The UFC's Dana White, WWE's Triple H, and the Florida Panthers' Paul Maurice. (R to L) The UFC’s Dana White, WWE’s Triple H, and the Florida Panthers’ Paul Maurice. (Press conference screengrabs via YouTube.)

This past week saw quite the run of press conference issues, from the NHL to the UFC to WWE. In the NHL, Florida Panthers’ head coach Paul Maurice accused ESPN reporter Greg Wyshynski of Boston bias for sharing the Bruins’ goaltender’s perspective on a call:

In WWE, chief content officer Paul “Triple H” Levesque took exception to a question from Lucas Charpiot about Drew Gulak’s departure from the company following allegations from Ronda Rousey (a question a WWE PR rep reportedly immediately reacted to with “What a dumb thing to do“) and reacted with shots at the media outlets Charpiot cited (one of whom WWE PR later apologized to with cheese):

And in MMA, a reporter caught Derrick Lewis’ jockstrap cup, then told him it didn’t smell bad and asked him and UFC CEO Dana White to sign it.

But perhaps most notably for discussion of wider press conferences, that same UFC press conference saw Abbey Wagoner ask White if he could arrange it for retired fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone to brand her:

Wagoner then told veteran reporter Ariel Helwani to “get bent” after he criticized what UFC press conferences have become:

Wagoner makes some valid points in that video. She asked questions here with a focus on the bull White owns that’s set to compete in the Professional Bull Riders World Finals this week, and she certainly has a background there, as she notes. And her first two questions on that, while unusual for a UFC press conference, were reasonable journalistic questions on the bull. And they can be rationalized as potentially acceptable at a UFC press conference considering White’s ownership of this bull and considering that UFC parent Endeavor also owns PBR. (Whether there should be tangential questions at a presser on a specific event is a wider debate, which we’ll get to.)

But what really stoked media backlash here was Wagoner’s third question. It wasn’t a question at all but rather a request for White to help her with a social media stunt of having Cerrone use a branding iron on her “for clout.” And that deserves further examination.

A lot of the initial discussion here centered on comments like “This isn’t journalism.” And it may well not be. But it’s worth pointing out that the history of journalism is long and messy and that attempts to narrowly define it often would exclude unusual approaches that have brought value at times in the past.

Explicit definitions of journalism, who can do it, and how they can do it would have banned much of “participatory journalism.” That means we wouldn’t have the great works that have arisen (in sports alone) from drug-laced trips to the Kentucky Derby, drunk sermons off a balcony at the Super Bowl press hotelplaying quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and many more odd things.

That’s not to say that the idea of Wagoner getting branded by Cerrone is on the level of those past efforts or even an idea worth endorsing. But the criticism here would do better to focus on the specific discussion in question rather than overly broad dictates on what can and cannot be journalism. And the even more important discussion isn’t about Wagoner’s request but about it coming at a press conference.

What Wagoner particularly hits on there is that she and Helwani are in different lanes. They absolutely are. And that’s the wider issue here. It’s one that goes well beyond the UFC and ties back into those previous examples from WWE and the NHL, as well as many more arenas. And it relates to the overall relationship between sports organizations and sports media.

While sports journalism absolutely should not be relegated to the “toy box” many have tried to paint it as over the years, it’s worth keeping in mind that its history has some significant divergences from news reporting. Granted, there have always been debates about news reporting, too. And those cover everything from William Randolph Hearst’s “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” to any number of present-day controversies.

But sports reporting’s early days (in the early 1800s, not “the 1980s“) saw it seen (certainly by league and team executives, and also by at least some of those who worked in the field) as just a way to promote events and sell tickets to them. Much of the news field often isn’t as explicitly linked to a potential call to purchasing. And that created some situations specific to sports (or, at least, specific to sports reporters/columnists and arts reporters/critics), and led to early focuses on giving writers free food, drink, seats, travel, and more.

In many ways, leagues’ and teams’ partnerships with “influencers” of various kinds call back to how many sports reporters and columnists were seen in the early days. These are moves to get a league or a team on the radar of a new audience, who might then watch games online or in person. And that’s not inherently bad at all, and it’s absolutely going to bring some new fans into sports who never would have gotten there from reading traditional newspapers, magazines, or digital sports journalism.

However, tension obviously arises when very influencer-focused content, particularly requests for personal favors for “clout,” get worked into “press conferences.” Those press conferences are the least theoretical for traditional journalists. However, leagues have been diluting that more and more over time, as seen with zaniness-like proposals at the NFL’s Super Bowl media day (now Opening Night). And these press conferences, and the always-on broadcasting of them, have produced situations far from what was initially envisioned there, such as the Gregg Doyel-Caitlin Clark one earlier this year.

There’s also another source of tension here. That comes with some of what has recently been seen in WWE and the NHL. In WWE, the organization held a press conference for a specific event and then got upset over the Gulak question. But they didn’t provide an alternative venue for organization-wide questions, and that was a question that needed to be asked.

As AA’s Ben Axelrod wrote recently, the particular WWE issue here could have been solved with access beyond just this particular event-specific presser. They chose not to provide that. And that ties into part of Helwani’s complaint above about how the UFC wants influencers and viral moments at press conferences rather than real questions. (He has some relevant experience there, considering the various bans he’s received from White over the years.)

And there’s a notable idea there going beyond just the UFC and WWE. If organizations can get softer questions during press conferences without being criticized for abandoning press conferences entirely, they’re probably going to do that. So it becomes important for journalists to push not just for continued press access but for a significant portion of that access to be on serious and potentially controversial topics.

If organizations don’t want to address serious topics in a main conference, they should make time elsewhere for that. And if they want influencer-focused content that doesn’t fit at a main press conference, they should make additional time available for that rather than diluting existing media availabilities. That would solve a lot of problems.

The last thing worth discussing here is the NHL situation with Wyshynski, which revolves around a strange assumption that’s the opposite of some of the “influencer” talk above. There, Maurice appeared to assume that one of ESPN’s most prominent national hockey writers was instead a questionably credentialed Boston homer and refused to engage with him reasonably as a result.

That specific accusation is patently absurd to anyone who’s ever followed hockey media for the past few decades. Yes, Wyshynski does have an admitted fandom bias, which he made clear at Yahoo and then ESPN. But that bias is about the New Jersey Devils, and it really hasn’t hurt his work as a national writer. But it’s somewhat understandable, in this era of press conferences that often feature unusual and non-traditional figures, why a coach might make that assumption about someone there. That doesn’t make Maurice right for his response, but it’s maybe worth considering why he gave it.

This ties back to the arguments in sports media more than a decade ago about access for bloggers versus traditional journalists. (Oddly enough, one of the key figures there, and the one who dropped a “replacement journalists,” was a hockey writer for the Boston Globe.) But, in somewhat of a contrast to Marshall McLuhan‘s reasoning (which has plenty of merit elsewhere in media discussions), that was largely solved with the conclusion that the medium isn’t always the message.

Many traditional journalists now write for what once would have been derided as “blogs.” And there are plenty of “bloggers” who operate on very traditional journalism lines despite their medium. Meanwhile, there have always been those working for traditional outlets who have acted in the ways bloggers were accused of, from homerism to making themselves the story. And the Doyel-Clark situation is undoubtedly a recent reminder of that.

The overall takeaway here is that a one-size-fits-all approach to media access is not necessarily the best for leagues, especially when it comes to press conferences. Press conferences and media calls have a lot of merit when it comes to making an athlete, coach, or executive available to a wide group likely to ask similar questions. That’s less of a demand on the interviewee’s time, it comes with less repetition, and it provides further information for that group of media.

However, it should be recognized that the different groups currently being worked on in press conferences have different goals. Wagoner, Charpiot, and Wyshynski all cover different sports, but if they had been at the same press conference, there would have been a contrast between the event-specific question (Wyshynski), the league-wide question (Charpiot) and the personal branding question (Wagoner).

If leagues want to get coverage from all those groups, the best way to handle that would be to ensure there’s space for all of those things. (Preferably at different times, so those in one group don’t have to sit through questions highly irrelevant to them). And that’s where the leagues need to stay in their own lanes.

Leagues are more than welcome to strike various influencer partnerships to try and bring in new groups of fans. And if those influencers will get value from and will fit in in a traditional press conference without diluting that for existing media, that’s great. (Again, here, the medium is not necessarily the message.) But if they won’t, the leagues should look at carving out further access opportunities more fit for that purpose.

That’s also the case for serious league-wide questions. If the leagues don’t want those asked at an event-specific event, they should provide another time to ask them. But you can’t complain about a question that needs to be asked if the only time you’re allowing it to be asked is at a conference supposedly focused on something else.

There isn’t really a problem with a big-tent approach to media. And there shouldn’t be much debate about whether any individual person is “worthy”: if a league or team thinks they bring value from a credential, great. As mentioned, that ties into much of sports journalism’s history. Many who have gotten in through unconventional means like blogging have fit just fine into the traditional media paradigm.

However, expanding who gets to cover an event should not hurt the established access for those already there. And that’s what Helwani was getting at with his criticisms. If an organization like the UFC wants to open itself up to unconventional questions from people like Wagoner, that can be fine. But suppose its press conferences keep featuring more and more branding and jock-signing discussion and fewer opportunities for traditionally significant questions. In that case, that’s a loss not just for journalists but for the fans who depend on information from those journalists. And the leagues might do well to ensure there still is a lane for more traditional coverage of them.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.