DALLAS — It has been three weeks since Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pulled aside ESPN’s Tim MacMahon after the Mavericks’ first practice in a brand-new facility. In an isolated conversation held shortly before his media availability, Cuban expressed displeasure with ESPN.com’s planned coverage of the Mavericks this season. If ESPN.com wouldn’t cover every Mavericks game this season, Cuban made it clear: he wouldn’t credential them at all.
On Adam Silver’s personal request, Cuban didn’t ban ESPN.com writers for the team’s home opener on Oct. 25. But last Friday, after discussions between Cuban, ESPN, and the NBA failed to reach a solution, Cuban followed through on his original warning. Both MacMahon and national NBA reporter Marc Stein, who is also based in Dallas and holds a Mavericks season press pass, were told they were not welcome in the building as credentialed media.
“This wasn't about editorial,” Cuban told SB Nation in an email Monday. “It wasn't about a reduction in number of games [covered] this year.”
Instead, Cuban wrote that he’s worried about a lack of “high quality, in depth coverage of every game,” combined with an increased reliance on wire services. The clash was also at least partially influenced by MacMahon’s changing role at ESPN, according to multiple sources.
Last season, MacMahon exclusively covered the Mavericks, attending every home game and about half of the team’s road matchups. His role this season has expanded to coverage of other teams while still attending a similar number of Mavericks games and producing a comparable amount of game stories. Or that was the plan before last Friday, at least.
Cuban is concerned that this is the beginning of a larger trend.
“If I did nothing and the trend towards more and more games being covered by wire reporters continues, then it could get to the point where it was too late,” Cuban wrote. “I felt like if I didn't do it now, I wouldn't have a chance to stop or slow what I felt was a negative trend for the Mavs and NBA.”
When reached for this story, ESPN issued this statement on Sunday: “We’re committed to thoroughly covering the Mavs and the NBA.” MacMahon and Stein both declined comment.
To understand Cuban’s concerns, you should first understand ESPN’s business model. On her daily ESPN show The Jump, Rachel Nichols helped pull back the curtain.
“ESPN.com changes its coverage plans each season depending on what teams matter to our national audience,” Nichols said on Monday’s show with a wry smile. “We don’t have the resources to cover all 82 games of all 30 teams, and frankly, most of the country wouldn’t be that interested even if we did.”
The Miami Heat used to have a full-time beat writer, Nichols points out. Without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they don’t anymore. On the other hand, as recently as a few seasons ago, ESPN.com didn’t cover every Golden State Warriors game — something that has obviously changed.
Mark Cuban speaks
Mark Cuban speaks
Including MacMahon, ESPN.com employs 11 full-time beat writers for their NBA coverage. The writers are assigned based on a number of factors — market size, interest, storylines and, yes, the success of the team. It’s a model ESPN employs for all major sports.
This worries Cuban who pointed to a company called Automated Insights, which is developing software that acts as “robot” reporters.
“Instead of a wire reporter, we will see data fed into algorithms and game summaries spit out,” Cuban wrote. “I think that is a long term problem for all sports.”
Cuban continued in the email: “I reached out not just to ESPN, but to all our beat writer publishers and asked what I could do to make sure that we got coverage of all of our games. The only publisher that resisted was ESPN.”
Under MacMahon’s new role this season, he will also provide coverage for the Jazz, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves. It’s understandable if MacMahon’s Mavericks coverage may have suffered slightly from the increased workload, even if he attended the same number of games.
ESPN.com does use wire services like the Associated Press for most game recaps and much of the league’s day-to-day news, and the AP uses software as described by Cuban to recap some minor league baseball games. The AP’s sports product manager said there are no current plans to expand automated coverage beyond that.
Cuban pointed to the lack of coverage on ESPN’s Dallas Mavericks home page after the team’s season opener in Indiana, a game which MacMahon missed for a trip to Memphis (where Chandler Parsons went after leaving the Mavericks this summer).
“When a fan goes to a Mavs page and the only coverage is a wire service or eventually an automated summary, one highlight and a tweet, that hurts all stakeholders,” Cuban wrote.
Cuban’s decision has been mostly criticized since Sunday night, including this statement issued by the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association on Monday.
“We are deeply troubled by the Dallas Mavericks’ move to revoke the credentials of two respected, longtime NBA journalists. The Mavericks’ move is without merit. We call on the Mavericks to reverse their decision or for NBA officials to intervene to allow Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein to continue their work.”
This isn’t the first time Cuban has banned media — or even Tim MacMahon. In March 2008, when MacMahon was a blogger for the Dallas Morning News, the Mavericks banned all writers “whose primary purpose is to blog no matter what affiliation.” The reaction was purportedly because of a negative MacMahon report regarding then-head coach Avery Johnson. The ban was dropped 18 days later, a decision influenced by the league.
In years following that incident, the Mavericks have held one of the most progressive media credentialing processes in the league. SB Nation’s Mavericks blog, Mavs Moneyball, has received press passes from the team since 2008, and season credentials since 2012.
If Cuban’s wish is for more beat writer coverage by ESPN.com, they are headed the opposite way.
“Honestly, what I didn't know was that this was happening to 18 other teams as well,” Cuban wrote in the same email to SB Nation. “That's a lot of games with only wire service coverage.”
Cuban has offered to fly ESPN reporters on the team plane to cut costs, something the Dallas Morning News currently does. He also said he suggested ESPN host Mavs.com content during games they couldn’t cover in person. Cuban said ESPN rejected both ideas. (An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment when asked for confirmation.)
Cuban wants ESPN to zig right as they zag. MacMahon joined ESPN in 2009 to write for ESPN Dallas in the middle of a strong local push by the sports media empire. Two years ago, local sites like ESPN Dallas have all essentially been shuttered. MacMahon now reports to a national editor and focuses solely the NBA.
It’s worth noting that ESPN is coming off its worst month in the company’s history, losing 610,000 subscribers in October alone. Make no mistake: ESPN is a behemoth, and cable revenue surely doesn’t directly impact what happens for editorial positions online. It was reported in July that ESPN is actively trying to cut costs across all platforms.
It’s unclear if the NBA can or will step in and reverse Cuban’s decision, something they helped make happen during his bloggers ban in 2008. Other than being guilty by association, it’s also not clear how revoking the credentials of respected journalist Marc Stein, who hasn’t been a credentialed Dallas beat writer since 2000, helps Cuban’s cause.
MacMahon’s role currently remains the same at ESPN. MacMahon is still allowed at Dallas Mavericks practices, per a source, and can travel on the road. On Monday, some noticed he changed his Twitter avatar.
You can feel the subtle sarcasm. The photo of him and Cuban was taken three weeks ago, at that same practice where Cuban gave ESPN his ultimatum.