A note from Grizzly Bear Blues Site Manager Joe Mullinax-
The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the most unique teams in the entire NBA when it comes to the media.
On one hand, they offer and allow unprecedented access to fan blogs, such as this one. There are teams in the Association that do not allow SB Nation sites and others to possess press passes, much less smaller, independent fan blogs. Then, there are the Grizzlies, who over the years have granted locker room and press conference opportunities to not just GBB, but other local sites and bloggers.
For example, when I lived in Memphis and covered the Grizzlies 2014 playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder for GBB, I was given the opportunity to sit in a press conference as Adam Silver addressed the Donald Sterling situation. There I was, alongside ESPN stalwarts Brian Windhorst and J.A. Adande, as the biggest story of the day developed in the press conference room of FedExForum.
There aren’t many other NBA franchises allowing that. And we and other fan sites continue to have this type of access, which is a terrific thing. I am quite happy with the relationship we have established with the Grizzlies and am grateful for the work their Public Relations staff does with us. Their professionalism and communication is appreciated.
On the other hand, with the launch of Grind City Media - the media branch of the Grizzlies franchise - back in 2016 (which we covered here), access to the team for more traditional media outlets has come in to question - sometimes fairly, other times not so much. Stories and player/owner are often broken by national media sources, not local ones, or GCM themselves. While Chris Vernon, Michael Wallace, and others have told GBB that this work is their own and not directly connected to their proximity to the team (and both of them have extensive resumes backing up their claims), between the developing GCM brand and the overturn in the Memphis front office, conversations with Grizzlies brass - both on and off the record - are in a state of change as all adjust to the new landscape within the organization.
With all this in mind, GBB Writer Shawn Coleman had an idea - get some Grizzlies/Memphis sports media folks together and ask some questions about the relationship between the media in Memphis and the Grizzlies. I reached out to my contacts in the city and four folks graciously agreed to chat with us - Peter Edmiston of Sports56 WHBQ in Memphis and The Athletic, Omari Sankofa The Athletic, David Cobb of the Commercial Appeal and Gary Parrish of CBS Sports and 92.9 FM ESPN Memphis. Here are their responses - thanks to all of them for participating, and to Shawn for organizing this article.
COLEMAN: As the franchise has evolved from the peak of the Grit and Grind era to the present, how has the relationship between the franchise and the media changed over that same time frame?
Omari Sankofa II: I wasn’t hired by The Athletic to cover the Grizzlies until last October, and prior to that I had never lived in Memphis. So I have close to zero perspective on the Grizzlies and the history of their relationship with the local media, outside of what I’ve heard from a handful of reporters who have been doing this longer than I have. I’ll let the longer-tenured reporters handle this one.
Peter Edmiston: I don’t think there’s been too much change from the Grit & Grind peak until now, to be honest. The differences came with Robert Pera’s arrival. He’s much less comfortable speaking with the media, generally unwilling to do so, and it creates an environment that’s more secretive than before. I often spoke candidly with Michael Heisley when he owned the team. He was much more present and available than Pera is, and was willing to be honest, at times to a fault.
Gary Parrish: MANAGER’S NOTE- Gary’s responses have been updated as of 8:48 AM CT on Thursday from their original versions to reflect the Grizzlies securing the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery and Grizzlies President Jason Wexler appearing on his radio show in Memphis on Wednesday. We received Gary’s original answers on Sunday night - a lot has transpired since then.
There was a time when you could have the general manager on your radio show literally any day you wanted. Obviously, that’s changed — evidence being how Zach Kleiman is yet to appear on any local radio show, far as I know. To be clear, I don’t think the relationship between the Grizzlies and the media is contentious or anything. I just think the organization is, for whatever reason, a little less open and transparent than it used to be. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing -- or something that helps them in the market.
David Cobb: The early days of the grit and grind era came before the NBA news dominance of Woj and Shams. It was before the popularization of in-house media efforts such as Grind City Media. It was also before the advent of The Athletic and Gannett’s purchase of the Commercial Appeal, which ultimately led to the creation of another local news outlet in the Daily Memphian. Though I was not on the beat then, my understanding is that access to front-office members came more regularly and more informally at that time. Having spent a lot of time digging around in the Commercial Appeal archives, I can tell you that former owner, the late Michael Heisley, made himself available to local media somewhat regularly, as did then-general manager Chris Wallace.
It seems that after the ownership transition, opportunities to speak with team executives came less frequently. I have been on the beat six months and have not yet had the opportunity to ask any questions of owner Robert Pera. My opportunities to interview 2018-19 general manager Chris Wallace came only after substantive news events (botched Brooks trade, Casspi-Temple fight, Justin Holiday trade, the February trade deadline and exit interviews)
COLEMAN: While it certainly is just the beginning, it seems the new regime in place may prefer a tight-lipped, close to the vest approach with intentions and information. What are the potential positives and negatives with that approach from a media member’s perspective?
Edmiston: It’s too early to know how things will go with the revamped front office, but what I can say is that I’ve enjoyed speaking with and dealing with Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman, even prior to their recent promotions. Both are good guys and are easy to talk to. With regard to information, I’d imagine they’ll be pretty coy, but that’s true of most teams these days. I don’t really look at it in terms of positives or negatives, it’s just the reality of my job and their jobs. We will work together, but there will be times when we don’t see eye to eye. As long as everyone’s honest, it should be fine — and I expect it will be.
Parrish: Being tight-lipped, as you put it, does have some advantages — one of which is that it’s easier to keep information you don’t want out from getting out. But, I will say, now doesn’t really feel like the time to be tightening things up because the best way to connect with local fans is still through local radio. 92.9 reaches more Grizz fans, and potential Grizz fans, each day than any local TV station, newspaper, online publication or podcast. And the ratings show that people are perfectly happy to hear us spend hours talking about Penny Hardaway and the Tigers. It’s the Tigers, not the Grizzlies, that folks are passionate about right now -- though moving to No. 2 in the NBA Draft via this week’s lottery clearly provided a jolt.
Either way, I’d just bottom-line it this way: I’ll never believe being less visible is a good thing in this market, which is why I was glad Jason Wexler came on the show Wednesday, the day after the lottery. He was smart, thoughtful and great. Grizz fans need to hear him as much as possible, I think, because, he provides a vision and something to believe in.
Sankofa II: Prior to landing this beat, I filled a variety of roles for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One of my primary beats was covering a small, mid-major college called Robert Morris, which is best known for upsetting Kentucky in the first round of the NIT tournament in 2013. Robert Morris didn’t receive much coverage, and I was probably the only local reporter who attended every home game and at least one practice a week. If I needed to talk to the head coach for a story, it was a straightforward process — I picked up my phone and called him. And he always got back to me. I also had a solid working relationship with the athletic director, who I could call whenever I wanted or needed. It helped me excel at my job.
As a young reporter, I’m grateful I had that experience. Things aren’t that straightforward covering the NBA, and I didn’t expect them to be. I don’t know how the Grizzlies compare to other NBA teams as far as access, as I have limited experience in dealing with other teams. But it’s certainly easier to do your duty as a reporter when the people you cover help you stay informed.
Cobb: From a media member’s perspective, it would be great to have regular availabilities with front-office members and a preseason, midseason and postseason availability with Pera. However, I think the Grizzlies -- and many other major college and professional sports organizations -- believe it is in their best interest to avoid any situation that could create even the slightest deviation in the desired organizational messaging/branding.
The negative here -- for local media, fans and the organization -- is that it leaves local media to do more speculative and analytical reporting, which can come off as critical and unbalanced without the voice and reasoning of the organization included.
COLEMAN: In a small market, it seems a strong relationship between a sports franchise and the media is quite important. What is the one thing you hope improves with the new leadership in place to make the media’s relationship with the Grizzlies stronger going forward?
Edmiston: I hope for them what I have always hoped for any team officials I have worked with and spoken with — candor and honesty. There will always be times when they can’t answer certain questions on the record, but when that’s the case, I want them simply to say so, not to obfuscate or deflect. And I think they need to be far more transparent with their fans, especially with regard to medium and long-term planning. They’ve been extremely secretive for a long time, and fans now are skeptical about what exactly their plans happen to be, largely because they haven’t been willing to be upfront about them. That needs to change — and I have told them as much personally. They seem to understand that, but we’ll see if any substantive changes occur
Parrish: I recognize when a media member says a sports franchise needs to be more open and accessible that it comes across as self-serving. So I want to be clear: I don’t think I personally need the Grizzlies to be more open and accessible to do a compelling radio show. It honestly doesn’t matter that much to me personally. But I do want the franchise to succeed and be everything it can be — and I sincerely believe being more “out there” has benefits. At this point, it’s clear Robert Pera will never be the type of visible owner so many Memphians want. But there’s no reason Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman couldn’t or shouldn’t be two of the most visible sports figures in the market. Everybody should know their names, their faces and their voices.
I really do think that matters — especially in a small market where you’re competing for a limited number of customers who are suddenly likely to care more about the Tigers than the Grizzlies. If I were the owner of the Grizzlies, I’d want the president and general manager of my franchise to be visible and vocal. I’d want them publicly sharing their vision as often as possible -- especially when the current president and general manager are obviously smart and thoughtful guys. So my hope is that they recognize the benefit in something like that because it would help them, I think, shape and sell their message to both the customers they have and the ones they’re trying to create.
Sankofa II: I’ll draw from my experience of covering a different team to answer this one. I attended Michigan State and covered the men’s basketball team during the 2014-15 season, when they made their last Final Four trip prior to this year. Tom Izzo is one of the most media-friendly and accessible coaches in college basketball. Every reporter who’s covered Izzo has a great Izzo story. As a college reporter learning the ropes, his tendency to overshare and trust the media enabled me to write some stories I’m still proud of today.
Again, I can’t say what the Grizzlies need to improve, because I don’t know what the norm for the NBA is yet and the new front office regime has only been in charge for a month. But I do my best work when I’m covering people who are open with me and trust me to do my job well. And I’m sure most reporters would agree with that.
Cobb: Having covered the St. Louis Cardinals and University of Tennessee athletics, I can say that the Grizzlies are the most accommodating of the three in terms of helping reporters get the players and assistant coaches they need for interviews. They are also helpful and accommodating with interviews and information needed for enterprise/feature stories that go beyond the court. It is noticed and appreciated.
You also hear horror stories in the NBA about the terse relationships between some players and local reporters (think Oklahoma City). But my experience in the Grizzlies locker room around players this season was one of professionalism and courtesy. I believe much of the credit for this goes to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol for establishing a culture of respectfulness. This is noticed and appreciated.
My hope is for that culture to remain, even if Conley is traded. And I hope It trickles up to Pera, because it would be great for fans, media and -- in my opinion -- the franchise if Pera made himself an accessible figure in Memphis.
Thank you again to Gary, Omari, Peter, and David. Thanks also to Shawn for the questions and idea. Memphis is fortunate to have so many terrific options for Grizzlies content - thank you for making GBB one of your choices in that pursuit.