Inquirer that the McGwire interview on MLBN is a defining moment in the changing sports media landscape. While the role of “traditional” media in sports reporting is diminishing, team/league operated websites and league owned channels are an increasingly popular sources for fans searching for information.
When Mark McGwire and his team of public-relations gurus decided that the former slugger should make his first on-screen public apology for using performance-enhancing drugs on the MLB Network, it was a major score for the year-old network.
A year ago, the interview would have been televised by ESPN, Fox, NBC, or any of the established, mainstream networks. But McGwire's people chose Bob Costas to interview him on the channel owned by Major League Baseball to discuss one of the game's darkest sins.
"I would say that the McGwire story is a historic, seminal event in the evolution of sports media in America," said Tim Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. "I think it's that big a deal."
"It symbolizes the diminishment, to some degree, of mainstream news organizations," Franklin said. "It symbolizes the fracturing of the media market. It also symbolizes how the creation of all these new media, league-owned, team-owned, conference-owned, have a powerful megaphone and are increasingly using it."
And on the importance of league owned channels adding established, respected and well known journalists such as Peter Gammons and Bob Costas:
Franklin said this is another way that league-, team- and conference-owned affiliates are gaining credibility. When viewers see journalists who have appeared before in mainstream outlets, it does not matter to them who is ultimately behind the message as long as someone familiar and trustworthy is delivering it.
"In this new, fractured environment, individual reporters or journalists become brands. Teams and conferences and leagues are not just hiring a person, they're hiring a brand. They're hiring that brand because they bring credibility and a trusted voice."
MLB took another important step LWIB in rehabilitating its image in light of the “steroid era”. Mr. McGwire’s public act of contrition has provided Cardinals fans with a reason to once again embrace a franchise icon. But more important LWIB than another shamed (arguably unfairly) baseball star repairing his image with a forgiving fan base was how he and his advisors chose to deliver the message. As newspapers and broadcast TV continue to slash budgets in efforts to ward off extinction, sports fans can expect more of the same.
Pete Toms is an author for the Business of Sports Network, most notably, The Biz of Baseball. He looks forward to your comments and can be contacted through The Biz of Baseball.
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