Photo credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty

Late Sunday night, word began trickling out that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had revoked the credentials of two ESPN reporters, Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein. The initial reporting suggested that Cuban was upset that MacMahon would be spending less time on the Mavericks beat this season, as he’s also covering the Memphis Grizzlies and other national NBA stories.

In email exchanges with Deadspin, Cuban insisted that wasn’t the case. He pulled their credentials “in support of sports journalists,” he wrote, but otherwise wouldn’t expound upon that, instead writing that he wanted “to give espn and the NBA a chance to come up with a solution” (this and all other quotes sic). He also denied a rumor making its way around the Mavs beat that the revocation was in retaliation for a particular story MacMahon is working on. “No. lol” Cuban wrote, and ESPN sources also insisted the rumor was bunk.

Last night, Cuban revealed to the Associated Press that his true concern was over the future of automated content. Cuban believes that we are rapidly approaching a future in which most basketball game stories are written by computers, not humans. He sees ESPN’s coverage as a sort of bulwark against this automated reporting, and if they aren’t going to cover the team full-time, he doesn’t want them to cover the Mavericks at all.

Cuban wrote to Deadspin that he “had expected to be covered by all media, but it no longer was a given” and that he “found out [ESPN] had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 nba teams.” Indeed, not much has changed with ESPN’s NBA coverage: MacMahon only covered about half of Mavericks road games last year, and ESPN has always only had NBA beat writers for fewer than half the teams. But learning this information spurred Cuban to go “to the local papers and we worked together to get them what they needed in access, to cover all of our games. They said yes.”

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We asked the local papers—the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—what working with the Mavericks meant. Here’s how Dallas Morning News sports editor Gary Leavell responded:

Cuban asked us recently if we plan to cover all 82 regular-season games and we said yes. We’ve always done that and plan to keep doing it because that’s what our readers expect from us. He also offered to help us get more video and we’re going to take him up on it.

That’s about it. Our beat writer often flies on the team plane and we reimburse the Mavs for his flights, but that’s been going on for years.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram NBA editor David Humphrey declined to respond on the record.

According to Cuban, ESPN declined his offer for ESPN reporters to travel with the team to reduce costs, and declined to use Mavericks media or writers to supplement their coverage. This was a predictable, and correct, response from ESPN. They can’t critically and objectively cover the team if they’re accepting team employee work and team financial handouts. (We’ll set aside the fact that ESPN and the Mavericks are essentially business partners because of the NBA’s television contract.)

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The above parts of Cuban’s arguments are, broadly, defensible. He wants as much coverage of his team as possible, especially from a prominent national outlet like ESPN. (We’ll also set aside the fact that eight years ago he banned bloggers from the locker room in reaction to a negative piece.) And it seems like he proactively tried to come up with solutions to help ESPN cover the team—even if ESPN was never going to accept them—which is a lot more than some owners would do.

But if the goal is comprehensive coverage, banning ESPN’s reporters is an exceedingly strange move, especially considering Marc Stein has been going to Mavericks games without really covering the team for over a decade. The pragmatic move is to take the 50-60 regular season games ESPN was going to cover this year and be grateful they’re willing to devote that many resources to a team that will finish far out of the playoff race. It’s by some measures more in-person ESPN coverage than a great team like the San Antonio Spurs were going to get, and will only embolden those within the company (and there are many) who would already prefer to cover the Mavericks much less.

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Finally, of course, we have the whole content robots things. Here is that argument, articulated by Cuban at various points in an email to Deadspin:

When you realize that the hottest area in technology, and it’s not even close , is machine and deep learning , then it’s an easy step to see where this was going

I told espn this was my concern. They didn’t say they were taking this path. They didn’t say they weren’t. But I voiced these concerns to them

How is that positive for any nba team or their fans when 30 games have second rate coverage ?

And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future ?

Given the short term and long term it was far more effective to just say to espn that if they don’t want to cover all our games. Great. We will send our fans to those publishers that are covering every game So the fans don’t miss anything

Short term this is a Mavs issue. Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA

I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or social media would change coverage of sports , etc

Machine and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.

This isn’t a coherent argument. Because Cuban believes it is a “certainty” that Mavericks “games will be covered algorithmically” in the near future ... that means ESPN has to cover every single Mavericks game now? Because Cuban doesn’t want robots to cover basketball games ... he’s refusing to let prominent humans cover them?

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Currently, algorithmic news stories are used to cover heavily numbers-based subjects, like finance and minor league baseball. Generally these stories wouldn’t be written at all, because there are so many minor league games and stock changes, and there is such a tiny audience for this news. But if a computer “writes” a 300 word “story” based upon a box score, it’s at least better than the alternative of it not existing at all.

Cuban is probably right that a time will come in which news organizations will attempt to use algorithmic reporting instead of reporters, rather than just to fill gaps in coverage. But I’d venture that time is a lot farther off than he believes, and that the day that a computer can interview a coach, notice something interesting happening off-camera, and give the proper context to carefully-selected facts is even farther off.

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If fans are still interested in written coverage of basketball—or, more specifically, if fans are interested in paying for written coverage of basketball—it will continue to be covered by human beings. If they’re not, they’ll get a four paragraph computer-written gamer, and everything will be okay. As a journalist I’ll be bummed about other journalists (or me) being out of a job, and as someone who values the craft of reporting I’ll miss good writing, but what I or Mark Cuban think about journalism matters very little in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, while Cuban’s argument doesn’t particularly make a lot of sense, it is always interesting to know what an NBA owner is thinking. In that spirit, here is Cuban’s full e-mail to Deadspin. He didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

It was obvious that I needed to get a commitment from all publishers covering us to cover us with reporters

Quality coverage of our games is important. Everyone consumes in the way they want. We have helped our partners that covered our games build an audience and vice versa

Two things triggered this whole thing. First was when I found out they had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 nba teams I had no idea this was going on

The second was when espn didn’t cover our opening night and the resultant coverage on their website was a tweet, One highlight and a wire service story

It made me realize that I had expected to be covered by all media, but it no longer was a given

Even though espn was covering the same number of games, if they didn’t think it was a big deal to miss opening night. I had a problem. Not necessarily an espn problem , but a coverage problem

I went to the local papers and we worked together to get them what they needed in access, to cover all of our games. They said yes

Same offers to ESPN. Espn said no

I offered to let them use any of our content or writers to fill in for games they couldn’t attend they said no

If offered to let them travel with us to reduce costs. They said no

So it came down to asking why ? Why were they so set on using wire services for games without a writer . It’s not like wire service coverage of all games aren’t available every where

These weren’t exclusive stories to espn.

They are the same thing anyone can get anywhere on the net

So why would they choose the option that was probably the least expensive but certainly also the least quality of the options ( and this isn’t a knock on wire services. Their job isn’t to cover a game with one teams fans in mind )?

And if it’s 30 games now for 19 teams. What would keep it from being 60 games for 25 teams ?

What was their long term thinking ?

When you realize that the hottest area in technology, and it’s not even close , is machine and deep learning , then it’s an easy step to see where this was going

I told espn this was my concern. They didn’t say they were taking this path. They didn’t say they weren’t. But I voiced these concerns to them

They said they would run their business . I can run mine

So after my previous concessions. They still said no

So the next question is where would it leave Mavs fans who wanted game results coverage of nothing changed and espn didn’t send a reporter for 30 games ?

It meant for 30 games and inevitably more in the future they woulnt have a good experience with espn

It meant it was likely that in the near term when they went to espn Dallas they find a couple videos, tweets and a wire service story

How is that positive for any nba team or their fans when 30 games have second rate coverage ?

And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future ?

Given the short term and long term it was far more effective to just say to espn that if they don’t want to cover all our games. Great. We will send our fans to those publishers that are covering every game So the fans don’t miss anything

What did our fans lose by not having Tim and Marc around to write features and game coverage for the other 52 games and playoffs ? We will find out

Short term this is a Mavs issue. Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA

iMO that devalues our brand . It devalues the fans experience. I feel strongly that now is the time to partner with those who commit to the Mavs and to sending real people to cover the games for Mavs fans

It may seem like we are picking on espn or telling them how to run their business. We arent. We are trying to protect ourselves and our fans and our future by partnering with those in the written media who commit to us

I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or social media would change coverage of sports , etc

Machine and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.

This isn’t about replacing writers. The best writers will always have a place

This comes down to how do we value reporting on a game . Right now I value it more than espn and others and want to partner with the DMN FWST and use our own writers as our focus