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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Cuban's proposed media 'takeover' wrong on many levels


When Mark Cuban drew swift and negative reaction with plans to re-evaluate media access to the Dallas Mavericks, it came as no surprise the billionaire owner refused to back down. Nor did it serve as a revelation that Cuban further stoked the debate with the kind of sensationalism and headline-mongering he criticized in the first place.

Cuban comparing online media to heroin addicts in a CNN interview Sunday tells you everything you need to know about his motive, which is not to further the noble pursuits of journalism, the Fourth Estate, but rather to turn media coverage of the Mavericks into an in-house, pom-pom-waving exercise and grab all the market share and page views for himself.

Mark Cuban said giving internet reporters locker-room access is akin to supplying a heroin junkie with a needle. (AP)  
Mark Cuban said giving internet reporters locker-room access is akin to supplying a heroin junkie with a needle. (AP)  
But the motive isn't the scary part. What should have all fans concerned about this effort to create "state"-run sports media coverage is that Cuban actually appears to be serious. And he doesn't want to be the lone wolf; he wants to be the leader in a movement that could change, for the worse, the kind of information fans get about their teams.

Under questioning from Howard Kurtz, Washington bureau chief of The Daily Beast, former Washington Post media columnist and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," Cuban admitted Sunday he's absolutely serious about his plans to muscle independent, online reporters out of his locker room.

"I wouldn't call it muscling," Cuban said. "I think that's a little pejorative. But I'm certainly evaluating what the alternatives are, like any good business would."

But Cuban's plans go beyond that. In an email exchange after the interview aired, Cuban hinted he intends to take his vision to the other 29 NBA owners in an effort to "lead the way by example and try to set an example of best practices for my partners. It's up to them to agree or disagree."

Knowing sports teams the way I do, Cuban will be preaching to the choir. Why would owners of NBA teams, or any professional teams, want pesky, neutral, unbiased reporters scrutinizing their every move when they could have their own hand-picked homers instead?

"All those tools that other people use to create commentary and opinion, I have access to those tools as well," Cuban said. "But I have the additional benefit of having deeper access to the information because it's my company. Particularly now in this media environment, where there's so much turnover among reporters and journalists or headline mongers, however you want to define each individual person, I have great opportunities to go out and hire them as well."

There's so much wrong with this perspective, it's hard to know where to begin. Cuban's stance is more than an end-around to avoid fair media coverage of his team; a sort of, "If you can't beat 'em, hire and muzzle 'em" approach. It's more than a self-serving attempt to challenge legitimate news organizations' efforts to report news, earn profits, gain market share and create brand awareness on the sweat of his company.

It is more than delusional and dangerous. It's a direct affront to you, the sports fan, and an insult to anyone who pays the obscene prices you're paying to consume sports -- not to mention the cost incurred by those who don't consume sports or know a pick-and-roll from a double-reverse.

The most obvious flaw in Cuban's suggestion that he has the power to restrict access for independent, online media and replace them with his own reporters is, quite simply, that he does not have such power. Why? Because the Mavs, which he repeatedly referred to in the CNN interview as "my business," are not his business. Cuban is a willing partner in a cartel of 30 businesses known as the NBA, which enjoys, among other competitive advantages, partial exemption from U.S. antitrust law.

The Mavs would not exist without the NBA and Cuban's 29 partners, and wouldn't make much money without the federal exemption that allows NBA teams to pool television rights on network TV without antitrust scrutiny. Cuban has agreed to abide by anti-free market rules like this and others, such as the salary cap and revenue sharing, to enjoy the many benefits of owning a professional sports team.

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While sources tell CBSSports.com that the NBA has no plans to fine Cuban over his recent anti-media rants, there is no doubt his views on media access clash with the views of the league as a whole -- and with those of Cuban's longtime nemesis, commissioner David Stern. If Cuban wanted to play by different rules -- restricting media access, spending as much as he pleased on his team, serving as his own commissioner so he would never again be fined for bashing the referees -- then he would be welcome to secede from the NBA. I invite him to take the Hornets, Bobcats and Kings/Royals with him, form his own league, and put the games on his beloved HDNet, which nobody watches. This would solve many problems, including the restoration of competitive balance to a league that has too many teams. The savings from exporting underperforming teams to Cuban's irrelevant league might even avert a lockout -- which amounts to little more than another selfish attack on your sports consumption that Cuban fully supports, by the way.

Before Cuban's fellow owners embrace his in-house media plan as a brilliant idea, they should take a look at their bread to see where it's buttered. American Airlines Center, where the Mavs play, was partly financed by a public bond sale before Cuban bought the team. But what of the other NBA teams whose playpens have been financed by bond sales, various tax schemes and other government boondoggles? If you want to exempt yourself from public media scrutiny, have at it. Just pay back the taxpayers first and figure out how to fund your own businesses.

Cuban claims he isn't trying to eliminate negative coverage, but admitted that he's motivated by something even more sinister: the realization that the interests of his business and the independent media covering it are "not necessarily aligned," he said Sunday.

Welcome to the republic, Mark. The interests of the media and the subjects they cover, whether or not they receive some level of exemption from federal law or taxpayer money to do business, have never been aligned. Nor should they be. Cuban, brilliant businessman and professional jock sniffer, has unsurprisingly adopted the athlete credo here: that the media exist only to chronicle their successes and ignore their failings.

Would Cuban's in-house journalists be free to use what he described Sunday as unfiltered access to his business to report the bad with the good? Would sports teams covering themselves reveal the mysteries behind all those suspensions for violating "team rules," or the exact nature of matters that were being "handled internally?" Would the real reasons for a player's unexpected absence from a road trip be revealed, replacing the clever excuse known as "back spasms?"

If, heaven forbid, a Lakers fan were beaten on Mavericks property the way a Giants fan (Bryan Stow, a 42-year-old father of two) was put into a coma at Dodgers Stadium last week, how would his 'CNN' –- the Cuban News Network -- cover the story?

It shouldn't, wouldn't want to and couldn't possibly do so objectively. As Cuban himself would have to admit, the publishing of negative news would not be aligned with the best interests of his business. Which raises the question of whether sports teams really want to practice journalism in the first place. Be careful what you wish for.

Journalism is a challenging endeavor. When practiced correctly, it is done without so much as the appearance of a conflict of interest. Sometimes this is achieved, and sometimes it isn't. But a sports team employing journalists to scrutinize itself, to the exclusion of outside media, would be the very definition of such a conflict. The old adage, "consider the source," would be a daily impediment to achieving credibility with the audience Cuban thinks he can so easily hijack.

And lest we forget, sports leagues and teams already are in the business of reporting on themselves, publishing glass-half-full "news" accounts on their websites and communicating with fans and customers via Twitter, Facebook and a growing menu of other social media platforms. This is their right, of course; everyone is a journalist these days. But sports teams and leagues also have long been engaged in the practice of restricting independent media access, a self-serving activity that Cuban wants to shift into the next logical gear.

Locker-room access time for reporters has only diminished, and reporters' activities have been increasingly encumbered by a ubiquitous army of media relations employees who monitor their interviews, report the contents to their superiors and cut off questioning when the topics aren't to their liking. Reporters dutifully sit in news conferences, obeying orders from the P.R. man to "wait for the microphone," so the full audio of the event can be streamed uninterrupted to the team's web site. (The exception to this rule, and praise be to him that there is one, is T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, who suffers no company lapdog easily and asks whatever he wants whenever he pleases, microphone and sensibilities be damned.)

The dwindling number of NFL teams that allow reporters to view practice routinely impose guidelines on what can and cannot be reported. The latest trend, carried out this season by at least one big-market pro sports team, is to punish columnists for unfavorable coverage by moving their seats to the upper deck. (Unofficial guidelines are to assign seats based on circulation size for newspaper reporters and readership metrics for online journalists, not personal vendettas.)

But the question of what Cuban is really after here falls under the oldest rule in sports and business: Follow the money. Cuban decries the modern online journalist as someone whose sole purpose is to pimp for headlines, page-views, and search-engine optimization. For one thing, striking the right balance between news the public wants and needs to know has always been part of the deal; news outlets merely have the technology to measure it now. Beyond that, methinks Cuban doth protest too much, since these are all potentially worthwhile activities that Cuban thinks he should be engaged in -- instead of ESPN.com, Yahoo.com, this website and others.

Cuban wants his share of the fun here, which should come as no surprise. He has an incredibly keen eye for upside. But in this case, he has failed to see the downside.

Though he at times has been unfairly cast as a lightning rod for criticism and depicted as a caricature by those who don't know him, I have tended to agree with him far more often than not. His complaints about NBA teams giving its players to FIBA for free, so they can make billions for the Olympics and broadcast networks, were dead on, for example. I've also enjoyed my frequent interactions with him, as Cuban is one of the public figures in sports who is never afraid to speak his mind or make himself available to whatever form of media coverage suits his quest for personal gain. But in this case, he's wrong. In this spasm of self-indulgence, Cuban has committed the rare blunder of completely misreading what his customer wants.

Sports fans don't just want the good news. They want all of it. When the Mavs struggle, or when a draft pick or trade doesn't pan out, they want an unfettered, clear-eyed account of why. Cuban is welcome to argue over whether that's journalism, but he does not have the right to decide who gets to practice it.

In our email exchange, Cuban insisted he has the best interests of journalism at heart. "Look at my track record," he wrote. But his recent track record of chasing disgraced funny man Charlie Sheen around to create a reality show for HDNet suggests exactly what you think it does: Cuban isn't above the very sensationalism he decries. He's an active participant who wants more of the action for himself.

So from one journalist to an aspiring one, I leave you with this, Mark: Before you try to have your cake and eat it too, beware the oldest trick in the book: the pie in the face. In this case, the joke's on you.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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