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Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Give Them the Real’: Why Dawn Staley ‘Spoiled’ Local South Carolina Reporters

  • Staley gives special access to local media, even on the biggest stage.
  • One local TV station sent five staffers to the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four weekends.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

David Cloninger’s career covering South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball began 16 seasons ago, the same year Dawn Staley became the team’s head coach. During that first 10-win season, Cloninger was one of just a few reporters on press row, in a gym so quiet that he could hear Staley calling plays from the bench. Now with Charleston’s The Post and Courier after cycling through different outlets, he’s seen the team blossom into a dynasty and Staley become a true celebrity coach. And while Staley has evolved as a coach in that time, he says, the one thing that hasn’t changed a bit is her extreme devotion to local media.

“She will always make time for whoever’s asking for a piece of her time. Even though these days, there are more and more people who are asking,” Cloninger tells Front Office Sports. “She’s never refused me an interview, even when you have to talk about difficult subjects.”

After the Gamecocks play an NCAA tournament game, first come the required proceedings of a national press conference and open locker room. Then, local reporters line up to speak with the coach. Everyone gets two minutes for two questions, but Staley will encourage a third question if the reporter has one.

“She could be off after these games doing quite literally anything that she wanted to,” Chase Justice, a reporter at WYFF, the NBC affiliate in Greenville, S.C., tells FOS. “But she’s taking time to build connections with the media because she understands how far that coverage goes. That’s special, and that’s not something that happens very often.”

While receiving the most media coverage in her coaching career—South Carolina’s 87–75 win over Iowa in the national championship drew an average of 18.7 million viewers—Staley still made time for a young girl equipped with her pink and white microphone flag and sparkly black jacket who asked for an interview. The video went viral on social media, as did ones throughout the tournament of the line of South Carolina media members ready for their two minutes. One post stated that Staley had been on the court for half an hour after the national championship answering questions from local reporters.

The three-time national championship-winning coach tells FOS she prefers speaking with South Carolina-based outlets to national ones, especially toward the end of the season. “They know the type of questions they need to ask because they know the inner workings of our team,” Staley says. These reporters ask about more than the star players, inquiring about Staley’s relationships with players’ parents, what motivates changes in lineups, and whether she would get a second dog after her second national title (she got her Havanese, Champ Staley, after the first). Plus, it’s comforting to see the people she knows at the Final Four, she says.

“They’ve watched us, and they’ve followed us, and they know what our standard is, and when we don’t play to our standard, they recognize it. So it’s not like the national media who sees you once or twice or three times, and that’s their opinion. Or they’ll speak from a historical standpoint, not knowing real-time what our team is all about. But the local media, they know,” Staley says. “I’d rather spend my time with the people that really know our team, that’s going to report back to our fan base and give them the real.”

College sports are filled with coaches who don’t want to deal with the media, sports information directors uninterested in directing information, and restrictions around whether first-year players can do interviews. The amount of time Staley and her players give to local media, especially down the stretch, isn’t standard at this level, or any level for that matter. The reporters who cover Staley for a living know that they get an extremely rare quality and quantity of access for a celebrity coach and powerhouse program. (Just look at how Kim Mulkey talks about the media, for example.)

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just that Staley appreciates the better coverage she gets from reporters who are consistently around the team. She says that media can be “free marketing” for her team to reach Gamecock fans, which are called “FAMs”. She said she also lets FAMs in for office tours and open practices and shootarounds. The atypical level of access creates an atypical level of fandom, which is part of why, along with the product on the court, South Carolina has led the nation in attendance for the last nine seasons.

‘She just gets it’

A big reason local reporters get premium access is the team’s communications director, Diana Koval, who Cloninger describes as a “pro’s pro.” She manages the flood of inquiries for Staley, organizing everything from the postgame local media scrums to the Good Morning America appearances. Koval even green-lit local media to record mayhem in the locker room with balloons strewn all over the floor, and one player prancing around with a balloon under her shirt to look like a pregnant belly.

“All the fans were like, ‘This is really what Dawn has been trying to tell us all along, is what this team is like behind the scenes,’” Amanda Poole, a reporter who recorded the moment for WACH, the Fox affiliate in Columbia, S.C., tells FOS. “And we were able to show that to the fans, and they really liked that.”

Poole, who has never covered a South Carolina loss, says she and other reporters talk about how “spoiled” they are to get that kind of access to the team. Justice says the emphasis on local media allows him to report on the team “in a way that they deserve to be covered.”

The access that Staley and South Carolina give create something of a virtuous cycle, making it worth it for local media to invest in covering her team. One local station, WIS in Columbia, S.C., sent five staffers to the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four this year.

“I got to shout them out because a decision maker decided to blow the budget on women’s basketball, and that’s unheard of,” Staley says. “Not in Columbia, South Carolina though.”

That recognition from Staley, which she also shared during a recent press conference, is “the cherry on top” for Justice. “She just gets it,” he says.

“To have her understand at a thorough level just how much goes into making these trips, and how much money it is for us to be there,” Justice says, “that just means the world to everybody that’s doing this day in and day out.”

Even with some belt-tightening at Poole’s Sinclair-owned station, she says they’ve sent at least one person to every tournament game during her three seasons covering the Gamecocks, and this year, her whole three-person team went to Cleveland. That allowed her to do a story about former Gamecocks Aliyah Boston and A’ja Wilson practicing for Team USA in Cleveland during the Final Four, which she says she wouldn’t have been able to do had she flown solo.

“I think local media is the soul to the local team,” Staley says. “I hope that … whatever market that you’re in, that you allow your local media access to your team. Because the community is listening, and that’s your fan base.”

All three reporters say that local media coverage is essential to growing women’s sports. Poole says her station shows WNBA highlights of former Gamecocks throughout the summer because fans care how Boston and others are playing. Staley didn’t take over one of the blue bloods of the sport like UConn or Tennessee that already have devoted fanbases, but it wasn’t just the winning that made women’s basketball the hottest ticket in South Carolina. It was her nonstop recruitment of an army of supporters, and the local media is a critical part of that strategy.

Cloninger, whose media career spans nearly three decades, says that unlike other coaches he’s covered, Staley acknowledges any request, even if she can’t meet it. “It’s been a joy to work with her,” he says.

He’d also never seen her cry until after winning this year’s national championship, which he suspects was from finally escaping the prospect of having another undefeated season ruined by Iowa.

“I never thought that you could get better than winning multiple national championships and all, but somehow they managed to find a way to improve, even when you were this good already,” Cloninger says. “It’s been the thrill of my career to be along for the ride.”

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