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Why Celebrities and Athletic Conferences Don’t Get It

-first posted at RTDNA.org on September 8, 2009

Have you noticed that the commissioners of the major collegiate athletic conferences are starting to sound more and more like Brangelina every day?  Think I’ve lost it?  Stick with me here and you’ll see how the comparison makes sense.

There’s no doubt that some of the great fame Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie enjoy right now has come from the fine body of work each has put together as a screen actor.  Both move effortlessly from heavy drama to light comedy and both have undeniable screen presence that doesn’t come along all that often.

But I can name a lot of actors over the years (I’m a bit of a movie buff) who had all those attributes but never reached megastar status like these two have.  So what’s the difference?  Being married to each other doesn’t hurt, of course, but there’s more.  What helped put these two at the top of the heap and what keeps them there to this day is the almost unlimited media coverage they generate.  From mainstream newscasts to TMZ to every on-line gossip you can think of, Brangelina are hot.  The cameras follow them everywhere, they’re never out of the headlines for long, and just the mention of a name or the glimpse of a face in a newscast tease brings the viewers back to see what it’s all about.

You see, Brad and Angelina are a product of intense media coverage just as much as they are of any intense moments on the silver screen.  We know the media help set the agenda of what people find important and we’ve done a masterful job here.  I’ve seen this Hollywood couple edge out world leaders in terms of position in networks news programs.  And it’s all because we news people have created this monster.  We cover them, the viewers watch, they want more so we cover more, then they watch more—it’s a video-cious cycle.

Now, at least a few of you are wondering what all this has to do with college athletics.  I made the rather odd statement above that some of our athletic conference leaders are starting to sound like this favorite Hollywood couple.  So how’s that?  Well, the way I see it, despite the fact that the media pretty much put most of our top celebrities where they are today, those same celebrities LOVE to complain about their lack of privacy, complain how the cameras are following them around all the time, and complain about what horrible people the media are.  And while I haven’t heard our athletic conference commissioners do any vocal complaining, they’re pretty much in the same boat as our Hollywood friends.  That’s because the success of conferences like the SEC, the Big Ten, or on the professional side, the NFL, all stem from the popularity grown through local media coverage.  Here’s the math on what I’m saying: the total capacity of all twelve SEC football stadiums is 928,796.  So if all were playing at home and all sold out, fewer than 1 million SEC football fans could see what happened on the field any given Saturday.  But the total population of the home states of just the SEC conference is 57,844,721—sixty-two times as many people as will fit in those stadiums.  Granted, not everyone in Georgia is a Bulldog fan, but you get my point.  The way the 56 million or so people who can’t get into an SEC football game find out—and  get excited—about the sport is through media coverage.  And I would insist, mainly television coverage.  Without the free coverage local television, radio, print, and now internet news outlets have given SEC football over its 77 years of existence, the conference would be a minor concern.

But now the SEC has joined the ranks of other sports leagues in trying to, bit by bit, sell off rights to coverage to commercial concerns while leaving the long-time loyal media fewer and fewer rights for their own coverage.  That means limiting rights to air or print coverage of the games and the buildup to those games.  That means limiting rights to broadcast live from the game venues.  That even means barring reporters from tweeting or blogging about the events they’re covering.  The conferences, wanting to monetize every inch of their amateur athletic endeavor, have lost sight of the fact that if they decrease its value through the loss of free media coverage, they’ll have nothing left to cash in.

What can we do to stop this?  Well, RTNDA’s working on the front lines with the conferences to let them know they’re wrong about this.  I can’t count how many e-mails and phone calls I’ve had in the last few weeks going over the problems we see and seeking solutions—right up to and including with the commissioners themselves.  Our FOI counsel Kathleen Kirby has been doing a great job on a number of fronts all at once.  We’ll continue that effort.  On your ends, talk to the local school officials you know.  You have relationships there that go back years.  Tell them the folly of cutting local media out of the mix in your town.

I end this rant by joining up with perhaps the strangest bedfellow I’ve ever encountered along my journalistic path—Posh Spice.  That’s right, Victoria Beckham and I see eye to eye on this matter.  You see, after playing the same game as Brad and Angelina for years, Posh now embraces the paparazzi and all the other media coverage.  Late last years, she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I don’t complain about paparazzi because I’ve put myself in that position.”  Posh gets it.  Think I could get her to sit down with the SEC for an afternoon?

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