The sports world was a very different place in 1991. Michael Jordan won his first ever championship. The Bills lost their first ever Super Bowl. And ESPN was nothing but a single channel on the cable dial. Since then, the television sports business has grown exponentially. And there to cover every step of its explosive evolution has been New York Times sports media and business reporter Richard Sandomir.
"If you want a challenge, try being the biggest player in sports TV, then cover those sports objectively."
A veteran of the Times, Newsday, Financial World magazine, the Stamford Advocate, and Sports Inc magazine, Sandomir has been on the sports media beat for over 20 years. And how have things changed? ”The folks are much tamer now. It’s too bad,” he tells Gelf. “It used to be a free-for-all that could fill a lot of column inches.” That’s not all, of course. From the advent of the internet and social media to the decline of printed coverage, from the popular ascendance of fantasy sports to the emergence of ESPN as a worldwide sports behemoth, the only constant in the field has been change.In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, Sandomir tells Gelf what he’s learned in covering those developments, how the web has changed everything, and why NBC made the right choice to show the Olympics on tape-delay.
Gelf Magazine: You've been covering TV sports business since 1991. What's changed the most about the industry during your career?
Richard Sandomir: One thing that comes to mind is that the broadcast network executive producers don’t trash each other in public, nor do the network P.R. people. It used to be a free-for-all that could fill a lot of column inches. The folks are much tamer now. It’s too bad. More broadly, it’s the breadth of sports TV now that’s changed. Back in 1991, it was pre-internet and there was only one ESPN. Nobody talked about platforms, except if they were discussing disco-era shoes. There were no CBS Sports Networks or NBC Sports Networks, or their antecedents.
Gelf Magazine: How has the advent of the web changed the nature of your job?
Richard Sandomir: Of course, it’s accelerated everything. Think of this: in Sydney, only 12 years ago, I wrote about Rulon Gardner’s upset gold-medal win. I covered the evening event; interviewed Gardner and his family afterward and waited for comment from his opponent, a fearsome Russian. I left. I went to dinner. I wrote a version of the story. I WENT TO SLEEP. At about 8 in the morning, my editor and I worked on it. And then, it was included in a separate Olympic section that the Times put out. Four years earlier, at the Atlanta Games, Sports Illustrated published a daily Olympic magazine! You can’t get away with that stuff now; newspapers certainly couldn’t afford to publish a special Olympic section every day, nor would SI. But overall, events, and the media, move so quickly that you can’t wait hours and hours to publish; first you must write something quickly on-line; and so on and on.
Gelf Magazine: Outside of covering it, do you consume a lot of sports media? Which are your favorite?
Richard Sandomir: Well, I watch far less than I used to because of my evolving job at the Times. From early 2011 to March 2012, I covered two primary stories: the Mets’ legal fight against the trustee for the Madoff estate, and the sale of the Dodgers. Neither was a story that required that I watch much sports TV, so I didn’t; you gotta have a life! Since then, I’ve been engaged in a series that I’m still in the midst of reporting. So I don’t watch as much as I used to from 1991 until about 2005, I watched nearly everything on weekends and a lot of stuff on weeknights. The idea was to keep finding out what was really good and really bad; that turned into a job with diminishing returns. Generally, sports TV is pretty good and as long as announcers and producers and directors generally do what they’re supposed to doand you have to realize that they’re not all Al Michaels or Roone Arledge or Fred Gaudellithen there’s little to write about.
My favorite viewing now is probably Mets games, with Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling. Follow that with Marv Albert’s basketball calls and Sunday Night Football.
Gelf Magazine: Would you like to see sports as a bigger priority at the Times or do you think the paper strikes the right balance?
Richard Sandomir: It’s an ever evolving balance, depending on the editor, and the space available in these difficult times. But I think that at this point in time, we are at a terrific moment in our history largely because of the commitment our editor, Joe Sexton, has made to long-form series and articles, like John Branch’s “Snowfall” mega-story that got a special section of space and had a great online component. We have a relatively small staff so we are striking what I think is a fine balance between beat coverage, features and investigative journalism.
Gelf Magazine: Do you ever wish you were free to rant like Phil Mushnick?
Richard Sandomir: I used to rant more than I do now; but, no, I’ve never wished to fulminate like Phil. It’s tough on your innards. Phil has his shtick, and it works for him. Anybody else in New York sports journalism who tried to do that consistently would be accused of imitating him.
Gelf Magazine: From a business standpoint, was NBC right to show marquee events from the Olympic games on tape delay?
Richard Sandomir: Of course. It worked for them in prime-time. They know that more people gather in prime-time than any other time of the day, and regardless of the criticism, from fans and the media, that’s where they knew they’d get the ratings that would justify big advertising spending. Separately, the raft of live streaming (with some caveats) was long overdue, but I know that I wasn’t the only one who had a horrible time getting decent broadband reception.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think the rise of regional and team-specific sports networks will skew the playing field in favor of larger markets?
Richard Sandomir: Not sure if “skew” is the right word. All I know is that Fox, Comcast and Time Warner Cable have been so desperate to lock in long-term rights to local sports teams that they’re paying enormous amounts; those enormous amounts naturally apply to the biggest markets, like L.A., Dallas and NY. Fox’s purchase of 49 percent of the YES Network tells us a lot about the value of RSNs.
Gelf Magazine: Is ESPN too big to fail? Or could you see a new player taking it on in the future?
Richard Sandomir: I don’t know if “new players” can afford to take them on head-on. ESPN has a long head start. But Fox is starting a more concerted challenge than it ever has; NBCSN seems to want to be a challenger, at least to a certain extent; it figures there’s room for more than one sports network, and to compete you need not knock off the dominant leader. I don’t know to what extent CBS Sports Network will be a major competitor.
Gelf Magazine: Does ESPN's business relationships with the sports leagues it covers undermine its credibility in reporting on them?
Richard Sandomir: Without going into great detail or recycling what’s been written elsewhere, I will say this: if you want a challenge, try doing what ESPN is doing: be the biggest player in sports TV; nay, the biggest player in sports, and cover those sports objectively. At this point, I don’t want to say much else.
Gelf Magazine: Your book Bald Like Me: The Hair-Raising Adventures of Baldman preceded Larry David's bald pride movement and The Final Four of Everything predates Grantland's bracketology obsession. What should we be looking out for next?
Richard Sandomir: Shoes for your hands. It’s coming.