For SEC, tech-savvy fans might be biggest threats to media exclusivity

Dade City judge and University of Florida grad Pat Siracusa is such a big Gators football fan that he sometimes wears a replica Tim Tebow jersey under his black robe on Fridays in the fall.

His profile picture on his Facebook page is a photo he took with his phone from the stands at last January's national championship game.

It's a good memory.

But the Southeastern Conference might use a different word to describe that image: illegal.

The SEC, one of college sports' biggest, richest, most prominent conferences, earlier this month sent to its 12 schools an eye-opening new media policy. It places increasingly stringent limits on reporters and how much audio, video and "real-time" blogging they can do at games, practices and news conferences.

But even more interesting is that the policy also includes rules for fans in the stands. No updating Twitter feeds. No taking photos with phones and posting them on Facebook or Flickr. No taking videos and putting them on YouTube.

A conference spokesman said this policy was meant to try to keep as many eyeballs as possible on ESPN and CBS — which are paying the SEC $3 billion for the broadcast rights to the conference's games over the next 15 years — and also on the SEC Digital Network — the conference's own entity that's scheduled to debut on SECSports.com later this month.

Many are saying this makes the bosses of the SEC look like fuddy-duddy technophobes — that they don't "get" new media.

They get it. The language of the conference's policy suggests they know all too well the high-stakes fight that's just beginning.

If exclusivity is the aim, and it is, because it's that exclusivity that commands the billions of dollars from TV networks, then the fans aren't just fans anymore. They're looking more and more like so many cell phone-equipped individual information feeds.

And here is the digital-age realization: The SEC's greatest supporters are now also the SEC's biggest competitors.

• • •

All sports conferences have rules for what reporters can and can't do. It's in a credential agreement. All sports conferences also have rules for what fans can and can't do. It's often found on the backs of tickets. This is not new.

What's different about the SEC's new policy is twofold:

1. There's still a media policy and a fan policy. But the fan policy talks an awful lot about media.

2. It's the most stringent language yet in college sports.

Due to the angry response from columnists, bloggers and fans, the policy is "undergoing a revisionary process," said Charles Bloom, the conference spokesman, and a final version is expected on Monday. But here is the language as it stands now:

Ticketed fans can't "produce or disseminate (or aid in producing or disseminating) any material or information about the Event, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, video, audio, reproduction or other information concerning the Event. …"

Very broad. That's on purpose.

"So if I call my buddy and tell him what's going on," said Siracusa, the judge with the Facebook photo, "that would be in violation of the policy, too?"

Much of the fan reaction over the past week — aside from open-mouthed exasperation — has focused on enforcement. Namely: How?

Said David Hooper of the Tennessee fan site Rocky Top Talk: "They'll be chasing shadows."

Take Florida Field in Gainesville. A capacity crowd there is a lot of fans.

"I mean, you have 90,000 of them," UF associate athletics director Mike Hill said last week. "That's a hard thing to police."

In truth, though, the conference isn't so worried about the judge's Facebook photo, or his phone call. They're not so worried about text messages and tweets.

What they're worried about is what the judge's phone, and everybody else's phone, will be able to do in two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now.

"I would guess," said Mike Masnick, the editor of the respected blog techdirt, "that they're realizing that anyone can be a reporter or a broadcaster these days.

"And for them," he said, "that's pretty scary."

• • •

The rub is this: The audience isn't the audience anymore.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has a term for this fundamental shift: the people formerly known as the audience. Arizona State professor Dan Gillmor is more succinct: We the Media. That's the title of his book on the subject.

Two Australian researchers published a paper on this just last month. The title: "From Broadcast Scarcity to Digital Plenitude: The Changing Dynamics of the Media Sport Content Economy."

They wrote about "user-generated content," "technological convergence" and "emerging zones of conflict," but the problem for the SEC, and any other conference, can be boiled down to this declarative sentence:

"The exclusivity that can be secured in the domain of television cannot be guaranteed online."

Go to YouTube. Search pretty much any game anywhere. Some of what pops up are clips taken by fans with their phones from the stands. They're almost always grainy, or jumpy, and generally low-quality.

They're not going to be that way forever.

The only certainty in technology is that it gets faster and cheaper, exponentially, always.

Imagine, then, a day not too far away when fans from their seats will use their phones to stream onto the Internet a video feed, for free, that conceivably could approximate the images for which ESPN and CBS have paid billions of dollars.

That in mind, the SEC's new media policy is "prescient," said Dave Hendricks, who blogs about "media and monetization, attention and permission" at attentionization.com.

"They're thinking into the future," he said. "They're saying the biggest competitor for us is someone in the stands who can live vlog a game" — that is, video blog — "which is an inevitability. That's their real competition: sophisticated video bloggers who are going to siphon off the audience."

"I would say," said Masnick, from techdirt, "it's not only plausible, but probable. The idea that you could create an amateur citizen media sporting event broadcast is very much in the realm of possibility."

And then?

Exclusivity is "a myth," he said. "I don't think you can enforce exclusivity in a world where the technology and the ease of access makes the walls that used to be there just melt away."

And then?

"If it reaches the point where it's not just 15 people doing this, it's 1,000 people, it gets more and more difficult to stop," he said. "At which point you either stop letting fans into games or you figure out a way to deal with the fact that fans are going to do this."

And then?

"The days of the multibillion-dollar exclusive contracts are possibly in jeopardy," said Gillmor, the author of We the Media.

"The idea that people can't capture their own lived experience is a losing proposition," Clay Shirky said last week. Shirky is an expert on new media and the author of Here Comes Everybody. What he writes about, he has said, are "systems where vested interests lose out to innovation."

That's what this is: a system (the SEC), with vested interests (billions of them), trying with this new media policy to at least postpone the third part of that progression.

"But in the end," Masnick said, "you can't stop what technology allows."

Staff writers Drew Harwell, Kim Wilmath and Shannon Colavecchio and news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

For SEC, tech-savvy fans might be biggest threats to media exclusivity 08/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:42pm]

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