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In 2009, the Southeastern Conference, one of the most powerful in college sports, tried something stupid. In a hopeless and short-lived social media policy, it banned fans from tweeting, updating Facebook or sharing in any way live posts from its games.

Many are calling the University of Washington’s athletic department just as ignorant this week for enforcing a new social media policy that limits the number of tweets a reporter can send during a game, as GeekWire’s Taylor Soper reported Monday and media from here to Mashable have passed on.

“Breathtakingly stupid,” longtime Seattle sports columnist and SportsPress Northwest founder Art Thiel said of the policy in an email. “It’s so 1960s, when teams thought telecasts of home games would threaten the gate. They were so wrong. Then and now.”

But the UW athletic department thinks it’s very, very right — and they’re not the only school saying so. They’ve heard fans say they don’t understand the value of social media and counter that actually, they understand it better than most. That’s why they’re claiming their piece of it.

First off, let me say this is a tough one to sift through. I’m a citizen of the Internet, which makes me love openness and loathe obscurity. I’m a journalist, which makes me react to restrictions on reporters’ freedom to report. And I’m an early adopter of social media, so it’s never easy to imagine how restricting expression on these sites could be a winning move.

What I’m not, though, is a big sports fan, a lawyer or part of a multimillion dollar industry reliant on ticket sales and media for revenue. So I don’t understand as innately as I could to what extent real-time social media content threatens the business of sports.

But I’ll say this. I don’t personally love what the UW is doing. But after hearing from the school, my reaction to its policy went from “Ew, gross” to “OK. Interesting.”

Until I considered that the UW staffs its own reporter unrestricted by these rules, and what that could mean for the future of the local sports story.

A pre-emptive strike

Let’s get to the scariest question first.

I spoke on the phone Tuesday with an official from the UW athletic department who was very candid about the motives behind its “live coverage” policy, but did not want to be named so as to stay consistent with how the department’s handled other media questions.

The official all but promised that there was no way the policy, which restricts the in-game social media activity of credentialed members of the news media, would ever apply to fans, even when fans behave exactly like reporters.

Can we believe that? Yeah, probably. Fans’ social media buzz obviously helps teams. UW knows that as well as anyone. (And teams can do more to encourage it, as Seattle’s Joseph Sunga pointed out this week.) But the only important difference I see between reporters and fans here is that the social media activity of the first group can be regulated, but the social activity of the second group can’t.

Monica Guzman

You can’t tell me there’s a difference in their content. Coverage from the most devoted fans can mimic or even beat coverage from sports reporters in frequency and reach. It can even generate revenue. The UW can issue badges to reporters or not. It knows it’s got to let fans be fans. Gain a big and potentially lucrative enough following from live fan content at a game, though, and I’ll bet you’d at least get UW’s attention.

That aside, this policy is first and foremost about the university’s rights to its own live games. The university says so, everyone else is saying so, and you know what? It makes sense. The games are private, ticketable entertainment, after all, not public domain. The university sells TV and radio outlets exclusive rights to broadcast their games and has to protect its ability to do so.

The new social media policy, which went into effect in August, looks at reporters’ live tweets during games and says hey — that stuff’s ours, too.

A couple sports reporters I talked to acknowledged that with the advent of blogs and Twitter, a team policy like this was bound to pop up eventually.

Notably, though, the university isn’t saying “Stop tweeting.” Just, “Don’t tweet too much.” Especially the play-by-play. That made sense to MLB.com reporter Greg Johns, who used to cover sports for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“I try to use ‘in-game’ tweets to supplement what a TV viewer or fan in the stadium can see for themselves — quick updates on injuries or statistics or my own observations,” he wrote me via email. “Once in a while it makes sense to update the score for people who might not be watching already or to pass along a highlight, but constantly describing the action and doing ‘play-by-play’ is pretty boring on Twitter, so that’s why I don’t really see this as a big issue.”

Then again, every tweet counts.

“Everything we know about the second-screen effects of mobile media tells us that the viewers at home want to follow social media streams and watch the game at the same time,” the Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman pointed out via email. “Smart athletic departments will encourage all the tweeting they can get, to drive interest and engagement among the fan base.”

Even if you don’t accept the idea that the university has a lot to lose right now from a few reporters’ breathless live tweeting of a game — I sure don’t — the policy was designed as a defensive, pre-emptive strike, the UW athletic department official explained. Better to “draw the line in the sand” now, the official said, than to wait until live tweeting gets even more thorough and some media outlet develops a lucrative model off real-time content off the university’s games.

And that’s where things get interesting — and more than a little tense.

Reporters’ new competition

Few outside the media and sports worlds have noticed, but sports teams are becoming not just the objects of media coverage, but its producers. Make no mistake. Thanks to the very revolution in publishing that’s made live tweets possible, the University of Washington is competing with media outlets for an audience.

That makes UW’s policy of restricting reporters’ live tweets not just about rights, but turf. Turf that used to belong, by default, to outside media.

So while Tacoma News-Tribune reporter Todd Dybas was sent an email reprimand for posting more than the permitted 20 tweets from Sunday’s game against Loyola, UW’s own reporter, Gregg Bell, a former sports writer for the Associated Press who writes and blogs on GoHuskies.com, sent out 24 tweets from the game, and the University of Washington men’s basketball account posted 36.

Dybas’ reprimand wasn’t the first time the athletic department asked sports reporters to give them some space. Because Bell hosts his own live game chats with fans, the athletic department asked reporters to stop using the tool he uses, called Cover It Live, to host their own.

This could be a battle not just over rights, or turf, but story.

Are school social media restrictions affecting reporters’ ability to tell their own story from, say, a football game? Photo courtesy of The UW Daily.

Like I said, I’m a journalist and have a journalist’s bias. But when I hear, as I did from this official, that the UW athletic department tells its own story best, that it has the best access and the most accurate information at its fingertips, and that it’s invested in its own reporter and has to protect that investment, then even though the official said UW welcomes the news media, this unpopular but legitimate claim over rights begins to feel like a first, small step toward an encroachment of outside reporters’ ability to tell their own, independent sports story.

In September, the Seattle Times editorial board called out the UW’s football program for forgetting it’s part of a public institution after it told news organizations that they could no longer report on strategy or injuries that happen during practice. The school had already limited their access to practices and, as I mentioned, banned news media from hosting online chats, for a sum total policy the Times condemned as “the behavior of a fiefdom.”

Whatever the fallout from the department’s reprimand of Dybas Sunday, its policy, which it says is modeled after language in an NCAA policy, isn’t likely to go away any time soon. In fact, the official I talked to expects schools who aren’t on their way toward enforcing similar reporter restrictions — Taylor lists a few -— are bound to get there sooner or later.

Is the UW acting in its own best interest? Of course. Is it acting in the best interest of its fans and public?

They’re your stories. You decide.

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