Sports and the media, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, are so deeply interconnected as to give the impression of a smooth integration between two powerful socio-cultural institutions. Many – perhaps most – people across the world have a daily encounter with the sports media in some form, including print, electronic, online, and even branded T-shirts and footwear (Boyle & Haynes 2000; Rowe 2004). But it has not ever been thus, and the history of sports and the media has been marked by competition and conflict as well as cooperation and synergy. Indeed, this history can be adjudged a struggle for power over sports and spectatorship that the media seem largely to have won, although at some organizational and financial cost. This is not just a matter of contending information and service industries, but also of social institutions, the people who engage with them as workers or consumers, and the wider impact of the media–sport relationship on local, national, and global popular culture.
History Of The Relationship
Sports and the media can be regarded as a “match made in heaven,” but might also be seen as a relationship prone to degrees of disharmony. Sports as understood today emerged in eighteenth-century Britain as a codification of earlier forms of folk play and physical culture. It displayed both a strong commitment to amateurism (playing the game for the love of it) and a strengthening professional ethos as part of the growth of industrialized leisure, in which spectators would pay to watch sports contests in enclosed spaces, engage in betting and wagering on them, and enjoy an overall social experience that conventionally involved consuming alcohol and vocally supporting one team or individual against another. As sports increasingly mutated into the “sportsbiz,” they became integrated into commercial structures and practices that, while not entirely stripped of their premodern, precapitalist features, became progressively removed from them (Rowe 2004).
Sports developed as significant social and commercial activities, and so, in the first instance, the print news media began to cover them as part of daily life, and also promoted sports events through advertising and sponsorship (Harris 1998). This was the beginning of an exchange relationship between sports and the media – newspapers informed potential consumers of forthcoming events and subsequently reported on them, while at the same time attracting readers and advertising revenue from sports and other nascent and established industries. It soon became apparent that sports could attract popular attention and enable product endorsement, as effective means of capturing audiences for exposure to commodities given the seal of approval by respected, even revered athletes. In return, sports received a higher profile and greater visibility, so cementing their social importance and commercial viability, and inducing an upward spiral of print media coverage and sports prominence. Thus sports journalism developed far beyond mere provision of results and factual description, consuming many pages of newspapers and magazines (both general and sport-specific). The discourse of sport, therefore, insinuated itself into the everyday lives not only of sports appreciators (now referred to as fans), but of all those acquainted with a media culture, in the first instance deeply reliant on the written word and the still photograph.
Sports and the media, though, were still substantially constrained by time and space until the early to mid-twentieth century. Sports involved mainly local events, and, even where local “representatives” traveled to sports contests, the limitations of the print and telegraphic media dictated that events could be anticipated and reported only after considerable delay, given the available technologies of print media and physical transport. Sports newsreels were popular, but involved the cumbersome process of transportation to exhibition venues.
But the media became less and less temporally and spatially constrained, by means of first radio and then television broadcasting (Buscombe 1975; Rader 1984). The latter, crucially, offered both unprecedented audiovisual representation and instantaneity to a majority of citizens in western countries in their homes within two decades of World War II (and with striking vividness following the introduction of color television). This technology, and the major sports events it covered (such as the Olympic Games and the Association Football World Cup), enhanced the globalization of sports (Miller et al. 2001).
At the moment when the electronic media could give a strong impression of “having been there” to viewers, two key questions were raised: could the media representation of sports create superior experience to that involving physical attendance? Would the institution of the media come to dominate that of sports? Sports organizations were generally concerned about the impact of television on attendances and so their prime source of revenue – gate takings. But the sale of broadcast rights on a competitive basis, with its associated spin-offs of merchandising, marketing, and publicity, facilitated a massive infusion of capital that accelerated the professionalization of sports and created the conditions for a more fluid national and international sports labor market (Miller et al. 2001), and new linkages of sports to other industries, such as fashion, clothing, and tourism.
In countries with strong public service broadcasting systems, such as Britain, much of continental Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the heightened commercial desirability of sports through broadcast media had the progressive impact of reducing the role of public service broadcasting in sports. In nations with a historically stronger private television sector, notably the USA, commercial television has always dominated sports broadcasting (Chandler 1988). Television sports competition under such circumstances developed as that between advertiser-supported free-to-air networks and subscription or pay-per-view arrangements, the latter constituting an “electronic turnstile” that parallels the cost of physical entry to the sports arena. As more countries have followed cable and satellite televisual sports provision at the expense of public and private free-to-air access, one of the most pressing issues in contemporary media sports has emerged – that of the “cultural citizenship” rights attached to the free and unencumbered broadcast provision of prime sports events conceived as being of major national cultural significance (Rowe 2004). Contentious debates over whether citizens should pay to watch major sports on television that were previously provided free-to-air demonstrate the density and intensity of the media–sports nexus (Boyle & Haynes 2000). As with other cultural forms, these matters revolve around questions of production, text, and reception (Wenner 1998), but in terms not of whether sports and media should interconnect, but of how, and according to which set of power relations.
Power Of Media Corporations
With regard to the production of media sports, the main area of concern involves the growing global power of media corporations, notably News Corporation, over sports. Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation’s current chairman and manager director, is frequently cited as the most powerful individual in contemporary sports, and regularly asserts the importance of subscription television sports as a “battering ram” in breaking through to viewers with a wide range of interactive media services, ranging from gambling to shopping. The tendency to monopoly power in the highly capitalized world of broadcast sports is not just revealed in the development of global media sports networks and the swallowing of smaller “players,” but also extends to the ownership of sports clubs by media companies. These arrangements open up enormous possibilities for cross-promotion across print and electronic media platforms, but also provoke concerns about conflicts of interest, in which media companies may exert excessive power over sports competitions and organizations (Miller et al. 2001; Rowe 2004).
These issues surrounding media sports production have a direct impact on the second key area of concern – that of the media sports text. The spectacle of sports is a highly salable commodity, but the sports event in real time and space constitutes only the apex of a much larger entity – the mediated audience. For example, in order to maximize television viewership, sports events can be represented in a more dramatic fashion, with the imperative of attracting and holding attention leading to faster, more spectacular audiovisual images (Goldlust 1987) that show little respect for the tactical subtleties and variations of pace savored by more committed sports fans (a minority of the potential audience). Media corporations can also exert considerable power over sports rules and forms, such as tie-breaks in tennis and one-day cricket matches, which are both “telegenic” and more easily contained in predictable temporal frameworks. To accommodate broadcast audiences in key markets, especially the east coast of the USA, Olympic marathons may take place in the heat of the day, swimming races in the early morning, and boxing matches after midnight. Similarly, in the news media, sports are increasingly molded to entertainment coverage, with celebrity scandals and gossip turning sports into a much broader cultural phenomenon (Boyle 2006) that may have little direct dependence on traditional conceptions of it.
Role Of The Audience
This refashioning and proliferation of media sports texts raises issues of relationships with, and impacts on, audiences. It is misleading to see audiences as simple victims of powerful media sports organizations: individually and collectively they not only have the capacity to protest against developments in media sports, but also hold the ultimate power of veto – to refuse to view or read what is produced. But it is difficult for sports aficionados, who may well have a lifelong attachment to sports, to resist (in both senses) media sports. Thus, while audiences may sometimes be successful in obstructing aspects of the transformation of media sports – for example, lobbying governments to block takeovers of sports clubs by media companies or to introduce stricter protections for broadcast sports access – they conventionally use the media services (especially televisual) made available to them. The qualities, meanings, and uses of these media sports texts and audience interaction with them should, therefore, be subject to close scrutiny. Critical media sports scholars analyze the ways in which these seemingly innocent, pleasurable texts have embedded within them damaging ideologies, including sexism, homophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, class prejudice, excessive nationalism, and xenophobia (Wenner 1998). Correspondingly, media sport producers are called upon to disseminate “progressive” messages opposing sports’ enlistment as a vehicle of social oppression. Thus, media sports are fertile ground for the testing of socio-cultural theories and concepts linking sports to major structures of societal power, and interrogating the politics of popular culture.
The history of media sports is a dynamic one, and in the contemporary context many new and potential changes are evident, such as the increased availability of media sports texts via flexible, digital, and converged means such as digital television, computers and mobile phones, and new forms of sports journalism (Boyle 2006) made possible by the Internet and the practice of blogging. There is no doubt that the established interdependence of the media and sports will persist, and that new forms of media sports representation will emerge, such as the use of implanted technology that will turn athletes’ experience of sports contests into the virtual reality of spectators. The institutional specificity of the media and sports should be acknowledged, while at the same time it should be recognized that studying them and their links to wider social processes reveals much about the formation and constitution of contemporary societies.
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