Covering the business of sports
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell is one of only a handful of business journalists who covers the business of sports full time.
He is responsible for both analyzing and reporting on the sports business world on all of CNBC’s programming. In addition, he is also author of the “Sports Biz” blog on CNBC.com.
Prior to joining CNBC in July 2006, Rovell served as sports business writer for ESPN.com and reported on the world of agents, stadium deals, endorsements and contracts on ESPN’s flagship, “SportsCenter,” its investigative show, “Outside the Lines,” and had weekly segments on ESPNEWS.
Rovell is also the author of two business books: “First In Thirst: How Gatorade Turned The Science of Sweat Into A Cultural Phenomenon” and “On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America’s Sports Leaders.”
A graduate of Northwestern University, Rovell is the only sports business journalist ever named to the NewsBios “30 under 30,” which lists the top business journalists in the country younger than 30.
He’s also been a big user of Twitter to develop his following — he has more than 58,000 followers. “Twitter is my life,” said Rovell, noting, however, that he can not break a story on Twitter before it appears on the air or CNBC’s website.
Rovell talked Tuesday morning by telephone with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get interested in covering sports as a business?
I would refer to it as a unique love of business journalism. I call it unique only because when I was in 11th grade, I started liking business journalism. I figured I wanted to be a business journalist, and I went to Northwestern. My sophomore, I interned with Fox Sports media relations, and I came to know the publication Sports Business Daily, and said, “This is what I want to cover.” Later that year, Sports Business Journal came out. So I could see that there was a niche. I tried to make myself the expert in this niche as quick as possible. I went to Fox Sports the next year and started FoxSportsBiz.com as an intern.
And then when I got back to Northwestern, I started a call-in sports business radio show. We did not have many call ins, but we did have team presidents and agents. I quickly realized that athletes don’t want to to talk you, but everyone wants to talk to them. In sports business, they want to talk, but no one wants to talk to them.
In the fall of my senior year, ESPN came to Northwestern, and they were trying to hire for ESPN.com. I asked them for 10 minutes and explained to them why they needed sports business coverage. And two weeks after I graduated, I was covering sports business for ESPN. A lot of it was about my preparation, but it was also a little bit of luck. I was in the right place at the right time, but it was a lot of preparation. I can tell anyone what Bill Veeck did when he owned the St. Louis Browns.
Why are there so few sports business reporters out there?
The height of sports business journalism was probably in the mid to late 1990s because of the so-called concrete beat — all of these stadiums were being built. The papers needed constant coverage, but then they didn’t know what to do with these guys once the stadium was done. Nationally, it’s easier because I literally have the pick of the litter with what I have to do, and there’s just not so much locally. So then the sports business reporter would do sports business and then have to cover 10 other things, and they weren’t good at any of them.
What types of sports business stories are you looking for every day?
I chose this year to miss my first Super Bowl in 10 years and to fly home to cover the Super Bowl. The reason is that when you are at the Super Bowl, you’re in the bowels of the stadium, and the connection is not great. I don’t need to cover the game. I need to covber the commercials and everything else going on. So what was amazing on Sunday was that I was breaking details of the ticket snafu from my home in Livingston, N.J. That is one of the interesting things.
Every day is a different story. Yesterday, the big story was the National Anthem story. There was a bet as to how long it was going to take. One sports book timed it at 1:53 and paid the under, and one sports book timed it at 1:54 and paid the over. While another sports book paid both. I love betting stories.
I am still working on the ticket story and these 400 people. I am very interested in the television story and ratings. The crazy thing is that you have fans going to a game and recording it and then going home and watching it again. The collective bargaining agreements with the NFL and NBA — I have to cover labor this year like crazy.
I literally every day have a choice. I have to decide what is best for television, what is best for the blog, and what is best for Twitter.
How is covering sports business different than covering business in another industry?
It’s not. I consider myself a business reporter who happens to cover sports. I look at the same things as someone covering M&A or someone covering the airline industry.
If there is any difference, everyone feels like they’re an investor when they are a fan of the sport, and that engenders more interest. Let’s say someone covers the airlines and writes about Boeing, the people who are going to be most interested in that are the investors who have shares of stock. With my stories, everyone thinks they have shares. I have a greater chance of interest because everyone feels like they have a vested interest in sports.
What do you think has been the biggest sports business story in the past year?
It’s hard to argue that the general downfall of the icon has not been the No. 1 story. Tiger Woods is just a story that you think could not possibly happen. Someone said to me that his fall was Nixonian, but it actually might have been worse than Nixon. He went to the absolute height of heights to the absolute depths. Covering this story crossed over more than anything I have done. When you’re on Access Hollywood every week, that’s amazing. I am proud of the way I covered it. I covered it as a business story. I stuck to how it hurt his business.
How is working for CNBC different than working for ESPN, your former employer?
The stories are nearly the same. So I haven’t changed the way I have done things. ESPN is pumping out so much content that if you don’t have an automatic platform every day, you can get lost. And I felt lost at times. On CNBC, the website gets fewer hits than ESPN.com, but I am featured more prominently, which is good. There is a difference between the people who watch ESPN and the people who watch CNBC. The ESPN viewer dips in and out. They may watch “SportsCenter” for a few minutes and then catch a game later. The CNBC viewer never shuts it off.
Although I am covering the business of sports, which might seem like nonessential to CNBC, I feel like I do play a part in mixing up part of the broadcast day. It provides viewers with some levity. I kind of see myself as the rodeo clown in a way. If the market is going down, two and a half minutes of fun about sports will divert your attention.
Are there other sports business journalists that you admire for their work?
The thing about this business is that we are a very small ghroup, but it does get us going when one of us writes an article that the others wish they had. I like Neil Best at Newsday for his coverage of media, Mike McCarthy at USAToday for hjis coverage of media, Richard Sandomir at the New York Times, Matt Futterman at the Wall Street Journal. Mike Buteau at Bloomberg. There’s a group of us, and we see each other at every event. That’s what gets me going. People say you don’t have much competition, how do you keep the fire going? But within this small group, there is a lot of competition. I get angry at stories I wish I had written.
What gets missed when a sports reporter covers a business-oriented sports story?
They Google the name of a pundit, someone who is good at talking about general stuff, and they shy away from talking directly to the source. Frankly, they’re just not as interested. They just want to get it done and do it adequately. There are some reporters who cover other things who are really good, such as Brent Schrotenboer at the San Diego Union Tribune. When he gets into something, he does it really good. But many of them just want to get back to their beat, so they’re not going to work as hard. To be fair, I have an advantage because I speak to these people all the time. I have sources who will tell me what the real story is like they have an advantage of getting the players to talk in the locker room.
What were the business stories around the Super Bowl?
The ticket story was big because of the price of the tickets. I do that every year, following up with StubHub.com and the people on the street. The average ticket was selling for $3,500 or $3,600. I thought that the supply, despite the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers fan base, would lower the price, and it didn’t.
The other story was the weather and how that affected spending. There was definitely a lot of suffering from restaurant owners. I talked to some who said the Thursday before the Super Bowl for them was worse than an average Thursday.
What are going to be the major business issues surrounding the NFL’s new contract with the player’s association?
The bottom line is this is a negotiation, and it wouldn’t pay for either side to do a deal amicably before the Super Bowl, and it might not pay for them to do a deal before the lock out in March or before training camps start in June or July. The issue is time, and what would be compromised if there was not a deal. Right now, we are not in crunch time. Scott Boras does not walk into a negotiation and give away his cards. If they wanted to a deal, they could do it in a minute and a half if they wanted. There’s only about four issues. There’s the rookie salary scale, and the owners wanting to take about $1 billion off the table in terms of revenue. There’s player safety and the 18-game schedule. And these issues can be hammered out in a matter of minutes. But no one is ready to buckle.
Are your co-workers at CNBC big sports fans? Who do they root for?
Joe Kernen is a huge golf game. Steve Liesman is a huge Yankees fan. Absolutely loves the Yankees. Jim Cramer used to be a sports reporter and covered Florida State football. He is an absolute nut Eagles fan. Carl Quintanilla is a big Broncos fan. We have some producers who are more likely to take a sports story because they’re a sports fan.