Embedded with the Kings

The promotion surrounding the franchise is a team sport. Everyone involved has an investment; too bad the readers and viewers aren’t benefiting.

Kings broadcaster Grant Napear.

Kings broadcaster Grant Napear.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Ninety minutes before the Kings tipoff against the Sonics, the team’s play-by-play man Grant Napear does his usual pre-game show on KHTK 1140 AM while sitting courtside at Arco Arena. On the air, listeners hear sneakers squeaking in the background. Napear runs through a few points with a reporter from ESPN. “I want you to tell me why Rick Adelman is not coach of the year this year,” Napear questions. The guest counters with his own pick. Napear says the Kings did well this year, even with several injured players. “How many teams would be where the Kings are in terms of the 56 wins and 22 losses?”

Napear and other Kings broadcasters play dual roles that raise ethical questions. When he’s on the radio, Napear claims he is a journalist as a paid employee of KHTK, a sports- and guy-talk station. Hours later, during the game, Napear will call the action on KXTV-TV, or News10. But when he’s on TV, although the viewer is unaware, Napear is then an employee of the Kings and lacks journalistic credibility, as do the other faces on the air with him, color commentator Jerry Reynolds (who is also a director of player personnel for the Kings) and sideline commentator Jim Kozimor. As any journalist will tell you, covering the people who pay you is a conflict of interest.

Napear and Kozimor are cogs in an expansive promotional and media machine that seamlessly mixes Kings announcers, players, media outlets and advertisers—all of whom capitalize on and profit from the success of the only big-name sports team in town.

Everyone seems to be on the Kings’ team, which has promotional contracts with The Sacramento Bee, the city’s only big daily newspaper, and ABC affiliate News10, which airs Kings games and promotes itself as the Kings station. KHTK, the biggest sports-talk station in town, has a contract with the Kings to broadcast the games.

During KHTK’s pre-game show, the station goes to commercials. One features Kozimor doing an ad for an eye doctor. “Tell ’em Koz sent ya!” he says. As game time nears, Kozimor the radio journalist takes over for Napear, to take calls on the air and kick off the “pre-game party train.”

At about the same time, News10 is doing its 6 p.m. newscast. The station, which picked up the Kings broadcasts after the team dumped KMAX early this year, has been promoting itself aggressively as a news outlet and as the Kings basketball station and, at the same time, promoting the Kings.

After the weather, news anchor Dale Schornack turns to co-anchor Jennifer Smith and starts promoting the station and the Kings.

“Should be a great night tonight. In fact, you’re headed out to Arco tonight to hand out a News10 goody bag,” Schornack informs news viewers. “What a deal! We’ve got the Kings taking on the Sonics.”

Smith takes the cue and switches to promotion mode, with the station’s on-scene sports reporter: “Should be a good one. News10’s Will Selva is out there, too, as the game gets under way. Will?”

The broadcast cuts to a live shot of Selva courtside as players shoot around behind him. He previews his upcoming report, and News10 goes to commercial.

After the ads, the anchors in studio are on a split screen with Selva, and there’s a Kings logo on the screen. Schornack opens the segment: “It’s a game you can see right here tonight on News10 at 7 o’clock. The Sacramento Kings are getting ready to take on the Sonics in less than an hour now.”

Smith runs with it: “Hey, let’s get you in the mood as we send you out to Will Selva and the News10 sports department out at Arco Arena. Will?”

Selva introduces a couple player-interview segments as a journalist and then turns promoter and reminds viewers about the game: “Consider this a formal invitation from News10 to all of you. Yes, it’s the Kings and Sonics tonight at 7. You can catch all the action right here at News10 and immediately following the game, a News10 special edition.” After another Kings report, Selva promotes the game and newscast again.

Then, it’s back to the studio and still another Schornack exhortation to watch the game.

At 7 p.m., Channel 10 picks up the feed from Arco Arena—programming that’s produced by the Kings’ owners, Maloof Sports and Entertainment. The televised games are actually paid programming, like an infomercial. Under the deal, the Kings buy a block of airtime and shoot their own broadcasts. The signal is beamed from the arena to a satellite and back down to the News10 studio, where it is broadcast on local airwaves.

As the broadcast begins, viewers see the Maloof logo flash on the screen. It’s the only clue as to who’s producing the game, which is easily mistaken as a News10 production. There is no disclosure that announcers, color commentators or the sideline reporter are paid by the Kings or fed scripts by the team. Napear appears, holding a mic with a Kings logo on it. “Hi everybody. I’m Grant Napear, and welcome to News10.”

It’s easy to perceive that someone behind a mic at a sporting event is a broadcast journalist who works for the entity that’s putting the signal on the airwaves. National networks that televise sports hire commentators and ex-jocks to do the games. These broadcasters are paid by networks, not teams.

Kings broadcasters Jerry Reynolds, above, and Napear may not look like it, but they’re employees of Maloof Sports and Entertainment.

Photo By Jill Wagner

But that’s not necessarily true on the local level. Like the Kings, many NBA teams have decided that there’s more money to be made by doing the broadcast production in-house and buying air time on a local station. The teams also get to control the content to ensure a positive image while strongly promoting the product, thus increasing fan support and sales. It’s a smart way to do business.

At the same time, journalistically speaking, the teams’ announcers are covering their own companies.

By doing that, local sports announcers can look like journalists. And some journalists, at times, overdo the hype to the advantage of their company’s owners and the team, and not the public they are supposedly there to serve.

More and more, the line between news and entertainment is blurred, often by news organizations that benefit from doing so (it’s not unusual now to see local news doing promotional stories tied to network programming). The teams may benefit from having promoters and boosters in the local news media, but the public doesn’t.

If news organizations aren’t independent, can they fairly and aggressively cover non-sports news stories about sports franchises to which they’re tied? In Sacramento, one of those important stories is the plan for an expensive downtown arena. The Kings, the City of Sacramento and Union Pacific jointly have put up about $800,000 to study the feasibility of a basketball arena at the downtown rail yards. In the not-too-distant future, the Maloofs likely will ask taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new arena. Covering that issue could put media outlets that are now in bed with the team in a compromising position.

University of California, Berkeley, journalism professor Neil Henry said the Kings and the team’s partnerships are part of an increasing synergy among media entities. The alliances benefit the team, Henry said, but don’t benefit consumers of news provided by outlets that partner with the team. “The viewer has to ask himself or herself: How can the local television station be expected to provide impartial, balanced information about this team when the team practically owns the information that’s sent out?”

It’s a bigger concern with the Kings, Henry said, because the team is angling for taxpayer money to build an arena—something that deserves close scrutiny from news outlets like Kings partner News10. “This is supposed to be an independent-media news operation giving you information so the taxpayers can decide whether this is something that they really want,” he said.

The Kings have other important connections outside of media partners. While the team, the city and the railroad are working as partners on the arena studies, there’s another important player on the field: powerful lobbyist and political consultant Richie Ross. Ross played a large part in Mayor Heather Fargo getting elected and also has worked for the Maloof family for years. Ross said he also expects to work for Fargo’s re-election campaign. As a councilmember, Fargo voted against a city-backed loan to help the Kings pay off Arco Arena, which is owned by Maloof Sports and Entertainment. (The Maloofs didn’t own the team or the arena at that time, however.) After Ross got Fargo elected mayor, she pushed for a downtown arena in her first big speech after taking office. (Another Ross client, Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, taped a promo for a youth fair with Joe and Gavin Maloof last year.)

In a town where everyone’s crazy for the home team, connections like these make it more important for unbiased media outlets to keep an eye on what the team does off the court—and for readers and viewers to know what standards apply to what stories.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and think tank, said that because teams may have agreements with government agencies, and a huge influence over culture, “they need to be covered independently. … It’s important that the station’s journalists not be inhibited or have financial incentives from the team.”

McBride also said the blurring line between news and entertainment can be confusing for the news consumer. “For journalists, it’s important that we educate the public about what is and isn’t news.”

The Kings’ other main media partner is the Bee, and its name is plastered all over Arco Arena. The Bee has a skybox suite at Arco Arena and a signage deal. The arrangement is part of the Bee’s contract with the Kings, which makes the paper one of dozens of companies that have signed “strategic alliance” agreements with the team. News10, KHTK and Fox Sports Net also are strategic partners, along with other companies that bank on creating an appeal to sports fans eager to part with disposable income on things like beer, fast food and cars.

But other than the suite and the signage, the Bee keeps the terms of its deal with the Kings secret—something that makes it hard to judge how much the Bee has at stake when covering the Kings.

Bee spokesman Steve Weiss said, “There’s an extensive agreement that outlines all the components of the partnership.” Weiss said he couldn’t talk about terms of the contract.

Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez said the paper’s business and marketing relationships have no bearing on editorial content: “I don’t think it’s really any different than writing about people who advertise in the paper.” Rodriguez said he signs off on any promotional proposals and rejects anything he thinks goes over the line. “Our people wanted [Kings] spirit cards with the Bee logo on them. I said no.”

Kings officials won’t talk about the terms of their “strategic alliance” deals either and are keeping all details confidential.

The Bee also has a content-sharing deal with News10. Through that partnership, announced in September, the Bee provides advance headlines from the following day’s paper for the 11 p.m. newscast. In exchange, News10 provides forecasts for the Bee’s weather page. News10 General Manager Russ Postell said the station doesn’t get special treatment from the paper. He cited the Bee’s reporting on a News10 sports reporter fired for stealing seat cushions at the Super Bowl.

Another Bee content-sharing deal is with KHTK, the radio station that broadcasts Kings games. Through that partnership, the paper makes its columnists available to appear on call-in shows to talk about, among other things, the Kings. Columnist R.E. Graswich usually comes on with KHTK’s Rise Guys a couple times a week. Marty McNeal, the Bee’s main Kings beat reporter, comes on Napear’s show, Sportsline. And Jim Kozimor, who hosts Kings Talk, brings on writers from the Bee. The appearances are promoted in an ad that runs in the Bee’s sports section with the radio station’s logo. In exchange, KHTK makes audio and some reporting available to the Bee’s Web site. According to Rodriguez, the paper, not the radio station, pays writers a stipend for radio appearances, and writers solely represent the Bee.

The Sacramento Bee’s Kings beat reporter Marty McNeal, left, sits courtside at a Kings-Sonics game. McNeal also makes radio appearances on KHTK, a radio station that has a partnership with both the Kings and the Bee.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

The partnerships aren’t unique or unusual in themselves, but in a small media market like Sacramento, they do raise journalistic concerns about a conflict of interest when the major players work together. Can partners who promote each other aggressively report about each other?

With News10, it’s easy to see the station’s desire to promote itself and the Kings jointly. One example is the Kings section of News10’s Web site, where there’s no indication whether the copy is promotional or editorial content: “There’s no doubt about it, Northern California is definitely ‘Kings Country!’ Following their best performance ever during the 2001-2002 season, fan interest is at a fever pitch. This season promises to see the team hit new heights, as a potent combination of seasoned veterans and talented rookies take the court. Depend on News10.net to keep you abreast of all the action as the season progresses.” The page includes links to News10’s partners: the Kings and the Bee.

If News10 promotes itself by promoting its connection to the Kings, the Kings take a similar approach with their marketing deals by selling themselves to advertisers. The team does its best to tailor each alliance deal to each client’s needs, which often means lending out its own personalities.

In one ad for a car-dealership partner, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic sit in a convertible and, with some digital effects, dribble a basketball while careening down a country road. In another TV commercial, Kozimor stars in an ad for a car dealer. In one radio spot for “strategic alliance” partner Patrick James, Napear chats up coach Adelman about his spiffy Patrick James luggage.

On its Web site, the team lists 61 “Kings Strategic Alliance Partners” and pitches “a variety of partnership and co-marketing opportunities” for prospective clients. “The Kings’ strategic-alliance department can create a custom-designed strategy that will meet your needs and deliver results,” the site says.

Viewed in the context of the team’s marketing ambitions, the organization starts to look more and more like a stable of actors to be deployed as walking advertisements, with the team’s players, coaches, announcers and even owners Joe and Gavin Maloof promoting whatever they can. It’s good business, even if it looks shameless. But for those who get sucked into the act, their roles aren’t always clear.

By creating partnerships with media outlets, the Kings are better able to control how the team is portrayed to the public.

Because they straddle the line between marketing and reporting, Napear and Kozimor are the most ambiguous players on the Kings promotional stage. By collecting paychecks both for hosting radio shows about the Kings on KHTK and for calling games and interviewing players for the Kings organization, they blend the identities of the station and the team.

When they’re on the radio, Napear and Kozimor are paid by KHTK to talk specifically about the Kings, the team that happens to be their employer.

Doug Harvill, market general manager for radio giant Infinity Broadcasting, which owns KHTK, doesn’t see a problem with sharing employees with the team, which is also the station’s client, and says the team doesn’t get any special treatment with editorial coverage.

“That’s fairly common with sports teams,” Harvill said. The Kings, Harvill added, have no say over what goes on KHTK’s airwaves. “Absolutely not, nor have they ever asked, nor would we give it.” But why would the Kings have to? No company owner expects that employees would badmouth the people who pay them.

Working the Kings beat can be tricky, too. The Kings control access to games and players—something that writers on the beat must contend with. Bee writers have been critical of players, strategies and other aspects of play, but writers on any beat know that they can lose access if they’re too critical. (When SN&R wrote about the team’s Royal Court Dancers, a Kings employee called before the story was published and threatened to yank the paper’s access to games if the story ran.)

Last year, McNeal covered Chris Webber’s September indictment for lying to a federal grand jury in Detroit. At the time, McNeal was the Bee’s main writer on the Kings beat and also was considering writing a book about Webber. By covering the indictment story, a Kings beat writer might have to weigh losing future access to the star player, which could hurt the writer professionally.

McNeal said he’s not that type: “I say what I want to say to everybody in the world without regard for their feelings, except for my mother.” (McNeal said he isn’t actively pursuing the book these days.)

McNeal occasionally can be critical of the team, but overall, Bee coverage of the Kings does look soft. Bee sports columnist Marcos Bretón even criticized his own paper for “pulling our punches or being overly rah-rah.”

Another Bee sports writer, who didn’t want to be named, said there’s no interference from management but that, overall, “the Kings get a free ride.”

Rodriguez, the executive editor, said top editors critique the paper daily. He said coverage varies. “Sometimes, I think our stories on the Kings have been good, raising good questions, and other times, they haven’t gone where readers want.” Asked if the Bee is soft on the Kings, Rodriguez said the paper doesn’t hesitate to chase stories that anger the team. He cites coverage of a Kings executive sued for sexual harassment. “They didn’t like it. … If we were in their pocket, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Rodriguez said partnerships are part of the business. “It’s the traditional conflict between business and marketing, but the wall [between advertising and editorial] still exists. If they’re done wrong, [business] deals can crack the wall, and we’re zealous on that.”

You’d be happy, too, if you made as many promotional appearances as Kings sideline reporter Jim Kozimor does.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Recently, the Bee sports page did touch on the issue of how Napear and Kozimor should be classified. It started with a blurb by sports writer Ron Wenig, who took Kozimor to task for interviewing the Maloofs during a game but steering clear of any questions about the much-talked-about arena proposal. “Look, we know that Kozimor is a Kings employee, but should viewers expect more? Do fans really want to see fluff pieces on the Kings’ company store when a player has just limped off the floor?” Wenig wrote under the headline “Playing a shill game?”

A week after Wenig’s blurb, a reader wrote in to say that “it is a disgrace to journalism that they are allowed to host talk-radio shows on KHTK as employees that they report about. … There are no disclaimers that Napear, Kozimor or any of them are Kings employees on the airwaves or during the broadcasts they do.”

An outraged Napear shot back a week later: “I am a play-by-play announcer for the Kings. I am paid by the team just like every other local announcer in the league,” Napear wrote. “The Kings have no control over my show. You want me to blast my bosses. Let’s see, the Maloofs have ingrained themselves in the community both financially and socially and have put a championship contender on the floor. They’re the main reason why the Kings are the talk of the NBA. You’re right, Phillip. I’m a shill for the Maloofs and, boy, do they need someone like me to make them look good.”

Napear said he sees no problem doing both jobs because in one guise, he’s a journalist, and in the other, he’s not. Even though he’s paid by the Maloofs as an announcer, he can still cover the team objectively on the radio job because when he’s doing that, he’s a journalist, he said. “When I’m on my radio show, I consider myself a sports journalist, and I go about trying to get stories first and get them right,” said Napear, who earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Bowling Green State University. Napear said he doesn’t see the conflict in being a journalist who covers his own employer. “I’m not paid by who I’m covering when I’m on the radio. I’m paid by sports 1140 KHTK. It’s really easy to separate.”

Napear’s position is not one with which most journalists would agree. A political reporter, for example, wouldn’t cover a campaign for a newspaper during the week and then be paid to write press releases for a candidate in the race on the weekend.

Napear also doesn’t see a problem with the Kings broadcast not identifying who’s producing it, even if it looks like News10. “We don’t actually go on the air and say that because, first of all, I don’t think the fans care.”

One of the reasons fans might care about who’s providing information about the team is that the existing arrangements give the team a way to control what’s said about it—or to control who’s covering the team, for that matter.

In January, the Kings severed ties with 14-year partner KMAX. The split was prompted by the station’s airing of pre- and post-game shows during the 2002 playoffs.

“They didn’t agree with the shows that we ran adjacent to the playoffs,” KMAX General Manager Tom Tucker said. “The Kings want to be the only ones that sell anything.”

The separation demonstrated how the Kings are fiercely protective of anyone using their brand without approval. (News10, which does have approval, even got slapped for using the logo the wrong way.)

While the Kings were dumping KMAX, they also were in talks with News10 about taking over the deal. The ABC affiliate jumped at the chance.

Nothing really changes under News10’s three-year deal. The team still produces the broadcast using its own announcers. The difference is that the Kings and News10 are jointly sponsoring promotions.

“When we do a community event, it’s going to be our people and their people together,” said Postell, News10’s general manager. “When we promote the Kings, we’re promoting ourselves at the same time.” In other words, news logos and news people will be used to promote an outside company.

To take advantage of the huge audience that Kings games bring in, News10 also began producing a special newscast that airs immediately after evening games to keep Kings viewers tuned in.

News director Ron Comings said there aren’t any restrictions about what the station can broadcast before or after games, but News10 did have to make at least one concession to get the contract: “Coming out of a game, we have restrictions on doing a sports show—though we have no desire to do a post-game show.”

(Harvill, KHTK’s general manager, wouldn’t say whether the Kings stipulate that his station can’t air a pre- or post-game show.)

Asked about the energetic promotions that News10 anchors give the Kings, Comings said there’s no policy that anchors and reporters must plug the team. “They’re not told that they must say anything,” Comings said. When read the specific examples of News10 anchors hyping the Kings during news shows, Comings said they were just excited. “That’s two people who live and work in this community and support their local teams.”

The station may not demand home-team allegiance but it does ask its journalists to make promotional appearances on behalf of the station—like Smith’s gift-bearing trip to the arena.

During newscasts on News10, anchors and reporters devote tons of time to promoting a certain NBA basketball team that’s also one of the station’s main business partners. Anchors also are asked to make promotional appearances at games.

Smith said it is part of the job, and she goes along with the station’s plan, though she doesn’t see herself as a promotional tool. “When you talk about strict journalism,” she said, “I’m just, I guess, in that way, becoming a sort of a citizen enjoying the excitement of the Kings, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Does she mind as a journalist?

“It’s the same kind of thing that’s happening in every so-called journalistic endeavor these days,” Smith said. “I mean look at the partnerships the Bee has. Look at the partnerships the News and Review has. It’s just part of what’s happening in our world today.”

(SN&R also has affiliations with both commercial and nonprofit groups, as does any newspaper. The newspaper also has covered itself. This year, staffers wrote about Building Unity, a coalition of mostly church groups, including SN&R, working to build low-income housing. The paper has several nonprofit partners, including Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together. SN&R also has traded ads with News10 in the past—and News10 is one of the sponsors for the paper’s upcoming Jammies music awards, which will be hosted by none other than anchor Jennifer Smith. Editorial staffers at the paper, however, don’t do promotions, and news coverage discloses connections between subjects and the paper.)

The promotional trend is increasingly pervasive, but it doesn’t need to be in the newsroom. Television stations always have relied on anchors to represent the station at events, but plugging business partners on air is a relatively new direction. Newspapers have been pushing the boundary more often with “advertorial” sections, though those are labeled as advertising and aren’t produced by news staffers. The cumulative effect of the trend toward cross-promotion and advertorials can be an erosion of standards that makes it more common for news resources to be used in a promotional role.

During the Sonics game, fans amble through the Kings gift shop, browsing through $50 polo shirts and $350 jackets emblazoned with the team logo. Around the corner, fans line up for $8 beers, $4.50 hot dogs and $3 bottles of water.

Inside the arena, the sold-out crowd is hungry for the Kings, cheering madly for just about every play. Webber dunks. Fans scream.

The arena is full up to the top of the nosebleed seats. The interior is ringed by ads for “strategic partners”: Cingular, Carl’s Jr., Tower Records, Fox Sports Net, Folsom Auto Mall, Sports 1140 and The Sacramento Bee.

Near the Bee’s sign is the newspaper’s luxury suite. About 20 people mill around inside, drinking upscale beer and eating catered food. One client in the box says they’re mostly ad reps and advertisers.

During a timeout in the first quarter, the announcer’s voice booms across the arena that News10 anchors Dan Elliott and Jennifer Smith—as foreshadowed during the 6 p.m. newscast—have a gift pack for someone in Section 119. The camera picks up the activity on the jumbo screen overhead (and just under the screen, on the top of the scoreboard, is a big News10 logo). “Be sure to see all the Kings on News10,” the booming voice reminds the audience.

By the last buzzer, the Kings have trounced Seattle, 107-85. The Kings file off to the locker room.

The telecast goes to commercials. One ad, for a car dealer, is a “special report” with Kozimor acting like a news anchor reading the news. “People’s Folsom Lake Hyundai has America’s best warranty,” Kozimor reports.

While the ad airs, Kozimor is by the locker-room door in the concrete corridor under the stands, sitting with an empty chair under bright lights. On the wall behind him hangs a large Tower Records logo. After the commercials, defensive guard Doug Christie comes out for the Tower Player Interview with Kozimor, who asks questions like a journalist but then presents Christie with a Tower gift certificate. “He’s one of the classiest guys around and certainly deserves credit for defensive-player-of-the-year honors,” Kozimor says. (A few minutes later, in a different capacity, as host of the post-game show on KHTK, Kozimor reiterates the sentiment: “Doug Christie is a class act.”)

After the Tower interview, the TV broadcast goes back to Napear and Reynolds, who talk about an upcoming Kings-Lakers game and then close out the broadcast. “We invite you to join us on Friday evening as the Kings take on the Denver Nuggets right here on News10,” Napear says. “Coming up next, a News10 special edition, so keep it right here.”

The credits roll, the Maloof logo flashes, and then it’s back to ads—one of which features News10 anchor Cristina Mendonsa plugging season tickets for the Maloofs’ other basketball team, the WNBA Monarchs.

Then News10 switches back from the Kings’ satellite signal to the station’s own newscast. Mendonsa and Schornack are at the anchor desk delivering the news.

“Thanks for joining us for this special edition of News10, and, golly, we hope you enjoyed tonight’s game between the Kings and Sonics,” Schornack deadpans. “I mean, on the Kings, everybody played, everybody scored—these guys are healthy, and they’re having a great time.”

Mendonsa picks up on an earlier comment by Napear: “They’re looking good. Yeah, the game with the Lakers ought to be a great game with everybody healthy, as Grant was saying.”

After a couple news stories, it’s back to commercials, one of which is a promo for News10. In the spot, Slamson, the Kings’ lion mascot, is in the studio with meteorologist Monica Woods, who is wearing a Kings jersey and giggling: “We almost have the same hair!”