DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Look at the Wide World of Sports

What do you think are the biggest changes in the field of sports you have witnessed in your lifetime? Well, for 2 veteran sports journalists, who between them have more than 100 years of experience on the subject, there are 2 answers. First, is the fact that sports are now ubiquitous - they are everywhere and permeate so many parts of our lives. The second is that sports is now a huge business - one that may soon approach a trillion dollars in revenue.

Recently, George Solomon, former sports editor at The Washington Post and current professor at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, and John Walsh, a former editor of Rolling Stone magazine and current executive editor at ESPN, held a wide-ranging discussion on the world of sports at the Newseum. The discussion was moderated by Shelby Coffey III, a national newsman of note and the vice chairman of that museum.

"When it comes to differences you have the ubiquity of sports," said Walsh, who in the ESPN role he has held for 25 years has played a large part in the growth of interest in the subject. "And then you have sports as a business. I don't think it will be long before we will be be using the 't' (for trillion) word. It's a whole different game now."

Solomon concurred with that assessment, but said that there are downsides to the changes, especially the emphasis on money. "Tradition is no more," he said.

Walsh said that when he arrived at ESPN in 1987, he was part of the push for the now key network program Sports Center. "We wanted to put our best people on it. We wanted to make it a gathering place for sports fans for every night of the year. We wanted to improve the experience for the sports fan," he said.

The ratings, and the power that comes with such an audience,  proved Walsh right. "ESPN is a sports giant. It sets the table. It can do anything it wants," Solomon said.

Obviously, personality plays a huge role in sports, whether you are considering the players on the field or the sports reporters who cover them. Solomon said that during his time as sports editor for The Post he tried to cultivate top columnists to bring their take to DC's sports scene. By most accounts, when you consider such writers as Sally Jenkins, Tony Kornhesier, and Michael Wilbon, he was successful. "The voice of the town sportswise are your columnists. They make the (sports) section," Solomon said.

Like all journalism, sports in the paper and on TV is being altered by the explosion of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and, perhaps most of all, Twitter, which allows for almost instant reporting of any event in 140 characters or less.

"In the old days, reporters were told to keep their opinions to themselves. But that's completely changed," Walsh said. "The best writers are encouraged now to have an opinion and share it. We live in an opinion universe. I looked the other day and we (ESPN) have more than 50 people with more than a million followers (on Twitter)."

Both veterans lamented the fact that in differing ways ratings lead to over-coverage for some sports and athletes and under-coverage for others. "Editors see the clicks (of people reading stories on the internet) and act accordingly," Solon said.

"Today, too much is based on focus groups, audience and ratings instead of vision," Walsh concluded.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As narrator, Coffey had the 2 veteran journalists engage in a lighting round discussion of a series of sports history questions. Here are the the questions and responses
What is the greatest sports event you witnessed?
Solomon - Ben Jonson beating Carl Lewis in the 100 meters (Jonson was later disqualified for using performance enhancing drugs) and the fights of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard
Walsh - as youngster seeing Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitch a perfect game in the World Series
What about the biggest chokes?
Solomon - "What athletes do is very hard. I don't pinpoint chokes, I like to say surprising failures."
Walsh - again, as a youngster, watching his then-favorite baseball team the Phillies lose 23 straight games and then, just a few years later, blow a seemingly insurmountable lead and not get into the 1964 World Series. "I still have my tickets for that series (that wasn't)."
Best individual athlete?
Solomon - Muhammad Ali
Walsh - Bill Russell
Best team?
Solomon - the Red Auerbach-led Boston Celtics basketball dynasty of the 1960s
Walsh - the Pittsburgh Steelers football teams of the 1970s

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