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Hockey blogs in the right place as newspaper sports coverage declines

The Sports Business Journal has a great article this morning on the impact that the decline in the newspaper business is having on pro sports teams, and the Nashville Predators make for an insightful case study. After the jump, the team's Senior Vice President of Communications and Development, Gerry Helper, provides some perspective on the challenges the Preds have faced, both over the long- and short-term, in getting the coverage they need.

The Nashville Predators already felt they were getting short-sheeted in a market that has neither an NBA nor MLB team when the only paper in the town, The Tennessean, stopped sending its beat writer on the road with them for the final two months of last season.

"Even when they were traveling, the amount of space they gave the beat writer was ridiculous," said Gerry Helper, senior vice president of communications and development for the Predators. "We need more coverage. More attention. If we don’t feel we’re reaching a broad enough audience, or even reaching our core fans (through the local newspaper), we have to find other ways."

This spring was a frustrating time; as the team headed out on a West Coast road trip in the middle of a battle for playoff position, there were several players battling injuries, and without John Glennon traveling with them, there was a blackout in coverage just when Predators fans were most interesting in getting daily updates. Fortunately, a blogger, Mark from The View From 111, happened to have a vacation already planned around the road trip, so he provided updates as best he could, watching out for which players skated in practice, etc. It was an odd circumstance where a blog had, for a short time, surpassed the mainstream daily newspaper as a source of information about the Preds.

This episode, however, is part of a long-standing trend the team has faced:

In Nashville, Helper said he has contemplated what he’d do when the papers went away almost from the time that the team came to town a dozen years ago. After working for both the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as in the league office, he went into the job in Nashville optimistic that coverage would be plentiful because it was a two newspaper town, and papers frequently put more resources behind a beat when they’re competing on it.

Eight months before the Predators first game, the Nashville Banner folded.

"That was a concern for me," Helper said. "And as history has borne out it was a pretty legitimate one."

The Preds haven’t gone as far as the Kings in providing coverage, instead trying to build relationships with bloggers, credentialing a couple in Nashville for games and trading e-mails with some who opine on hockey from a national perspective.

The Predators have indeed been very open to working with proven, established bloggers, and in fact on the last day of the Development Camp earlier this month, the media presence in the dressing room was exclusively blog-related! There was myself, Buddy & Jackson from Preds on the Glass, Brandon Felder and Paul McCann, Jeremy and Codey from, Jim Diamond of the Nashville Predators Examiner, and Holly Gunning from Hockey's Future. John Glennon happened to be out of town that day, but the Nashville City Paper wasn't there, nor was there any TV or radio presence.

The question going forward, however, is how that access is used by both parties. For the bloggers, will they mute their criticism of the team for fear of losing their golden opportunity? For the team, how do they establish trust with what can be a dynamic landscape of sports blogs, and ensure that such access won't get exploited improperly?

One practical option in this area would be to follow the path of the Washington Capitals, and establish clear guidelines that lay out the concerns of the team, and the expectations placed upon any bloggers who are to be granted access such as game-day press credentials or interviews with players & staff. This stuff isn't rocket science, but getting the relevant factors stated clearly and openly can go a long way towards avoiding trouble for all parties involved.