Life after the pressing game

Stand by for another golden age of sportswriting. Perhaps even newspapers can yet be saved, writes Larry Ryan.

Life after the pressing game

On the face of it, the hack’s utopia, set out by Diane Shah in a famous 1983 column for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, never looked further away.

“Er, Miss Shah? This is Steve Carlton with the Philadelphia Phillies. I was wondering … ”

“I haven’t even had my coffee yet,” I grumbled. “Don’t you guys ever sleep?”

“I’m sorry,” said Carlton. “It’s just that I was, er, wondering if you would have time today to interview me.”

“What team did you say you were from?”

“The Phillies. I’m a pitcher.”

“Oh, right, I remember. But haven’t I interviewed you before? When the Phillies won the 1980 World Series or after you got your 300th win? I’m sure I did.”

“Actually, you didn’t,” Carlton said. “I was rather hoping you would, but you always walk right past me. I’ve even sent you notes requesting interviews, but you never reply.”

“You know how many games there are in a season?” I said.

“Yes,” said Carlton meekly. “But I felt I had to give it a shot.”

“So what is it you want me to interview you about?” I said, trying not to sound bored.

“Well you could ask me about my tough conditioning program,” he said. “The Kung Fu and pushing my arm into a tub of rice. Or how many more years I’m going to pitch. Or what I think about the playoffs.”

“Same old stuff,” I said, stifling a yawn. “You’d think occasionally one of you guys would come up with something new to say.”

We’re not there yet. And it seems a little detour is required before we get there.

You might have heard the grousing lately. And offered up prayers.

Joe Schmidt is shutting down press briefings. Jim Gavin is clamming up. MTK Global’s boxers are boycotting.

Further afield, Paris Saint Germain is proving uncooperative with a French press the club deems ‘unsupportive’ to its global domination plans.

And most large sports organisations are turning their competitive instincts on the media. This week, it wasn’t the media interviewing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rather HCL Technologies, Manchester United’s global digital transformation partner.

It seems hacks everywhere will soon be out in the cold.

‘Controlling the Message and the Medium?’ is a 2017 study for the Taylor & Francis academic publishing group into the impact of sports organisations’ digital and social channels on media access.

The nutshell version: “While sports organisations once needed the media to deliver their messages, they now have their own media.”

The study cited a recent survey in which most US college football reporters ranked their chances of gaining a 10-minute interview with an athlete for a profile somewhere between “no” and “absolutely no chance”.

And it noted how the All Blacks “saw allblacks.com as a ‘controlled and managed’ way for players to record their thoughts and experiences and connect with fans directly, rather than the ‘unknown’ experience of communicating through a newspaper reporter that they do not trust.”

Whether it’s just Schmidt controlling the controllables or more commercially motivated, word is the IRFU now sees itself directly in competition with the mainstream media.

So Irish Rugby TV billed an ‘exclusive’ interview with Jordan Larmour after the Italy win: “Ireland debut is a dream come true”.

A glance at irishrugby.ie reveals the other insights we’ve missed in recent weeks.

James Ryan: “It’s a great feeling.”

Greg Feek: “Playing France in Paris is always tough.”

Robbie Henshaw: “We’ll be physical in midfield.”

We will have to dry our tears because Deloitte’s list of sports industry trends for 2018 promises more of the same.

“With targeted content, teams will likely grow revenue in ways not possible just a decade ago.”

Diarmuid Lyng says the GAA should have its own broadcast alternative to RTÉ and Sky Sports.

So soon the hacks may be left with John Caulfield. John is still talking, fighting for every column inch — and every second on the sports news — for the League of Ireland.

But we may eventually lose John too as the league and its clubs continue to mine the potential of their own channels.

Shamrock Rovers’ social media adventures this winter delivered some of the league’s best publicity in years. This week, the FAI launched a league podcast, while Dundalk TV was first with footage of the President’s Cup final.

When it all goes in-house, we may have nobody left to talk to.

And we might just realise what Gilesy told us all along — and tried to show us during his own pomp — that with a few notable exceptions, there’s little point talking to managers or players after a game anyway.

We might even cope before the game too.

We might live without ‘a dream come true’. Without ‘work-ons’. Without ‘Ye all wrote us off coming up here today’ and ‘That won’t be good enough the next day’.

Maybe we could even survive without mind games, referee blaming, and controvassy.

Could it be that reportage and analysis and comment would only grow sharper and broader, beholden to nobody for ‘access’ and the decks cleared of ‘a dream come true’?

Might there be more space and hunger for digging deeper?

Chasing the concussion stories dogging the NFL, Deadspin writer Lindsey Adler found no shortage of people to talk to: “For a young reporter without access to players or credentials, the CTE beat is accessible. I spoke to innumerable wives and mothers and children of men who’d given their minds and bodies to the game”.

There is another trend, also noted by Deloitte, that might just keep the hack going for a little while yet.

“A year ago, the sports industry witnessed a resurgence of prominent athletes staging demonstrations to raise awareness of social issues. Fast forward one year, and it’s apparent that social activism in sports is not just a fad.”

Here, the Gaelic Voices for Change group has emerged, initially focusing on the homelessness crisis.

No doubt, there will be efforts to monetise those good intentions too, but it’s not always straightforward to slap a hashtag on a social conscience and keep things ‘on brand’ and ‘on message’.

Deloitte warns: “Profit and societal change aren’t mutually exclusive, but as evidenced over the past year, marrying the two is likely easier said than done.”

So somebody else may yet have to tell those stories. And one day, the hack’s dream might just come true:

“I was wondering if you would have time today to interview me.”

Life lessons for looting kids

Sonny Bill has a lot to answer for. In 2015, a young lad brazenly took the man’s medal, though at least he hadn’t spent all game begging for it. It seemed to be something of an impromptu gesture.

Still, it was clear then that Sonny Bill should never have got a replacement medal, for the dangerous precedent he had set.

And so it proved. He essentially turned a generation of stadium-going youngsters into looters.

No game can take place nowadays without any nipper within spitting distance of the pitch holding a sign begging for the shirt off their hero’s back. Or more.

Suddenly, though, sport is hitting back.

Andy Robertson intercepted a ballboy making off with Sadio Mane’s matchball in Porto, while at the Colombia Golf Championship in Bogota last weekend, Lee McCoy wasn’t having it.

“Some kid asked me for my hat, glove and shoes after I walked off 18 with a terrible bogey. He learned a life lesson.”

McCoy has since taken a bit of flak.

He should get a medal.

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