Why Mark Cuban Decided to Ban ESPN Beat Writers

Feb 28, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gestures during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gestures during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

Billionaire tech mogul and Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban took a stand early this week against automated reporting.

Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban has done something that most franchise owners have not done. Last Friday night, two of ESPN’s nationally accredited NBA writers were told they were no longer welcome at Mavericks home games as credentialed media.

The decision to revoke Tim MacMahon and Mark Stein’s Dallas Mavericks credentials comes in light of the arms race in sports reporting. ESPN along with other nationally accredited sports news sites have started the transition to “automated reporting”. Essentially feeding player statistics, game updates, and other broad information from games into an algorithm that would produce game recaps.

Cuban stated in a email to SB Nation that “It has nothing to do with the editorial or [number] of games covered this season”.

Cuban’s concern is for the larger scale trend of automated reporting.

Cuban refers to the company, Automated Insights, who has begun developing software to replace journalists with automated reporters. The extension of their progress has only been used in Minor League baseball currently, but could expand in the years to come.

“Instead of a wire reporter, we will see data fed into algorithms and game summaries spit out,” Cuban wrote. “I think that is a long term problem for all sports.”

This should come as no surprise to many who follow Cuban’s involvement in his alma mater or his franchise. Cuban donated $5 million dollars to open the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology at Indiana University. The rapidly changing industry is one that he has fully dedicated to keeping it personal.

This type of rebellion brings up some interesting factors. The first being the amount of quality journalists who devote their lives to covering professional sports. It seems that Cuban wants to preserve that essential connection between writers and team personnel.

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Story telling is a major part of being a great journalist. Being able to take information, responses and major headlines into a captivating story. While this might not be necessary in every situation (game updates, roundups, post game analysis, etc.) the stories that computers cannot understand is the real problem.

Would a computer and an algorithm be able to differentiate the feelings a player might have to its chemistry in the locker room? How about unrest between front office and players? Rumors of players and personnel in each organization being moved?

Part of the excitement for fans of franchises across professional sports is the ability to react, speculate and engage in discussion with other fans or writers. The push for ‘robotic reporting’ is daunting. Major media outlets will now be able to cut out costs to send writers to each game to report and replace them with a simple function.

What becomes even more fascinating is Mark Cuban’s stance on the whole situation. If you know anything about Cuban’s history, he has been dedicated to rapid expansion and development of technology. Coverage of professional sports using ‘automated reporting’ seems like something Cuban would support.

Not at all.

The decision to revoke two credentials from ESPN NBA reporters has nothing to do with the reporters personally. Cuban offered ESPN multiple solutions to the lack of coverage his franchise was getting, offering to pay the expenses of ESPN’s reporters. ESPN declined. While Cuban might be fighting a battle that is ultimately inevitable, it’s reassuring to aspiring journalist (like myself) that a franchise owner understands the importance of journalists.

Cuban understands that players, coaches and personnel interacting with journalists on daily basis is part of the reason why professional sports is so popular. The substitution of journalists for computers would causes repetitive click-bate statistical recaps and stories.

It is worth noting that ESPN continues to see a drastic decline in their subscribers, losing over 610,000 subscribers in the month of October. ESPN has been known for months to be cutting costs in anyway possible.

While Cuban’s decision to ban two reporters seems counterintuitive to his message, it might send a clear sign to ESPN and other media outlets. Stop replacing journalists who produce original, engaging content. Computers are nice for data analysis, but a computer does not have the ability to capture an audience.