Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sports Media in the Last Frontier

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on March 3, 2006.)

Given that tomorrow marks the first day of the Iditarod – or the Inuit Indy 500, as I like to call it – this week seemed like a good time to turn to the fringe of Alaska. Iditarod coverage seemed like a natural choice for an article on fringe sports media, and maybe we'll get to that next week. For now, let me tell you: the Empire, the paper of record in Juneau, Alaska, has the best fringe sports media in the country.

Juneau is the 207th largest media market according to Nielsen’s. Or rather, it’s the fourth smallest one they recognize, followed only by Alpena, Michigan, North Platte, Nebraska, and Glendive, Montana. Unlike those other markets, though, Juneau is incredibly isolated. Even Glendive, which on a map looks as far away from one media center as you can get without getting closer to another, is more connected to the world around it than Juneau.

There is no easy way to get to Juneau; it’s on an island and is the only state capital in the US with no roads into or out of it. It’s possible to fly in to town, but to travel the way the locals do, you should take the Alaska Marine Highway. It provides the surest way of getting cars and trucks to the city and services ports in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state.

That sense of being on their own is apparent in the Empire’s sports coverage. It is everything that fringe sports media should be. It addresses a broad range of sports, many of which are not recognized as being worthy of sports coverage in media centers or even larger fringe markets. Sports media in the fringes, ideally, should find the sports about which people in the fringes are passionate. Sports media in Juneau, as exemplified in the Empire, does just that.

The Empire’s sports priorities are established by their menu on the left hand side of the screen under the Sports heading: Local Sports, Empire Outdoors, Juneau Softball, Gold Medal 2005, and Golf News and Scores. Ignore that last one, I don’t know why it’s there; maybe Juneau lives out warm weather fantasies through golfing enthusiasm. Focus on the first four subheadings, because each one represents a unique aspect of solid fringe media sports coverage.

Prominently displayed on the front page of their on-line sports section for the last few months has been a selection of articles on the girls’ swimming and diving team of Juneau Douglas High School, which won its first state championship in 22 years last November. There are articles on the team’s perfect season, the individual members, and the results of the state meet that led to the championship. It’s a remarkable show of pride in a local team for it to appear on the sports page for so long. Even among fringe media, that exhibits rare support and coverage.

However, I’ll be honest – I was a lot more impressed with that victory before I found out that they swam in pools. When I thought that those girls were swimming outside in November… THAT was impressive. It made me wonder if the ice was cleared off the pond before the tournament or if that was part of the sport. What a great idea for a high school sport: polar bear ice chipping and 200 meter free style swim meets.

Really, though, Juneau seems to be blessed with a lot of good school teams. JDHS is home to the top ranked girls’ basketball team in the state, according to the Alaska sportswriters’ poll. That might change, though, since they lost recently to the Lynx of Dimond, the second ranked team in the state. Last weekend the wrestling team from Floyd Dryden Middle School won the state tournament. Did I say win? I meant the wrestling team ran through the competition like the Germans to the French in the Franco-Prussian War… and most other wars since.

The Empire Outdoors section features articles on local hiking, giving updates on trails that have evolved to provide views of bears and birds. Fishing also receives its due. The on-line version also has a “Best of” section, allowing readers to go back several years to find out about the best skiing in the area, local shooting ranges, and even Ultimate Frisbee.

I will be the first to admit that some of these read more like human interest stories, or even novelty articles on a local curiosity. But this is the crux of the fringes: they are interested in things the centers and even other fringes are not. Events that look bizarre or boring to people in media centers are actually exciting and time honored by people in the fringes.

And fringe media should respect that. In an area like Juneau, where the weather and outdoors dominates their surroundings, it is perfectly sensible that hiking, Nordic skiing and shooting would emerge as favorite local sports. I am thrilled that the Empire respects local tastes and provides sports media that honors that.

That point is driven home even more in the next two sections. Just coming off the Olympics, I think most readers will be flexible when it comes to definitions of sports. Riflery might not look so strange after the biathlon. But how many papers out there cover sports that aren’t even played by legitimate or student athletes? How many papers are so concerned with covering local sports that they cover the amateur adult leagues in the area?

My bet: none. Or close to none. But you know who does? That’s right – the Empire and the good sports fans of Juneau.

The Empire gives some decent coverage to the Juneau Sports Association’s adult softball league. They have complete rankings for all men’s, women’s and coed teams. The league, not surprisingly, is a summer league, so only the schedules and rankings for the last week are available, but I’m curious to see what the coverage is like in the middle of the season. I bet it’s pretty good.

The coverage of the Gold Medal adult basketball tournament is even more impressive. It will begin again later this month, but the Empire has records and columns on its website going back to 2000. Why so much coverage? Because it’s a local sports institution that goes back 55 years, with several generations of players, many of them interconnected through rivalries and families. And the coverage shows how serious this is.

Want to read about the emerging dynasty of Huna Totem in division C? It’s here. Or about how Hydaburg ended its division B title drought? That’s here too. The Empire and Juneau sports fans take this tournament and its coverage incredibly seriously. I can’t stress this enough. I know people for whom their first child is less serious.

Which is what’s great about the Empire’s coverage of Juneau sports. This is a town that knows it’s in the fringes; certainly geography has reinforced that. Juneau has it’s own sports, it’s own traditions and it wants to read about those. The Empire provides that.

You know what I like the most about the Empire’s sports section? Take one more look at it. What’s missing? Major, professional sports. The paper almost flagrantly disregards them. It has a full sports section with lots of coverage, and yet no professional sports. Considering the depth and variety of its sports coverage, that’s very impressive.

If I had an annual award for the best local sports coverage (which isn’t that bad an idea), the Empire would be the clear front runner. It is the purest example I’ve found of sports media accepting and embracing its role in the fringes.

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