NIL, media access and the future of college sports coverage
Many athletic departments severely restrict media access and NIL deals can now change that. But where does that practice fall in terms of journalism ethics?
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When I was an Indiana men’s basketball beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student, then later as a freelancer for the IndyStar and Louisville Courier-Journal, my dream story that I never got around to writing was a day-in-the-life feature about Tim Priller, the 6-9 forward and fan favorite whose number of career games played matched his jersey number, 35, and whose career point total was nine less than that, 26.
I’ve referenced Priller before in a previous edition of Out of Bounds, regarding that time when a bar in Bloomington designed promotional shirts that said, “It’s Priller Time,” as a play on “It’s Miller Time.” The athletic department shut down the promotion within minutes, if my memory serves. “There’s no 13th man that ever has had such marketability in the entire timeframe of college athletics than Tim Priller,” former Indiana coach Archie Miller once told me.
Occasionally, I’d meet someone on campus who didn’t realize that Priller was on scholarship. Priller’s recruiting profile on 247Sports lists four scholarship offers – alphabetically, Albany, Illinois-Chicago, Incarnate Word and Indiana.
One of those is not like the others.
Priller’s career stats likely would’ve been more impressive at any of the three former schools but he probably wouldn’t have trended on Twitter a few times per season while playing for the Great Danes, Flames or Cardinals.
So, multiple times during Priller’s career I pitched Indiana’s sports information director (SID) a story idea of Priller and I grabbing lunch somewhere on Kirkwood Avenue, the bar and restaurant epicenter where Indiana University’s campus and downtown Bloomington collide, for all intents and purposes.
I wanted to see what happens when that guy walks down that street.
Each time I brought up the idea to Indiana’s SID, it was met with a milquetoast response, something like “we’ll think about it,” or “ask me again in few weeks.” For what I saw as a fairly low-risk proposition for the athletic department – a fan favorite who rarely met with the media talking about what life was like as the fan favorite – the story idea was a no-go, and since Indiana, like every athletic department, determines the level of access it grants to the media, that was the end of that.
Thanks to college athletes now being allowed to monetize their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, media access in college athletics – and who controls that access – is starting to change.
The convergence of NIL and media access
In mid-July, BoilermakersCountry.com, the Sports Illustrated affiliate site that covers Purdue, announced an NIL deal with Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic, who agreed to participate in a weekly, 30-minute podcast with the site. The podcast will launch during the first week of November and continue through the end of the NCAA tournament.
The next day, TexAgs.com, a popular website for Texas A&M coverage, announced that Texas A&M running back Isaiah Spiller and safety Demani Richardson had each agreed to an NIL deal worth $10,000 with GreenPrint Real Estate Group in which the two players would participate in “exclusive feature interviews” with TexAgs.com.
The NIL era is sure to usher change in regard to some of the restrictions that athletic departments or individual coaches place on their athletes. In February, I reported how some programs, through their published team rulebooks, told their athletes to keep their social media accounts private, such as Kansas men’s basketball, South Carolina women’s volleyball and Texas Tech women’s volleyball, as well as UCLA’s Student-Athlete Code of Conduct.
Good luck recruiting teenagers in the NIL era if those policies maintain, which is why they’ll likely be eliminated. But the granting of NIL rights to college athletes won’t only provide greater freedom of speech on social media as athletes build their brands online, but athletes can now also essentially arrange their own media availabilities and be paid for it, as the recent agreements with BoilermakersCountry.com and TexAgs.com have shown.
“We had a number of people in the pipeline that had reached out to us about what type of NIL-related opportunities were there,” Brandon Jones, the president and CEO of TexAgs.com, told Out of Bounds. “That’s kind of how GreenPrint got into the picture, but I guess it was pretty interesting, we had a handful of discussions about the impending name, image and likeness changes starting back six, twelve months ago, trying to just get a sense for if and how we might be in that space. And honestly, it wasn’t until recently that we kind of thought about content-related things.”
Jones said a big part of TexAgs.com’s business is sponsorship sales with local businesses. “At any given time, we’ll have like 35 or 40 local sponsors,” he said.
TexAgs.com reached out to Spiller and Richardson directly. Jones first communicated with Richardson via Twitter direct messages before realizing he had his contact information.
GreenPrint Real Estate Group funded the NIL deals and corporate partner TexAgs.com received the exclusive interviews.
“Whatever ROI calculation GreenPrint made, I think they far exceeded that,” Jones said. “If you look at the business that they’re in, they get one client from that, that sells a $750,000 home and that by far pays for their marketing efforts. Again, I expect these deals to settle down and find a different rate that on the long haul becomes sustainable from a marketing dollars perspective.
“I don’t really know what that is but the next deal isn’t going to get anywhere close to that type of splash.”
A solution to limited media access
Jones said around 2011 and 2012, Texas A&M’s sports information directors allowed media outlets to request interviews with one or two football players per week. On the day of the team’s weekly press conference, there would be a side room for conducting exclusive interviews, where reporters could spend about 15 minutes interviewing a player, away from the dais and microphones at a press conference, which are home to a crowd of reporters.
That practice eventually ended. Why?
Because – ironically – contractual agreements for media rights, Jones said.
“Well, they stopped doing that because the rights holders put the kibosh on that,” Jones said. “They pay for the rights to kind of monetize a lot of these areas and so really, a group like mine, we’re almost completely locked out of current football players, other than what you get in a gaggle in a press conference-type setting.”
SEC Media Days is the gaggle to end all gaggles – a high-profile, four-day affair in Hoover, Alabama, when all 14 of the conference’s teams still have a zero in the loss column.
“We wanted to hit that news cycle,” Jones said. “We put out that press release and the associated content last Friday and that’s not traditionally where we would publish something like that but we wanted to put it out before SEC Media Days so we could be a part of that news cycle.
“It worked out a little better than what we were anticipating. The timing for that was pretty purposeful.”
While Jones said that Texas A&M’s Olympic-sport programs will work with the media in arranging interviews, “we have very limited access to current athletes, in particular football and basketball.”
“The university has embargoed the current football players, current basketball players from any interviews that aren’t a press conference-type environment,” Jones continued. “They’ve actually been clamping down over the years, tighter and tighter, in that type of interaction.”
Even when the media is granted access to athletes, it isn’t always quality access.
When I was on the Indiana men’s basketball beat, I covered a late February road game at Northwestern, which had recently lost 10 consecutive games in the Big Ten. The Wildcats won. Rather than interviewing a few Indiana players at the podium in the interview room, the Indiana media contingent had to follow the team’s SID into the bowels of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Eager to get in position to ask a question in the few minutes that we were allotted with the players, I followed the SID closely, through a pair of doors, where I saw him instructing the two chosen players on what to say to the media. I walked back through the double doors, hoping not to be noticed, and the players and SID followed. The players proceeded to repeat the SID’s messaging word for word.
That’s what Indiana fans read in the game stories published online that night and in newspapers the next day.
Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: ‘Do not pay for access to news’
It’s worth noting that Sasha Stefanovic’s podcast appearances will be with BoilermakersCountry.com, and not the Lafayette Journal & Courier, and that Isaiah Spiller and Demani Richardson gave exclusive access to TexAgs.com, not the Houston Chronicle. Both outlets could be classified as team sites – and that’s not intended to be a pejorative – rather than legacy media outlets, such as a large, metro newspaper.
“We’re kind of a hybrid organization and what I mean is we’re not purely a journalistic endeavor,” Jones said. “We do want to report stuff well and accurately and fairly, but we also have a bigger mission than that and really our mission is help Aggie fans enjoy being fans more. Some of that is just entertaining them. It is a little bit different balance. I wouldn’t categorize us like your local newspaper and what their mission is. Our mission is a little different.”
Jones said TexAgs.com’s staff sensed that some observers might critique the website for being involved in an NIL deal in which it received exclusive access. But after stressing multiple times that the scale is vastly different in this comparison, he points to ESPN.
“ESPN, right, has their feet in both of these worlds, too,” Jones said. “One foot is they want to be seen as an organization with journalistic integrity and report the news. The other foot is squarely in paying for the rights to access these events and broadcast these events, and with that comes all sorts of benefits in which they draw on regularly in terms of helping them generate content.
“Because of that, they’re going to steer shy of going in and the package they develop before a game, where they sit down [with] two players, they’re probably not going to do a bunch of fastball questions to all these kids, right? So, I view our organization a little bit more in that line, where we’re not just there as a news source. We’re also an entertainment source, so a different type of content source than your traditional media company or newspaper.”
One TexAgs.com commenter wrote below the site’s exclusive interview with Spiller, “NIL payments in the front, helping Ags on the recruiting trail on the back.”
Journalists are taught and trained not to pay for media access. The Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics states, “do not pay for access to news.” It also says, “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
“It’s a bad idea to be paying people for news or to be a source for news stories,” Andy Schotz, a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, told Out of Bounds, “but there are different other relationships that might fit. If you were to have somebody come on as a guest on a talk show, I think it’s pretty common that they would be paid some money for that. If you were to have them speak at a conference and they get an honorarium, that seems normal, too. I think I would just want to know what are they trying to do by having an athlete connected to them and I don’t know the answer.”
The recent deals that provided, or will provide, TexAgs.com and BoilermakersCountry.com with exclusive access raise several questions about media access, ethics and competition:
Do the employees at those outlets consider themselves journalists or their product journalism?
How will those outlets’ competitors, particularly those employed by legacy media outlets that are unlikely to pay for exclusive access, respond?
Does the calculus of sports information directors change at all if athletes can negotiate their own exclusive access?
How much do any of these questions matter to readers, if athletes are making money while telling their stories and if fans have more opportunities to engage with their favorite team and its players, outside of athletic department-controlled media availabilities?
“I haven’t spoken to my bosses about it, but I have a very, VERY hard time imagining us doing anything like that,” Matt Baker, a college football reporter who covers Florida and Florida State for the Tampa Bay Times, told Out of Bounds in an email. “I don’t believe we’ve ever done that with a professional athlete, so I can’t imagine us doing that with a college one, either. We pay for documents with things like public-records requests, but I've never heard of us paying for an interview, and it would stun me if we did so. I don't have business relationships with the people/things I cover, and that's a firm line.
“Would it surprise me if another outlet on my beat started paying for interviews, or having third parties do so? No. We have different ethics policies and standards. That's just the reality of it. I might disagree with some of their decisions, just as they might disagree with some of mine. In some cases, those disagreements can be quite strong.”
If one of Baker’s competitors pays for interviews, he said he’d treat them like any other exclusive interview: if there’s news worth reporting in the interview, he’d attribute it, while acknowledging that it was a paid interview, and if not, he’d read it and move on.
“I can't control what other people do,” Baker wrote, “even if I disagree with it.”
Another major metro newspaper is still trying to determine where potential NIL deals fall in regards to media ethics and its coverage of college athletics, and whether it will pursue NIL opportunities in the future.
Are legacy news organizations going to overwhelmingly embrace NIL deals to improve their access in college athletics? Probably not.
Can you rule out the possibility entirely? Probably not.
“It will have an effect on the landscape,” Schotz said. “Maybe not all of the players will want to do this – players meaning news organizations – but somebody else who has nothing to lose feels there’s a benefit to it and they co-opt a person and their information, and then it becomes for anybody else to work around it, because if you don’t have direct access to the person, maybe you have indirect access but it’s only through this one channel.
“It’s through being interviewed on a podcast and that’s all that you can quote. But is that person going to be asking the tough questions? Are they an emissary of yours to be trying to confront a person on a sticky topic? And I’d say the answer is hardly ever going to be ‘yes.’”
For some websites, such as TexAgs.com, NIL deals could be a recurring strategy as they seek to inform and entertain their fans, amid a media landscape that often offers few opportunities for quality access to athletes, perhaps other than when media access is taken out of schools’ hands during postseason events.
“Do we plan to do this again?” Jones asked, rhetorically. “Yeah, we do plan to do similar deals such as this. Now, I don’t think the rate is going to settle in at $10,000 per interview. This was a fairly unique scenario. It had to do with [being] the first and the sense of what type of traffic that’s going to get.”
In case you missed the last newsletter
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“Athletes and athletic departments can offer different value to different companies in different industries, so college athletics – as an industry of its own – could see greater value across the board in the NIL era through connections with new brands and consumers, just as the Olympics have.”
Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.