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|| News Item: Posted 2001-04-30

How Professional Sports is Killing Sports Photography as a Profession
(And what are WE going to do about it)

By Sam Mircovich

For me, the one bright spot of my summers of free labor while interning was shooting sports. It didn't matter if it was a girl's soccer match or the city football championship, the rush of pure emotion and energy cleared my mind of my problems and made pure my motivation in journalism. I could have been batting 0 for 10 in the wild art category that day, but I knew once I got to the game I would get a picture that would make me solid with my boss. Even before the advent of digital camera's, I knew when I had shot a really good sports photo, because the chill down my spine and the hair standing on the back of my neck. I've been lucky I guess.

Nowadays my hair stands on end because sports photographers have to be on the defensive like a cornered dog. The alarming trend of rights grabbing by professional sports is killing our industry. They are taking the fun out of doing what for many has become a fantasy job.

Somewhere along the way the line between newsgathering, marketing and publication has been blurred. You can thank the Internet for that. We crossed from being journalists with cameras to content providers for a hungry medium that has broken down traditional deadlines, turning us into - dare I say - "broadcasters."

In addition, publications are looking for new revenues, and their vast photography libraries are sources of commercial revenue. Commemorative books of winning local teams are commonplace, but do they really have the right to make money off the image of a top-shelf athlete?

Traditionally, broadcasting has been defined as real-time audio and video coverage, usually over television or radio. The Internet real time capabilities have dragged sports photography into an evolving definition of what is "broadcasting."

The line between entertainment, news coverage and real-time content delivery is further blurred by the sports networks, who pay the leagues for the right to cover their games, and then have nightly news programs reporting the outcome of games for which they have paid.

As a wire service photographer, it was a natural evolution. The sports sites, as well as newspaper sites have jumped on the immediacy of this medium to provide up to the minute coverage In addition, these networks web sites have been providing real-time updates, some for games they have paid to broadcast, as games are in progress. I have become reliant on these sites for caption information from play by play links, which makes the wire service job easier.

Agreed that the Internet's strength is its real-time capabilities. How else could embattled Cubs fans halfway around the world still keep track of their team? Last year a Cubs fan could listen and maybe even watch clips of his team on the team's web site. This year, Major League Baseball consolidated all their team sites into one central site, where they could charge a fee for the pleasure of listening to the Cubs (or Padres) lose.

The league wants to restrict the freelance photographer's resale rights, or deny them altogether. The stock photo of Mark McGuire all of a sudden would become worthless. It's tough enough to freelance, given the stagnant magazine day rates, but take away editorial resale and a lot of photographers would be sunk.

I'm not a copyright attorney, nor do I claim to be as well versed in the subject as my colleague Hanashiro-san. Nor do I claim to have the brightest mind on this subject. But these things I know, because I feel them. I could start a nice five-day rant here but I've decided not to be vile and bitter. I want to share with you some things I feel are true in this matter. These are my opinions and don't reflect the view of Sports Shooter, Robert Hanashiro, Reuters or any other group. IT'S ALL ABOUT ME!

1) He who controls the content controls the universe.

Substitute the word "Spice" with "Content " and you have a line from the sci-fi flick "Dune." No matter what happens with the e-commerce side of the Internet, the graphical, interactive nature of the web will always need new content. Those companies who "produce" the content are in better shape to make money than those who merely "provide" the content. What I am saying is that despite the sword rattling about restricting photographers access, the Leagues have no infrastructure to deliver the content they want to control. Typically, that was the job of the wire services. Until the leagues are willing to invest millions in delivery technologies, they can reach the print/web publishing audience it has traditionally gotten for FREE.

No one at the leagues have seen the value of file swapping software like Napster and Gnutella. There is their delivery system. But they still have to produce on deadline, something that hasn't happened in the 15 years I've been covering sports. When was the last time a team photographer (many who are getting screwed by the teams they work for, since its their hard work that fills their archives) run back to the darkroom in the middle of a game to move a picture? Doesn't happen. Could happen. Might happen.

But they really don't need the team photographer to do that. Soon HDTV broadcasts could offer sports editors good quality frame grabs from a broadcast. Chew on that.

2) Freelance photographers need a trade union to represent them collectively against corporate sharks.

We can't fight this alone. We can fight it together. ASMP has been active in protecting photographers' rights for years, but doesn't have the muscle of a trade union. Maybe it's time they became one, to collectively bargain minimum day rates, protect photographers as new technology is developed, and raise industry standards that have been unchanged for decades. Are they willing to take on this role, and enter the dark side of negotiation?

How do you recruit FREE-lance photographers who should by definition, (but not reality) be able to set their own rates? How do you convince the young enterprising photo grad to not undercut rates on the backs of the many before him? There has to be someone representing the freelance photographers' interest, some group with the collective muscle to push back. I propose that ASMP organize photographers for the good of all of us.

The NPPA can't do this because of arcane by-laws. They are a contest organization anyway, infiltrated by the television cameramen, who are our enemy. (OK personal bias, sorry.) I have had to deal with so much arrogance from TV guys these past weeks I could explode. But wait, here comes the calm again. (Sweet calm.).

Why anyone would belong to such a weak, dysfunctional, in-fighting group is beyond me. I quit the NPPA back in the 80's. Haven't belonged to a professional group since. But this month I am joining ASMP, and encourage you to do the same. Write them to organize a petition drive to form a trade union.

3) Newspapers and wire agencies and magazines will someday have to enter into licensing agreements with the leagues.

Newspapers have never had the right to resale images for commercial profit - ever. No commemorative books. No sports fronts printed on t-shirts. They only had rights for editorial purposes in the day-to-day news collecting process. It has said that on the back of the credential for years. Card companies have to buy licenses to produce cards, which they hope to make a profit. Sometimes they have to pay a fee to the athlete as well.

Why should newspapers be an exception?

It was different when all you were providing was daily information on the Yankees game. A set of five framed prints of the New York Knicks is NOT publication. It is mere decoration. You want to sell it for non-editorial use? Buy a license.

Besides, if the companies purchased licenses could they expect to get better treatment or preferential considerations from the leagues? Is that a bad thing? Is it an ethical question? Can they separate the supposedly unbiased news coverage from an untapped source of revenue? Couldn't they market those pictures better and make more sales through their print and web sites? Would that lead to a market flood and then the devaluation of the image?

Photo by
The market is already flooded with images. The Internet has spawned dozens of smaller picture agencies, some successful, as well as the giants like Corbis and Getty. All need content to sell. Getty already owns Allsport, Corbis has no sports agency under its wing.

Newspapers and wire services have a huge First Amendment issue coming down the pipe that is going to dictate our freedom of the press their right to cover teams that have gotten free publicity for a generation. And their right to profit from that free publicity.

Do the math: this is the 21st century. Nothing is free. Not even the chills down my spine when shooting a defining moment in sports.

The chills still come, just less frequently. This whole process has left me jaded and bitter, inflamed by TV arrogance and the lack of respect from the leagues in the role we play in defining their history. Celebrity photography seems like a good alternative right now, at least I know ahead of time not to hope for the chill. But covering JV football on a warm autumn afternoon, or the crack of an aluminum bat are things I'll keep close to my heart to shield me against the bitterness.

(Sam Mircovich, a Southern California-based photographer and covers sports for Reuters. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter.)

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