Station To Station: Local Teams Get Shut Out

Sports coverage fights for a spot in the lineup

When the sports report comes up on the 10 p.m. news at WMAQ Chicago, the NBC-owned station may forgo clips of the day's ballgames. WMAQ leaves that to a ticker that offers scores and stats, and instead uses the time for new features, such as interviews with big-name athletes, or beat reporters dishing on the locker-room lowdown of the local teams.

With four ESPN channels, numerous regional sports networks and countless Websites offering sports news, stations like WMAQ are redefining local-sports reporting. “We need to look ahead, find another angle or give people what they haven't seen before,” says Senior Sports Producer Tony Capriolo. “By 10 p.m., most fans have seen the highlights.”

Across the country, stations are re-evaluating the role sports plays in their newscast. Industry researchers say that only about a third of viewers are interested in sports segments. “That's why you see sports pushed later and later into the news and less time devoted to it,” says Jim Bernstein, a senior research associate for Frank N. Magid Associates.

Even sports broadcasters question their relevance. Penn State University's Center for Sports Journalism found that more than one-half of sports reporters and directors say they believe sports will eventually disappear from local newscasts. The study surveyed 216 sports staffers in top 50 markets, and 75% said they believe sports is generally losing ground in local news.

In markets large and small, station managers are grappling with cable and the Web. Industry research also says viewers want more breaking news and weather coverage, leaving less time for sports.

In a handful of markets, stations tried cancelling sports segments altogether—moves that have been denounced by local newspaper reporters. But, after experimenting with sports in the regular news mix, most —including several former Emmis stations—have quietly reinstated scores and highlights.

News directors and general managers say they just need to find new ways to package the content. In Kansas City, Mo., Meredith Broadcasting's strong CBS affiliate, KCTV, outsources its sports to Time Warner's regional cable network Metro Sports. Eliminating the sports department freed up resources to expand the station's investigative unit. “In every market I've worked in, people say you don't know our market, we couldn't cut back on sports,” says General Manager Kirk Black. “I don't agree. You just need someone to farm them out to.”

A growing trend is expanding sports in other dayparts or on the Internet. Many stations in high school football hotbeds air Friday-night shows dedicated to schoolboy games. In Baltimore, Hearst-Argyle NBC affiliate WBAL recently debuted high school sports show Xtra Points online. It's hosted by a weekend sports anchor.

Another popular option is specialty content, like coaches' shows and Sunday-night recaps of weekend action.

Inside the news, however, the debate over sports' place rages on. At Magid, consultants urge clients to take a “zero sum” approach to sports: Sports stories would fight for time in the broadcast. “Sports could be treated like any other beat,” says Bernstein. “A sports or crime or investigative reporter has to come [to the morning meeting] and pitch their ideas. If they are good enough, they go.”

So far, few clients have embraced the idea, instead choosing to hyper-localize sports.

While the new-media outlets are forcing news directors to make tough decisions, at least they represent new career options for jock journalists. “In the past, the career pipeline has been through local sports,” says Marie Hardin, associate director of the Center for Sports Journalism. “Now regional sports networks and Web outlets [are] paths.”

That trend will apparently continue. According to the Penn State study, 19% of the responding sports reporters and producers expect time allotted for sports in local news to shrink in the next year. Hardin, for one, found the results eye-opening: “We were surprised at the percentage who said sports was losing ground and even more surprised that they saw it potentially disappearing.”

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