The folks at ESPN.com decided the various plot lines of the Western Conference finals were compelling enough to send me out to Phoenix, a development that thrilled me … and was pleasantly surprising.
The economic disaster of the last year-plus has affected everybody, of course. And although I know some folks just assume that ESPN prints money, it doesn’t. ESPN and its affiliate ESPN.com have had to make hard decisions like any other business about what it can and can’t do.
Women’s basketball is an enormous part of my life, something I really never stop thinking about. And I know that for a lot of the folks who follow the sport as fans, it’s the same way. But in the grand scheme as they say, it’s still a niche sport – more so in regard to the WNBA than the college game, even.
I don’t focus on pessimism about any of this … that’s the wrong way to look at it and a waste of time. The sport has been in a continual growth process the entire time I’ve been writing about it, which goes back to 1984. It will continue to grow when I retire (at age 102, probably) and even when Mel Greenberg retires (at age 138), but there are always ups and downs in everything.
Right now is a down time for most things because of the economy, and I’m sure readers know it’s devastated the newspaper industry. I’ve lost track of how many colleagues have been “eliminated,” as I was a year ago, from their newspaper positions. Some have stayed in the business through blogs and free-lancing, for which they may or may not be making a living wage.
Some have changed professions, some have gone back to school, some are still out of work and looking. The newspaper collapse has hit women sports writers and the coverage of women’s sports (by men and women) particularly hard. I’ll be addressing this again after the WNBA season ends, but suffice to say it’s been an alarming thing to watch happen.
At any rate, ESPN.com has a million things to cover and a million places its reporters and columnists want to travel. It’s not accurate to say, “Oh, ESPN.com is a giant; it can do whatever it wants.” The fact is, it has a budget to follow, which is the case with every business. And decision-makers there have to weigh things based on what kind of reader response they get to them and what kind of potential ad revenue they bring in. That’s just the way it works.
I have covered the WNBA finals in person nine of the previous 12 seasons. I missed 2000 and 2001, when I was still an editor at The Kansas City Star and had too many other duties to get away. And I did not cover Detroit’s first title in 2003, because the finals wasn’t a budgeted expense that year. I still wrote stories about the finals all those seasons, but didn’t actually go to the games.
“Being there” means a lot in journalism, of course, but the reality is that more and more, reporters are covering events without actually attending them. I could get into a long philosophical discourse on the instances where that disturbs me, but it’s not going to change anything. Budgets are budgets. Reporters can lobby and advocate for “being there,” but sometimes even with the best, most passionate argument, they still get an answer of “no.”
Truth is, I did not lobby to go to the Western Conference finals this season simply because it’s been such a tough year economically that I didn’t think there was much chance. It’s the “save your bullets” policy that most writers realize they have to understand no matter what they cover or where they work.
Oh, don’t think I didn’t want to go. With this being Lisa Leslie’s last year, with Candace Parker returning so well from having her child, with both Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter having MVP-caliber seasons, I very much wanted to be there. (No offense to the Eastern Conference finals, but I couldn’t be two places at once.)
But I was prepared not to go. The Western Conference finals opened on Wednesday, and I watched the games on television and wrote about them. I have talked to the players/coaches involved both this season and in previous years, so I can bring that context to whatever I write. Is it the same as “being there?” No, but if you are invested enough in your topic, you can write something that’s worth reading even if you aren’t there.
That said, when I got the call Thursday morning from my editor that someone (or multiple someones) in Bristol decided I should go to Phoenix, I was really pleased. Because it meant that with all that is going on in the sports world that, quite frankly, gets far more readership than what I cover, there was still recognition that the story lines involving Leslie, Parker, Taurasi and their teams were worthwhile of attention.
I’m explaining all this because I think it’s important for readers to know that their feedback really is crucial. Coverage of women’s sports isn’t a given, folks. It never was, and the way things have been going economically, it has become more imperiled (at least from the standpoint of writers.)
Whenever a decision comes “from above” that’s in favor of getting better coverage, it’s to be appreciated. If you do appreciate it _ and I don’t just mean with me, but any journalist who covers women’s sports _ the best way you can show it is by letting editors know. Send e-mails or make phone calls saying, “Thanks for the coverage,” and tell them it’s important to you because you’re a consumer who cares about women’s sports.
You may think ESPN.com is just so big that nobody will notice what you say/write, but that’s not true. The folks who work there in a decision-making capacity do care what you think and what you’re interested in. And probably the best way to communicate with the Web site is through the ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, through whom editors are informed.
To be blunt, you really help me do a better job of covering women’s basketball by letting ESPN.com know that you are reading and you appreciate the coverage.