Shameless Boosters

At first glance, the controversy over new sports stadiums seems just the thing to inspire outrage in the supposedly "liberal" press. Here we have local government in cahoots with a bunch of millionaires, funneling millions of dollars of public money to a monopolistic business, and even actively defying the expressed will of the people by pushing through a tax increase to pay for a new baseball stadium, despite a citizen vote to the contrary. Talk about taxation without representation.Yet, strangely enough, the Puget Sound region's main daily newspapers, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, both of which are frequently accused of being too liberal, have been of like mind on the pro sports issues. In their editorials they have consistently supported the dearly expensive efforts to hang on to the Mariners and Seahawks. During 1995 -- the year the Mariners stadium went before the voters and then back to the state Legislature for an override of the voters -- The Seattle Times editorialized in support of a new ballpark no less than 35 times. (I'm referring here to the paper's official, unsigned editorials, not to individual editorial page columnists or op-ed writers.) In an extraordinary move, Times publisher Frank Blethen even donated $40,000 worth of free advertising space to the pro-stadium campaign in the weeks leading up to the September '95 vote. (These free ads ran in both daily papers, since, under the "joint operating agreement," the Seattle Times Co. handles business operations for the Times and the P-I.)In recent months, the editorial boards of the Times and P-I have occasionally raised timorous objections to the demands of Paul Allen, John Ellis, et al. But, like the Metro King County Council itself, they always seem to come around in the end. Early in the year, for instance, Times editorialists scoffed at the idea of a new football stadium, saying that "the [Kingdome] is well-suited for football," and that "razing the building, instead of trying to do a razzle-dazzle overhaul, would be a wasteful mistake." But when it became apparent last month that Allen wouldn't pony up a dime to get the Dome renovated and that (just like Ken Behring) he would only be satisfied with a spanking-new playhouse, the Times editorial board "reluctantly" made its "tough call": tear down the Dome in order "to save football." Likewise, in November, the Times was talking tough about holding the Mariners ownership to paying a 14 percent share of the new stadium's cost. But a month later, after Ellis, the M's CEO and chair, put on his teary-eyed we're-selling-the-team performance, and Sen. Slade Gorton stepped in with a new take-it-or-leave-it deal in which the owners' contribution shrank considerably, the Times offered this response: "Thanks to [Gorton's] efforts, there is a new framework from which to sort out tricky details of this rocky relationship. . . . No matter how dicey it gets," the Times wrote, soothingly, "this group of owners represents the best hope for Major League Baseball in Seattle."The Post-Intelligencer has been even more of a pushover. After Ellis and company extracted another $50 million or so in eleventh-hour concessions from King County last month, two members of the Public Facilities District overseeing the baseball stadium quit in protest. But the P-I editorial board was understanding: "Cumulatively, what the Mariners have asked of their public partners is not inherently unreasonable. . . . Regrettably, such is the price to be paid for Major League Baseball in the late 20th century." And when Paul Allen demanded that the County Council trim the Seahawks' 10-year Kingdome lease to three years so he could pressure the state Legislature for a new stadium, the P-I said that the council members had but one question to ask themselves: "Do they want a National Football League team here [or not]?" The P-I's attitude toward the unfolding negotiations is perhaps best represented by an editorial headline that ran last month: "Job of entire council to keep the Mariners." For anyone who imagined that the job of the council was guarding the public purse and looking out for the interests of all citizens, that headline was probably an eye opener.Both the Times and the P-I have provided excellent -- and, for the most part, balanced -- coverage of the stadium affair in their news pages. The two dailies have also, of course, published many letters and opinion pieces that are highly critical of the deals being cut with team owners and would-be owners. And, ironically enough, the sports columnists at both papers have tended to be pretty tough in their judgments, questioning the civic value of these deals in spite of the fact that the writers' own livelihoods depend on professional sports. But on the editorial page, where the newspapers make the weight of their institutional opinion felt, the Times and the P-I have tended to speak in the pacifying rhetoric of pro sports boosters, supporting a stadium "solution" (how could anyone oppose that?), and encouraging elected officials to "keep things in forward motion" (ditto). The Times made its position clear a year ago December when it wrote, "People must recognize that the interests of the Seahawks and the community are not that different."However, it would probably be more apt to say that the interests of the Seahawks and the interests of the Seattle Times Co. are not that different. Professional sports teams and daily newspapers exist in a kind of symbiosis. The teams rely on the papers (and other media) to stoke fan loyalty and drive ticket sales, while the newspapers rely on the sports teams to provide a gripping, dependable, ever-renewing source of drama and "news." Readers of the two papers' editorials might want to bear that connection in mind. The importance of professional athletics to the daily newspaper business is felt both in hard numbers and softer, more intangible effects. Sports teams do not necessarily serve as a direct draw for newspaper advertising. The teams themselves don't tend to be major advertisers, and the sports section usually isn't an advertiser's favorite spot. Where the teams can have a major effect, however, is in getting more people to pick up the paper (which, in turn, will boost advertising). "I don't think there's any question that a vibrant sports team helps a newspaper in terms of trying to build readers," says Mike Fancher, the Times' executive editor, who does not participate in the paper's editorials. Fancher adds that he believes this effect is less pronounced for an afternoon newspaper like the Times than for a morning paper like the P-I, where readers are more likely to be seeking the previous night's scores. In an era when newspapers around the country are struggling to hang on to a declining readership, local sports -- and the massively promoted major league sports in particular -- offer a powerful means of keeping people interested. This becomes most plainly apparent during major, community-riveting events like the Mariners' drive for the American League Championship two years ago, but it's also true during less heady times. A recent reader survey from the media-tracking firm International Demographics Inc. indicates that, for both the P-I and the Times, sports is the second-most-read section of the paper (after the A section, which is always no. 1).Pro sports offers a way to reach readers who might not otherwise bother with the paper. "There are a lot of sports fans who aren't all that tuned in to what's happening at the school board," says Kelso Gillenwater, publisher of Tacoma's News Tribune, which has made a first-rate sports section the key to its expansion efforts. Gillenwater says that close readers of the sports section may not represent a huge segment of a newspaper's audience, but they are "a hugely important one. There are people you reach with the sports pages who you don't reach in any other way." Dave Burgin, a veteran editor who has run the San Francisco Examiner and The Orlando Sentinel, among other papers, agrees. He says, "Lots of single-copy customers [i.e., non-subscribers who pick up a paper from the news box] are sports fans. Many sports fans do not buy the paper otherwise." Burgin believes that "on an annual basis, sports will way outrank any other topic" in terms of its ability to generate regular readership (barring something extraordinary, like war).In Seattle, the importance of professional sports to the single-copy buyer -- the reader who might or might not pick up the paper on any given day -- is readily recognized, and measured, by the people deciding how many papers to print up each night. According to sources inside the Times and the P-I, the papers have a formula for the single-copy press order, depending on the previous night's sports activity. A Mariners game calls for a 12 percent larger press run, 20 percent if the team wins. The Sonics formula is 10 percent more for a game, 18 percent for a win. And the sorry Seahawks get 9 percent for a game, 15 percent for a win. While single-copy sales represent only a fraction of both papers' total circulation, these numbers still translate into thousands of extra copies, week after week. Single-copy sales are especially critical for the P-I: though its total circulation is about 35,000 less than the Times, the morning P-I has over 10,000 more single-copy buyers than its rival.Beyond what the numbers capture, "major league sports add vitality to the daily news business," says Gillenwater. "There's a higher kind of energy in the product in relation to the reader, and I believe that translates to a stronger franchise." The Times' Fancher also points to sports coverage as the critical entry point for the next generation of consumers. "Especially for younger readers -- both boys and girls -- " he says, "that early newspaper habit sometimes starts around reading about the sports teams."Still, there does not appear to have been any kind of large-scale study that would show a relationship between having pro sports teams in town and the financial health of local newspapers. Professor Robert G. Picard, editor of the Journal of Media Economics and chair of the communications department at California State University-Fullerton, says he does not believe that the subject has been examined in the academic world, and "even if it had, I think it would be impossible to show direct relationship between sports franchises and newspaper performance because there are too many other variables involved." It's worth noting, for instance, that The Baltimore Sun continued to gain readership even after that city lost the Colts in 1984.Dallas, meanwhile, saw one of its dailies close several years ago, during a period when both the Cowboys and the NBA's Mavericks were doing poorly. Fancher maintains that professional sports per se is not life or death for a newspaper. "Life or death," he says, "is, do people feel connected to their community?" Anything that helps to create that feeling, he says -- whether it be having a sports team in town that you care about or something else -- "is likely to cause people to feel that reading the newspaper is important." He adds, "If my only concern in life was circulation, and you said, 'Do you want a professional sports franchise or not?' the answer would be absolutely yes. And I'd want a winning team. But it's not the be-all and end-all."Over at the P-I, editor and publisher J.D. Alexander agrees that "sports are very much a part of a morning newspaper's mission." But when asked if his paper's performance would suffer in a significant way if any of the Seattle sports teams left town, he said no. He says he has received some ribbing from politicians who suggest that his paper's strong editorial stand in favor of keeping the sports teams, even at high cost, is due to the fact that sports news sells papers. He says his retort to the politicians is, "I would lose far more readers if suddenly you disappeared off the face of the earth."

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