Why the Premier League Needs to Have Better Player Access

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Why the Premier League Needs to Have Better Player Access
Mikko Stig/Associated Press

To the casual observer who sees the beautiful game receive blanket coverage in the daily press and online, the issue of player access might not seem like a big deal.

The level of access granted to a football journalist for player and manager interviews, however, is terrible. Traditionally, getting time with a Premier League personality has been like pulling teeth. Clubs have very little to gain from granting journalists access to their training facilities and virtually no inclination to let their employees speak to the media on matchdays.

The situation doesn't only put a dent in the ego of football writers—it is a disservice to fans. Instead of getting the truth about the club they support (and fund) straight from the horse's mouth, much of the Premier League's press coverage comes from hearsay and rumours from secondary sources. Nowhere is this more true than during the transfer window. 

In January and during the summer, the vast majority of transfer rumours are passed to journalists by agents (many of the others, incidentally, are pulled from thin air). This is a secondary source of information and one that has a clear agenda: putting their client's names in the press to generate interest and earn their 15 per cent.

If there was a more open path to accessing players, we may be treated to a more accurate depiction of the facts when it comes to transfers—and many other aspects of the game.  

At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the situation was improved. As part of the terms of the eye-watering £5.5billion rights deal, members of the media were given expanded access. According to The Guardian, each club must now give the TV rights holder access to the manager and one player before games. They are allowed to ask three questions. When the game is not broadcast in the UK, these questions are asked by the Premier League's own TV channel. 

There are also "mixed zones" where journalists may ask questions of players as they make their way from the dressing room to the bus—although players are not obliged to speak.

Finally, every team must make one player available to the media for two hours each week. 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
A typical post-match press conference

This is certainly an improvement on sporadic player access and the kind of post-match questions that Sir Alex Ferguson usually shirked when they were being asked by the BBC. 

Yet it is absolutely nothing like the American sports model, where the generosity with players' time makes the Premier League look thoroughly miserly. 

In December, I had the good fortune to gain press passes to an NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets. After watching the game in Carolina's superb press facilities, journalists were allowed down onto the field to stand next to the player benches for the final two minutes. When the final whistle blew, we were allowed to run onto the pitch to chase down players for a comment. 

Shortly afterwards, there was a standard post-match press conference with the manager. Then, incredibly, all members of the press were allowed in the locker room as the team changed. In various states of undress—and in clear view of journalists of both sexes—the players happily did TV, radio and press interviews for around 45 minutes. 

Compare this to the Premier League model—where writers are sat in a heavily managed post-match press conference and the dressing room door is slammed shut—and the difference is staggering.  

In the NFL, there is also much more access during the week. Journalists are generally given open access to the locker room on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with opportunities to speak with the coach on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

In the NBA, a locker room is typically open to journalists for 90 minutes before tipoff and after the game too.

As I wondered around the Panthers dressing room, I saw players addressing media members by their first name, acting as if they were colleagues and confidants. They had a rapport with the vast majority of the press pack and a willingness to divulge information to the local media members they knew and trusted.

The result of this policy is greater transparency and a more informed fanbase. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
A media-packed locker room in the NFL

In the UK, meanwhile, we have clubs like Newcastle announcing plans to charge media organisations to receive comparatively short amounts of time with their employees. 

To be fair, the situation is very gradually improving. In particular, social media sites like Twitter have granted us incredible insight into the lives of players and a direct route to interact with them. In fact, a great deal of the stories in the tabloids are based upon or inspired by player comments on Twitter. 

But this is not enough. In an age when every single game is broadcast somewhere in the world and we are bombarded with the minutiae of footballers' private lives, more player access is essential.

Without hearing from the players, we are effectively scrutinising their performances and off-the-field antics without really giving them a right to reply.

It is probably true that some less enlightened footballers are better off with a child-like "seen and not heard" approach, with their performances doing the talking, but the Premier League certainly has some catching up to do in a world of 24-hour rolling news.  

 

Follow Ryan Bailey on Twitter 

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