An excerpt from my latest column for Poynter:
When Tyler Hansbrough led North Carolina to the national title in 2009, Dana O’Neil left her seat on the floor and climbed a few rows into the stands to talk to his family. The access allowed the ESPN.com reporter to get a quote from Hansbrough’s father, Gene, on how it was the culmination of a dream for his son.
O’Neil cited that anecdote when she told NCAA officials why it is important for reporters to have courtside seating during the men’s basketball tournament.
“It allowed me to tell a much more compelling story,” O’Neil said. “If you put me in [a far-away press box], I’m not going to have that kind of access. I won’t be able to write that story.”
O’Neil, now the president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is on the frontlines of a difficult struggle. She and USBWA are trying to protect the premium reporting positions for the NCAA tournament.
It already is a losing battle in the context of what had existed previously. The NCAA delivered a huge blow prior to the 2013 tournament, telling the USBWA that it intendedto use much of the media floor seating for players’ family and other key supporters [think corporate sponsors]. There was an estimated reduction from 180 courtside seats to 70 for that Final Four. O’Neil called it “a year of Armageddon” with veteran NCAA reporters wailing about being relegated to the rafters or other poor viewing locations in arenas and stadiums.
Since then, the USBWA, along with assistance from the Associated Press Sports Editors, have worked with the NCAA on improving conditions. O’Neil said progress has been made with some courtside seats restored. However, she emphasized, “It’s not near what it was.”
“We recognize we’ll never get it back to what we had,” O’Neil said. “What we’re trying to do is get as many people as humanly possible closer to the floor.”