Sports, Big Bucks and Fake News
Last weekend there was a big fuss about honesty when Donald Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer and his Counselor Kellyanne Conway both played fast and loose with the facts. Conway even said Spicer was using “alternative facts.” My God.
Once again the term "fake news" was used. That got me to thinking about the operations of sports networks like TSN and Sportsnet and I wonder if there isn't some deception going on there too?
Nobody’s lying, don’t get me wrong, but there are clear examples of questionable editorial and programming decisions being made that most people, including hard core sports fans, don’t realize.
Games, highlight shows, websites and social media are all affected.
Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You
I’m watched sports for over 50 years. As I get older I find I want more truth and honesty in what I watch, read and see. I think we’re getting less when it comes to sports in Canada.
In November 2013, Rogers paid a record $5.2 billion for the rights to telecast and livestream NHL games for 12 years, along with other perks. The connection between Rogers and the NHL is so close, when Rogers wanted to bring back Ron MacLean to host Hockey Night in Canada this year, it reportedly had to run it past NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to get his approval. MacLean isn’t paid by the NHL, but the connection is clear. Although a sports network buys the rights to broadcast games it needs to stay in the good graces of the league it’s covering and there are all kinds of examples.
All games of Canadian teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are broadcast by local crews with Rogers Sportsnet. Play-by-play announcers and their colour commentators are clearly biased for each team they cover, whether it’s the Oilers, Flames or Canucks. You get a different slant on the game depending on which crew you’re watching.
They even become apologists for many of the players and teams they cover. Few hard questions are asked of players and coaches, normally leaving that for journalists who aren’t tied to the league.
In the US, many sports announcers are paid by the team and are clearly biased for their employer. That rarely happens in Canada, but they’re also biased, because the more positive they can be about the product, the more valuable the asset is in the minds of management. I notice how play-by-play announcers and their colour analysts may criticize the play, but not the player, unless its done with tact and doublespeak, as in “He’d like to have that one back” after the goalie lets an easy one go through his legs. They are allowed to criticize the game, but not the league.
Dollars Dominate Editorial Judgement
Being a former journalist, I used to think the highlight shows on TSN and Sportsnet were similar to a newscast, in which the primary objective was to cover events in sports. I’ve come to realize that’s part of it, but it’s more important for the networks to use their highlight shows to promote their programming. Whether a particular story is the most important of the day, or one that most viewers would care about, doesn’t seem to be that important. It’s much more of a case of what the network is showing that night, or what league it has an agreement with.
A great example was the coverage given to the World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC) by TSN and its competitor Sportsnet. The WJHC is a big ratings hit and money maker for TSN. During this year’s tournament, TSN loaded its hour-long highlight show Sportscentre with tons of game reports and analysis on the tournament. The clear intent was promotion and marketing and just not providing coverage. By contrast, Sportnet’s highlight show didn’t provide near as much coverage for the tournament. The WJHC was covered, but grudgingly it seemed on the Rogers network. You would think since it also served a Canadian audience, it’s viewers could care equally as much about the tournament. Apparently not.
Just yesterday quarterback Henry Burris announced his retirement. TSN, which has the CFL broadcast rights, carried part of the news conference live. Sportsnet kept to regular programming and talked hockey, in alignment with its NHL broadcasting rights. You support the league you cover.
On a routine basis, TSN will kick off its 6:00pm (eastern) edition of Sportscentre with a scene-setter on a game it will be televising that night on its regional network, especially if it’s the Maple Leafs. There’s little news value here. The schedule was set months ago, so it’s not exactly “news” that the Leafs will be playing a certain team that night, but yet it’s the top story. It’s purely done for promotion – a commercial to advertise the game and of course to let you know what time the game is on TSN.
It also extends to website content. On the morning of the Grey Cup game last November the TSN.ca website was loaded with stories on the game. In fact, there were only a few stories about other sports. That evening the game was on TSN. It's clear the website was filled with news on the game to try to get more people to watch it, where networks like TSN really make their money.
Also yesterday TSN.ca ran a story on Canadian golfer Brooke Henderson who had signed an endorsement deal with Golf Town, Canada's biggest golf retailer and a TSN sponsor. TSN clearly said it was an "Advertorial" and stated it was actually getting paid for running the story. This is dangerous and I wish I had more time to dig into it now.
When you watch highlight shows on television or look at websites, ask yourself who covers the games and then see what’s being featured. There’s almost always a connection.
Why You Don't Criticize "The Man"
We also have a situation where Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays and also Sportsnet, which covers the Jays games. That makes it a little awkward for a sports commentator who wants to criticize the work of management on its off-season roster moves, as an example. After all, what’s really happening is one employee criticizing another from the same company. Perhaps that’s why it seldom happens.
Bell Media and Rogers bother own a sizeable chunk of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Maple Leafs and Raptors, along with other sports properties. Bell owns TSN, so the web of sports team and broadcasting ownership gets more tangled, making it difficult for any sports analyst to be truly unbiased. It's pretty easy to tell who the home team is when you watch Raptors and Blue Jay games.
Fake News For Jocks
I have no objection to networks making business decisions to help their cause. They need to turn a profit for their shareholders. What I do object to is the appearance of being impartial when there are clear examples of editorial choices being made every day that are influenced by broadcasting rights, contractual relationships and money.
The next time you see a sports announcer Tweet about a great game going on, telling everyone they should tune in, ask what network is carrying the game? The one he works for? Or the next time an announcer begs you to vote for a certain player to make an all-star team ask yourself if the network he works for covers that player’s games?
These days even sports fans need to challenge what they’re being told are facts. Isn’t that was fake news is all about?
As always, your comments are appreciated.