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Action against blogger could be first of many hits

The Baltimore Sun


Not a particularly delicate word, is it?

In fact, it sounds a little messy. And a mess is what the NCAA created when it exiled a sportswriter from The (Louisville) Courier-Journal from the press box last weekend because he was blogging about a college playoff baseball game.

The NCAA's action was defended this way: It was protecting the broadcast and Internet distribution rights of the its official partners, ESPN and CBS SportsLine.com. The argument was that the immediacy of blogging about the game's events violated those rights.

The newspaper and its allies in the media are crying foul on the basis of First Amendment protections, contending that a news organization should be allowed to report news that happens in a public place. The paper is considering filing a lawsuit.

Some have criticized the NCAA on the grounds of simple common sense, saying that it has picked the wrong fight. College baseball usually begs for coverage, so why alienate the media over a Louisville-Oklahoma State baseball game?

The truth of the matter is that this is just one of the first skirmishes in what may prove to be a much bigger war.

Sports organizations (NCAA, NFL, et al.) and sports teams now view the games they produce as entertainment "content," like a TV sitcom or a music CD. And they increasingly see themselves not merely as "leagues" and "teams" but as media companies.

Step back and look at all those slick league and team Web sites with their volumes of text information and streaming video, sometimes even in real time. Look at the NFL Network.

The real money lies not in merely producing the content and selling rights, as has been the practice since the dawn of radio and television, but rather in keeping that content in a proprietary fashion and distributing it. Occasionally, sports entities may need a partner, but usually it's because that partner has an in-place technical infrastructure (for instance, mobile devices) that is too costly to replicate.

The Internet, the battleground where the blog firefight is being waged, is a relatively cheap start-up, though.

A news organization, such as a newspaper, and a football team may start out in very different businesses. But when both have a Web site, as virtually all do now, and there's an overlap of the information on those two Web sites, inevitably there will be a conflict. And the owner of the content has the upper hand.

Case in point: The NFL has announced limitations for news Web sites for the 2007 season that will limit online video of practices and news conferences to 45 seconds a day and prohibit archiving.

So while the blogging fracas in Kentucky is ostensibly about broadcast rights, the broader issue is over content protection as well as who is allowed to distribute that content and how.

And what does this mean to fans who may not care where their content comes from?

Count on this: In a world where newsmakers control distribution of the news itself, when it really counts you only hear and see what they want you to.


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