Get two journalists in a room these days, and before the conversation is five minutes old they'll probably be kvetching about the grim state of the news business. Unless, that is, they happen to be sports journalists, in which case the conversation will likely focus on how absurdly bright the future looks. Especially here in Boston.
Consider: last month, Comcast SportsNet New England announced that it was hiring a whopping 40 new reporters and producers; beefing up its Web site as part of a massive converged-content push; building a new newsroom at its Burlington, Massachusetts, headquarters; and launching a live, half-hour, thrice-nightly sports show.
Earlier this fall, meanwhile, the Boston Globe — a paper that's been downsizing with depressing regularity of late — shored up its sports desk with a slew of hires, for both the paper and boston.com, its Web site. In September, ESPN, sports media's dominant national brand, graced the Bay State with its second locally focused Web site, espnboston.com (Chicago got the first).
And in August, CBS Radio killed rock stalwart WBCN-FM, switched WBMX-FM to 'BCN's old frequency at 104.1 FM, and launched WBZ-FM, a/k/a "the Sports Hub" — a move obviously aimed at challenging the supremacy of WEEI-AM, Entercom's ratings-rich sports-talk powerhouse. (Bear in mind, too, that weei.com, WEEI-AM's sister site, recently transformed itself from a new-media afterthought to a Web force to be reckoned with.)
Lucky them — and I say that with barely any non-sports-media envy. Still, two questions spring to mind: what's driving this boom, exactly? And how long can it possibly last?
According to Jason Wolfe, Entercom New England's vice-president of AM programming — who recently brokered a content-sharing agreement linking WEEI-AM and ESPN Radio — the answer to the first question is simple: Bostonians really, really, really like sports. "I think Boston's the best sports city in the country," says Wolfe. "People care about it more. More media outlets want to get in the game because of that — and the marketplace is going to continue to drive how big that interest is."
Ardent Boston fandom certainly is a big part of the equation — particularly given the recent triumphs of the Patriots (winners of Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX), Red Sox (World Series champions in 2004 and 2007), and Celtics (NBA champions in 2008). But bigger structural forces that transcend Boston are also playing a key role, according to Timothy A. Franklin, director of Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center and a former editor and senior vice-president of the Baltimore Sun.
"Online advertising revenue from sports Web sites is projected to double in the five-year period ending in 2012," says Franklin. "We're in this terrible recession — and without question in the worst advertising slump since the Great Depression — but new advertising money is moving into sports and sports-media sites."