In an exclusive interview with me for DallasBasketball.com, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban — in the news because he’s pulled the credentials from ESPN writers Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon, preventing them from covering the team’s home games — explains that his action isn’t about personal feelings toward the writers or negative coverage of the Mavs.
Rather, it’s because “I want people covering NBA games, not ‘AI’ (Automated Insights),’’ Cuban tells me. “This is a ‘tech-vs.-sports-reporting’ issue. … They are automating the whole process. … When you realize that the hottest area in technology — and it's not even close — is machine- and deep learning, then it's an easy step to see where this is going.’’
Over the weekend, Stein and MacMahon were denied credentials to the AAC. At first blush, many assumed this was Cuban’s way of “punishing’’ the writers. In fact, Cuban and the Mavs have a long and deep relationship with the two reporters. Maybe also assumed that Dallas’ poor start (the Mavs are 1-5 after having lost their first five games) fueled Cuban’s ire.
As I kick around with Cuban issues regarding “free speech’’ and “optics,’’ he responds by noting that the issue “started before and right after our first game, but became public because we hadn’t won a game (in the first five outings).
“And besides,’’ he adds, “since when do I put ‘optics’ above doing the right thing?’’
Cuban makes it clear in our Q-and-A that in his mind, this is about a bigger picture involving the business of sports, the business of journalism and the negative influences of technology."
ON WHAT THE ‘CREDENTIAL KERFUFFLE’ IS REALLY ABOUT
“I’m not concerned about ESPN’s coverage of us this year; I'm concerned about the future coverage being automated. I want actual people covering our games not, AI. And that is the direction the AP (Associated Press) is going. Thirty percent of our NBA game coverage is now coming from AP ... and they are automating the coverage.
“This isn't just a Mavs issue, or even an NBA-wide problem. It’s a ‘tech-vs.-sports-reporting’ issue. They are automating the whole process.’’
(EDITOR’S NOTE: What’s Cuban talking about? What is “Automated Insights’’? It’s an algorithm-based way for computers to generate journalistic content using pre-fab templates. See more on that here.)
ON WHEN THIS REALIZATION HIT HIM
“On Mavs Opening Night, everything that Tim (MacMahon) did what on the Mavs ESPN page — but all his content was about the Memphis Grizzlies.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I explain MacMahon’s expanded role at ESPN here.)
“So, two things triggered this:
“First, I found out that ESPN had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 NBA teams. I had no idea that was going on.
“The second was when ESPN didn't cover that Opening Night. Their coverage was a tweet and a (video) highlight and a wire-service story. It made me realize that I had expected the Mavs to be covered by all media, but that that was no longer a given. Even though ESPN was covering the same number of games, if they didn't think it was a big deal to miss Opening Night, I had a problem. Not necessarily an ESPN problem, but a coverage problem.
“Quality coverage of our games is important. Everyone consumes in the way they want. We have helped our partners that covered our games build an audience and vice versa. (The NBA is a corporate partner with ESPN.) It was obvious that I needed to get a commitment from (DFW-area outlet) publishers regarding coverage.’’
ON OFFERING TO HELP THE MEDIA
“So I went to the local papers and we worked together to get them what they needed in access, to cover all of our games. They said yes. I made the same offer to ESPN. ESPN said no.
“Then I offered to let ESPN use our writers and our content, if needed. And I offered to let them (have a writer to) travel with us (for road games). They said no.
So why would they choose the option that was probably the least expensive but certainly also the least quality of the options — and this isn't a knock on wire services, it’s just that their job isn't to cover a game with one team’s fans in mind?
And I asked them, ‘If it's 30 games now for 19 teams, what would keep it from being 60 games for 25 teams? What is the long-term thinking?’
“When you realize that the hottest area in technology — and it's not even close — is machine- and deep learning — then it's an easy step to see where this is going. I told ESPN this was my concern. They didn't say they were taking this path. They didn't say they weren't. But I voiced these concerns to them. They said they would run their business and I can run mine.
“So after my previous concessions they still said no.’’
ON THE NBA AND THE ESPN BRANDS
“So the next question is, ‘Where would it leave Mavs fans who wanted game results coverage if nothing changed and ESPN didn't send a reporter for 30 games?’ It meant for 30 games, and inevitably more in the future, they wouldn't have a good experience with ESPN. It meant it was likely that in the near term when they want to go to ESPN Dallas, they find a couple videos tweets and a wire service story.
“How is that positive for any NBA team or their fans? You get 30 games and have second-rate coverage? And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future?
“So, given the short-term and long-term, it was far more effective to just say to ESPN, ‘Fine, if you don't want to cover all our games, great, we will send our fans to those publishers that are covering every game so the fans don't miss anything.
“What do our fans lose by not having Tim and Marc around to write features and game coverage for the other 52 games and playoffs? We will find out.
“Short-term, this is a Mavs issue. Long-term, it's a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. That's a problem across the board for us in the NBA. In my opinion, that devalues our brand. It devalues the fans’ experience. I feel strongly that now is the time to partner with those outlets that commit to the Mavs by sending real people to cover the games for Mavs fans.
“It may seem like we are picking on ESPN or telling them how to run their business. We aren't. We are trying to protect ourselves and our fans and our future by partnering with those in the written media who commit to us.’’
ON ALGORITHMIC JOURNALISM VS. JOURNALISM
“I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me, this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or the social media would change coverage of sports. Machine- and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.
“This isn't about replacing writers. The best writers will always have a place. This comes down to, 'How do we value reporting on a game?' Right now I value it more than ESPN and (some) others do.’’