70 Covering Sports: Challenges

It’s been said many times, but again: Always double check what you believe are facts, especially when there isn’t a paper trail to confirm figures.

The biggest error I made in covering sports business came a few years ago when I didn’t do enough homework on a Phoenix-area businessman who tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL.

The investor told me he had a high net worth and gave me an outrageously inflated figure of what he was worth. Unfortunately, I published the figure – and it was dead wrong.

The investor also convinced the former owner of the Vikings he was wealthy, and there was even a press conference in Minnesota announcing the deal. The sale, however, fell apart when the NFL did some digging and realized the investor had nowhere near the resources he said he had to buy the Vikings.

While I wasn’t the only one who was bamboozled, had I done a better job of vetting the investor, I would have had a national scoop instead of eating crow.

The takeaway: Unless you can confirm financial data, don’t’ use it.

Taking time to get it right

Another challenge is putting pressure on yourself or succumbing to pressure from editors to have a story first, when it may be better to wait a day or longer to make sure the story is right.

About a year ago, I did a story on the Pat Tillman Foundation, which is named after the former Arizona State University and Arizona Cardinals star who was killed while serving in the military in Afghanistan. At first blush, the foundation’s most recent annual financial report appeared to show the foundation wasn’t giving away any money for scholarships – as it had promised – and was paying a six-figure income to a relative of Tillman’s to run the foundation.

Before running with the story, I put in a call to the executive director who was traveling at the time. She told me she was extremely busy and in New York, but if I could wait two days she would arrange a conference call with the foundation’s chief financial officer, accountant, Tillman’s widow and herself to explain everything on the financial forms, which she acknowledged may look a bit strange.

It was worth the wait. After visiting with the foundation’s officials, they told me the reason it didn’t look like they were providing scholarship money to Arizona State University and others was because the foundation made a pledge of more than $1 million years earlier and was making that payment in installments.

They said accounting rules didn’t allow them to “count the donations twice” because the foundation already had listed the initial pledge a few years earlier. Officials at ASU confirmed the money was being given in installments. And the relative actually took a pay cut to help run the foundation and was leaving to go back to his other job because he wasn’t making enough money.

Instead of having a “gotcha” watchdog story, I ended up with a fairly vanilla profile of the foundation and an event it hosted called Pat’s Run. In the end, I was fine with that because I would rather have a reputation as being fair.


Beat Basics Copyright © 2011 by Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. All Rights Reserved.


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