How many tweets are too many?
For reporters covering the University of Washington basketball team, the answer is 20. Todd Dybas, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune sparked a controversy last week when he sent out a tweet after covering a Husky men’s basketball game saying he was “reprimanded by the University of Washington for tweeting too much during a live event.”
In sports, exclusivity is where the money is. Schools and teams earn revenue by selling broadcast rights to radio and television, and they protect those rights diligently (which is why during every baseball broadcast, you’re told “Any account of this game, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball, is prohibited”). There’s a worry that social media platforms allow people to give live play-by-play, which would lead to fewer people listening or watching to traditional broadcasts, which would lead to less money.
It’s not only traditional media rights the teams want to protect. There may not be the same kind of money in online play-by-play platforms yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future. And if there is a possibility there might be money to be made, the teams are going to do everything in their power to ensure that money is made by them. If they allow a wide-open environment now, the thinking goes, then they’ll lose the ability to charge for it later, when they figure out where the money is. They lose exclusivity.
The problem is, social media – by its very nature – doesn’t sit well with exclusivity.
UW implemented a policy before this football season limiting the number of updates credentialed media can send out during a game (20 for basketball, 45 for football) but this was apparently the first time it was enforced. Policies prohibiting media members from producing a “real-time” play-by-play description of an event aren’t uncommon, but enforcement is.
In 2007, well before most news outlets started using Twitter, a reporter for Louisville’s Courier-Journal was ejected from a college baseball game for violating NCAA policies on live-blogging. At the time, any blogging during a game was prohibited. The next year, the NCAA revised the policy to allow some updates, with restrictive limits (for basketball, the guidelines were five updates per half, with an additional update at halftime).
Today, the NCAA’s social media policy is less specific, prohibiting only “real-time” descriptions of an event.
The NCAA policies only apply to credentialed media covering a NCAA tournament event. Schools and conferences can set their own rules for regular season games, and in 2009, the Southeastern Conference flirted with taking the policies one step further. That year the SEC released a policy that would have essentially banned any social media postings, not only by media but also by fans attending the games. After a backlash, the SEC quickly amended the policy to allow non-commercial social media use.
UW hasn’t changed its policy despite the recent attention, despite apparently being one of only two schools in the Pac-12 – along with the private University of Southern California – to restrict live online coverage. They’re likely on the wrong side of the trend, though. Teams can control the method of coverage by controlling media credentials allowing access to players and coaches. That access is still important for telling larger stories about the team and reporting news. It’s not as important for the in-game social media discussion.
Twitter and other social media platforms have given rise to a second-screen experience, as fans watching in person or on television interact with reporters covering the game. In this space, the distinctions between media and fan blur – if a team tells the reporters they can’t say something on social media, there are dozen, hundreds, even thousands of other people who are online and talking about the event.
Washington clearly recognizes the value of the second screen. The school hosts its own live chat during games on GoHuskies.com and has an in-house reporter, Gregg Bell, who offers live updates during game on his own twitter account, not to mention the various official twitter accounts for each team. Since UW has embraced social media as a second (or first) screen during games, it makes some sense that the school would try to keep the exclusivity model of traditional media. New platforms make it easy for the school to get its own message out, and by limiting the amount of tweets other reporters can post during a game, the athletic department may be trying to clear the field and grab the maximum audience for its own product.
If the university’s social media products are compelling for people, they’ll engage with those products. However, fans who use social media for a second screen are unlikely to turn to only one outlet. The very nature of the platforms makes it easy to consume and converse with many different sources at once. And if fans decide the official message isn’t giving them what they want, there’s nothing to stop any passionate follower from setting up his or her own live chat, or twitter account, or use whatever the next killer app might be to find the experience they want.
Limiting other media members from tweeting doesn’t guarantee an audience for the university’s twitter account, or for their broadcast partners. It’s not easy for institutions to cede control and there’s no doubt that UW has an interest in protecting its product and revenue. But chasing exclusivity in social media is a losing proposition. No matter who you wall off, there will always be others to step in and fill that void.