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Atlanta Thrashers and Blogging

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I feel a bit guilty blogging about bloggers since I've been a bit of an absentee writer of late. This is a busy time of year in my day job and I've been sick a bit lately. On top of all that, the Thrashers play of late has neither inspired nor outraged me so I have less to get off my chest than earlier in the season.

This weekend I was watching Hockey Night in Canada on my CenterIce package and they had a piece on NHL bloggers in between games. They took a camera to the Washington Capitals game and had some interview clips from prominent Caps bloggers. It was nice to put a human face on these virtual commentators. The Capitals have created an open door policy for bloggers in their press box because they do not receive the coverage they desire from the local broadcast and print news media (and having lived in DC for several years I would agree with that assessment).

Craig Custance discussed the Thrashers blogger policy in his beat blog at AJC.com. In his comments he suggested I be given press access and I appreciate the support. I did request a press pass for a game late last season after the Thrashers blogger night and some back channel encouragement, and I was turned down, I have not asked this season. I was granted a press pass in Nashville when Atlanta played there in October.

Where do bloggers fit into the media picture?

I tend to view bloggers as supplemental and complimentary to the traditional news outlets such as the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution). Personally I have no interest in replacing Craig Custance. I think he does a fine job and I have don't have the time to attend each practice, morning skate, and road trip. Craig keeps me up to date on players who are rehabbing their sore groins and when we might see a change in the lineup. So you could consider me a content consumer of his product.

On the other hand, bloggers do provide things that the traditional media outlets do not or can not provide. Looking about the blogging world I see roughly four types of bloggers:
1) News aggregators such as Kukla's Korner (for the NHL) and Thrashers Times (for the Thrashers fans).
2) Fan blogs where folks express their passion for the home team and hate for the opposition or attempt to combine humor with hockey (example: The Pens Blog).
3) Analysis blogs with hardcore stats where people break down games or teams in a way that would never be printed in a newspaper (example: Mudcrunch).
4) Columnist blogs where someone gives an opinion but in a less partisan way than in your typical rah-rah fan blog (example: Tom Benjamin's blog).

I think all four types of blogs are useful to fans of team and help to disperse information and increase discussion of NHL hockey. I would describe Thrashers Talons as a mix of #3 and #4. Last year I tracked which Thrashers drew penalties and can't imagine that ever appearing in a print publication. On the other hand, I do write posts that are intended to be analogous to a traditional newspaper column. In my free time, I favor reading analytical and opinion blogs and the saying is that you should "write the book you'd like to read" so I that's what I attempt to blog.

I know that many journalists fret about blogs as competitors (see www.sportsjournalists.com for some anxiety) but I tend to see them as complimentary. We need each other. Journalists benefit from all the links that bloggers put up that direct people to their work. There are many print articles I would not have discovered were it not for bloggers. Bloggers benefit from journalists who distill the essential facts so everyone can move on to discussion and debate.

Where do the Thrashers rank in local media coverage?

Let's take a hard look at the Atlanta Thrashers. They rank behind the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Georgia, Georgia Tech, NASCAR and high school football in terms of media coverage in Atlanta. The ONLY time the word "Thrashers" comes up on local sports talk radio is when Don Waddell or Bernie Mullin is being interviewed. Once that interview is over, the conversation ALWAYS shifts to another sport. The team receives perfunctory coverage on local TV news (does anyone still watch local TV news anymore?) An honest assessment is that THERE IS ALMOST ZERO BUZZ ABOUT THIS TEAM IN THIS MARKET. This team needs bloggers, this team needs buzz, this team deserves to be talked about.

I have attended almost every Thrashers home game over the last 5 seasons and I can tell you that most evenings you could set up a game of shuffleboard in the upper press box at Philips and play without bumping into a journalist. It is really a shame that this team gets so little attention. It is also a shame that they don't use all that press box space to encourage more blogger coverage.

The Washington Capitals and the Nashville Predators have the same problems that Atlanta faces in their marketplace and they have opened the door to bloggers. I was recently granted press access to the October game in Nashville. I sat in the press box. I wore a suit. I stayed out of the way of the beat reporter and still managed to ask Don Waddell a question after the game. I think that if there is room for bloggers in Nashville and Washington, there's room for bloggers in Atlanta.


What about the problem of blogger accountability?

I think the accountability issue is pretty straightforward. If the Thrashers granted me a press pass and I did something out of line they could revoke it. If I did something libelous I could be sued just like any other print journalist. I think any team granting press access to bloggers would be wise to adopt a code of conduct. Recently the Islanders granted their bloggers special access and some of them wore team jerseys to the locker room after the game. I think this is a mistake. To me press access carries with it the understanding that you dress professionally, you don't ask for autographs or ask questions about a player's personal life and so on. Put it in writing and have bloggers sign it.

The great irony is that face-to-face contact would probably reduce the vitriol that is so often present in anonymous online forums. People have posted many harsh things about Don Waddell over the years but at every Meet The GM event I've attended, people are rather polite in person. I've said some harsh things about Andy Sutton and Jeff Schultz in this blog, who knows maybe I would have been nicer if I saw them in person on a regular basis.


What would The Falconer do with a press pass?

I'd do interviews and I would probably ask slightly different questions than a beat reporter. For example, when I had a press pass for the Nashville game the beat reporter (Carroll Rogers that night) asked questions about specific plays within that game because she was writing her story about that game. But I was more interested in the big picture for my blog so I asked Coach/GM Waddell for his overall assessment of the team in his 2nd game behind the bench. I asked a broader question because I wanted to try and get a feel for how the GM saw his team and how that might influence his actions in the future.

If were doing some stats analysis on the penalty kill I'd like to go talk to the members of the PK unit and combine their comments with my stats. I'd also like to do some interviews that are too specialized for say the AJC.com, perhaps one about what players look for when they are picking out their sticks and skates. I'd like ask some of the players about their first NHL game and what they remember about it.

"Bloggers are just trying to get free tickets!"

I can't speak for all other bloggers out there but I've been a season ticket holder since season three and I've purchased tickets for Thrasher games since season one. I'm certainly not doing this for money (there is no advertising on my blog) and I'm not doing it for free tickets. I'm willing to bet money that I produce more content about the Atlanta Thrashers than many of the folks who sit in press box each game--and I'm doing it for free. I'm also willing to bet that I have a larger audience than some who sit in press row--so far this year 29,872 unique visitors have come to Thrashes Talons.


Will bloggers really help the Thrashers that much?

Since the Thrashers hired Ben Wright to author the in-house Blueline Blog it seems clear that the franchise must see some value in bloggers. Some people might say "How will having a bunch of bloggers grow the sport? Your readers are people who already like NHL hockey?" I will admit that increasing the number of bloggers may not do much to increase the number of fans but it can serve to increase the INTENSITY among current fans. Every fan that becomes more interested in the team is a fan who is more likely to buy merchandise, more likely to buy tickets or more likely to become a season ticket holder. The Thrashers don't need to be the top sport in Atlanta, but they do need 18,000 crazy die-hard hockey fans in the building each night and bloggers can help them reach that goal.