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Sports Leagues Struggle With Online Media Relations Too

The NCAA is far from the only sports rights-holder to fret about how to control online media access to its games. The New York Times has a long piece today about how the major leagues are struggling with the issue, too.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that sporting events are the kind of content that draws eyeballs and advertisers. Over the past 50 years or so, since the rise of TV, the value of sporting events to the media has gone to truly stratospheric levels, making franchise owners, athletes and others involved in the games wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

Now here comes the Internet and its enablers -- laptops, digital cameras and recorders, broadband access -- and the leagues' chokehold on access to their games is under siege. And if the leagues or other rights-holders can't limit access to their content, then eventually their content will be ubiquitous and less valuable. And at the very least, this will cause a major rethinking of their business models and may very well result in less income and wealth creation.

So you bet they want to figure out a way to slow this freight train down.

The problem is, of course, the one that all corporate communicators are facing and struggling with: how to allow some access without opening the floodgates. And further, whether it's even possible to hold back the tide of online access.

Robert Scoble, for instance, has made it his mission to demonstrate how easy it is to use commonly available electronic devices -- particular camera-equipped cell phones -- to broadcast anything on the Internet at any time. Scoble is something of a canary in a coal mine -- in other words, an early indicator of where the world is going.

The Times article naturally focuses on the high-end of the issue: the tension between the sports leagues and top-tier media like the Associated Press and metropolitan newspapers, both of which are of course starting to post and distribute digital content online in addition to their traditional coverage.

But the issue is much, much broader: when virtually anyone can attend a sporting event and blog about it (in realtime via wireless communications or shortly after) or transmit images (again, wirelessly from the event or via other channels soon after), where do you draw the line? Is it possible to draw a line? And what happens if you can't draw a line?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a different kind of trendsetter, may have given sports leagues a glimpse of their own future recently, as reported in the Times story:

Last month Mr. Cuban sought to ban bloggers from the Mavericks' locker room, but the National Basketball Association intervened, ruling that bloggers from credentialed news organizations must be admitted.

Mr. Cuban then decided to let in any blogger -- "someone on Blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school Web site or those that work for big companies."

We'll see how that works out...