Although they are often framed as “merely” fun and games, sports and the communication that surrounds them influence social norms. Many scholars recognize that the “sports– media complex,” identified as such by Jhally (1989, 77) because of the virtually inseparable relationship between high-profile sports and media, is one that entertains but also reflects and reinforces existing social dynamics. As outlined by media sociologist Robert McChesney (1989), the sports–media complex is a commercial enterprise and has evolved in pace with consumerism and with communication technology.
Since the rise of television in the mid-twentieth century, sports communication has diminished emphasis on traditional western ideals associated with sports (such as fair play and teamwork, for instance) and moved toward what some scholars call “sportainment” or “confrontainment,” which emphasizes individual stars (e.g., Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Michael Schumacher) and spectacle in mega-events such as the World Cup or American Super Bowl.
The Phenomenon Of Sports Communication: Scope And Impact
More than perhaps any other single genre of entertainment, sport has the power to draw national and global audiences simultaneously to a single event – to watch, cheer, cajole, and, occasionally, cry. In the case of an international competition (such as a World Cup soccer match or the Olympics), the sports stadium holds just a fragment of its audience. Millions of fans, speaking dozens of different languages and living thousands of miles apart, may also share the experience through mediated coverage. Events smaller in scope, such as an Australian rugby game, also draw significant audiences. Four of the ten most-watched shows in US television history have been Super Bowls. The audience for the 2004 Olympics in Athens was 3.9 billion, up from 3.6 billion for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Audiences for sports can rival those for televised phenomena such as the funeral of Princess Diana or the finale of the top-rated US sitcom Friends, which drew more than 50 million viewers in 2004.
Viewers translate into advertising dollars and profit for sports organizations, sponsors, and media partners. For instance, broadcast and cable networks in the US pay billions of dollars per year to broadcast games of the National Football Leagues, and yet they do so in expectation of a profit as they charge advertisers to reach a target audience. The average Super Bowl commercial sold for $2.4 million in 2005, and the FIFA World Cup media rights value reached $879 million in 2006 (Bryant & Holt 2006).
There is no reason to believe that such growth in consumption and revenues will not increase as young audiences demand coverage of a wider array of sports and as technologies make it possible to track live events virtually everywhere.
Development Of The Sports–Media Complex
The marriage of organized sports and media in Canada, the US, and Europe has followed the same general trajectory, as part of newssheets and magazines in the early-to-mid-1800s, mass-circulation newspapers in the mid-1800s, radio in the early-to-mid-1900s, and then television and the Internet during the past half-century.
The sporting press, which began its rapid expansion during the nineteenth century, communicated on a wide scale the cultural parameters of sports. Mass-circulated media accounts generally did not question the politics of sports or the behavior of athletes but instead used sports as a way to provide escapist fare to draw the largest possible audience and attract advertisers. During the early twentieth century in the US, for instance, topcirculation newspapers allowed the lines between journalists and sports organizations to blur as team owners paid newspapers to cover their teams on the road, which manifested reporting that ignored unethical behavior by athletes and instead took a “gee-whiz” tone and promoted athletes as heroes. At the same time, advertising became central to the consumer-driven economy, and mass media came to depend on advertisers, which sought outlets that were attractive to consumers.
The rise of radio in the 1920s, and, more importantly, that of television, made the live spectator experience possible for those outside the ballpark or arena. The explosion of televised sports has been facilitated since then by global economic factors: it has provided a readymade vehicle for major transnational corporations to develop brand-name recognition and cultural familiarity and to push consumption. Technological developments that led to sports coverage via cable or satellite (ESPN was launched in 1979), the Internet, and, now, wireless devices have continued to feed the voracious public appetite for sports coverage and the corporate desire to promote brands and products. For instance, multinational media owner Rupert Murdoch uses sports entertainment as a “battering ram” (lead offering) in News Corporation’s pay-television operations because, as he announced in the 1990s, sports has more power than any other form of entertainment to draw viewers (cited in Cashmore 2005, 365). Nike, a multinational corporation that started as a sports-and-fitness apparel maker in the 1970s and has since moved into sports entertainment, perhaps best evidences the synergy between commercial sports and consumption. Nike’s marketing of NBA superstar Michael Jordan to sell shoes during the 1990s was a key reason its revenues increased more than eight-fold from the mid-1980s, and enabled it to position the famous swoosh and logo (“Just Do It”) with the pursuit of sports and fitness globally.
The Sports–Media Complex And Sportainment
Broadcasters and cable operators rely on the audiences and advertising revenue that sports coverage generates. Sports leagues depend on broadcast rights fees, which can run into the hundreds of millions annually. Both institutions – sports and media – have transformed to accommodate their symbiotic relationship.
An example of this is in the way broadcasters invest and brand themselves by their sports coverage, as in the NBC Network’s investment of significant resources in coverage of the Olympics, and the way sporting events have altered themselves to fit the commercial demands of TV (e.g., rule changes in international tennis to speed up the game, compression of cricket tournaments, and “television timeouts” in American football games). Sports must make themselves “televisual” to thrive, and networks and cable operators must be willing to attain the most televisually friendly (thus, popular) sports. Further, advertisers’ demands for access to target consumers, combined with the technological ability of media producers to reach them, has led to fragmentation and specialization of sports programming. Audiences can be sliced into thinner and thinner segments on the basis of media they seek. For instance, US advertisers who want to reach devoted auto-racing or horse-racing fans who watch cable television in a particular region can speak to them via networks such as the Speed Channel. The Internet has also provided space for advertisers to reach groups of consumers based on narrowly defined interests, including in sports that may receive relatively little television coverage, such as professional weightlifting.
To retain audiences to deliver to advertisers, televised (and Internet-streamed) sports must also be entertaining. This demand has led to increasing pressure on leagues, teams, and athletes to become spectacles. John Gerdy, author of Sports: The All-American addiction (2002), argues that this emphasis on sports-as-spectacle has produced “sportainment,” which is generally devoid of the values traditionally cherished in organized sports, such as character-building, teamwork, and sportsmanship. Instead, athletes have been transformed into entertainers; thus sports for sports’ sake have been trivialized. Other critics argue that “confrontainment” is a more apt descriptor because of the emphasis on conflict-driven drama in programming. Media and culture critic Michael Real (1998, 25) has compared the presentation of sports megaevents to cockfights because of their emphasis on “death, masculinity, rage.”
Reflecting Social Norms And Cultural Ideology
Sports cross national and cultural boundaries more readily than perhaps any other form of entertainment, making their potential for consumption limited only by their reach. Sports coverage may promote nationalist agendas by the way athletes, teams, and events are presented. Real political events impact coverage; Cashmore (2005) points out that since 1956, every summer Olympics has been implicated in some kind of controversy. (In Athens during 2004, for instance, the US team stayed aboard a cruise ship because of perceived threats from Al-Qaeda.)
Research indicates that media commentary involving international sports is driven by nationalist agendas, as sports become a symbolic extension of the power and identity of participating countries. One way media accounts reflect nationalism is by stereotyping other countries and athletes from those countries. In one analysis of 340 hours of international even coverage, Sabo and colleagues (1996) found that American commentators accused other countries of having a political agenda in the games and made negative comments about how international athletes were sponsored. Also, Denham’s (2004) study of coverage of US track and field star Carl Lewis, accused of using performance-enhancing drugs in previous Olympics, found sympathetic coverage of him in American media but international stories that accused him of being sanctimonious, arrogant, and hypocritical.
Sociologists including Coakley (2004) and Sage (1998) have also argued that depictions of sports, through repetitive emphasis on men, the able-bodied, and certain ethnic groups to the exclusion of others, reinforce a social hierarchy. Although legal and social changes in many western countries have resulted in tremendous increases in sports participation by traditionally marginalized groups such as girls and women, racial and ethnic groups, and the disabled, a vast amount of research shows that in sports media depictions they are generally invisible or are stereotyped in unflattering ways. Sports sociologists including Rowe (2003) and Messner (2002) have argued that such depictions (or lack thereof) are choices by media gatekeepers based on an ideology that devalues women and those who do not match the ideal body standard. Sports journalists and producers, such as Leonard Koppett (2003), however, have argued that such depictions reflect the reality of sports, in which ablebodied men are naturally dominant, and that such coverage is justified by audience demands. They argue that these demands are not shaped by, but instead drive, decisionmaking by media gatekeepers.
Images Of Women And Minorities In Sports
Although women and girls make up 40 percent of overall sports participants in the US, they receive (at best) only around 10 percent of the media coverage of sports. This general pattern is replicated in other western countries and is irrespective of medium. An example of the diminished coverage women receive in comparison to men can be found in a longitudinal study (1989–2005) of sports-related television coverage on ESPN and major US television networks. The study found no increase in the number of stories about women’s sports; for instance, on ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter, just 1 in 20 stories involved women’s sports (Duncan et al. 2005).
Many studies have reached the conclusion that media accounts of women’s sports are often ambivalent and position women as less suited for sports than men, although a handful of recent studies have documented equal treatment of male and female athletes, especially in Olympic coverage. Messner (2002) has asserted that an increased female presence in sports has turned the sports–media complex into “contested terrain,” with evolving depictions of women and alternatives to the traditional stereotypes of women in sports outlined by Griffin (1998). Complicating discussions of the stereotyping of women in sports media over the past decade, especially, has been the emergence of what has been called “pro-sex feminism,” which espouses individual choices by female athletes to present themselves in sexualized ways as empowering (Projansky 2001). Thus, the sex-symbol status in recent years of Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova, whose athletic career failed to net a major singles tournament win yet whose marketing and media presentation made her one of the most recognized (and lucrative) names in women’s sports, can be read as either a diminishment of women in sports or a choice made by individual female athletes to best position themselves in the sports–media complex.
Grainger et al. (2006) suggest that images of race presented in mediated sport may be the most significant way that individuals understand the contemporary racial order in society. Mediated sports provide some of the most prominent “actors” in contemporary entertainment, and many of them are athletes of color. The use of racist stereotypes in sports coverage, especially in the US, is less prevalent than it was several decades ago. The civil rights movement and increased sensitivity of media producers to their audiences has subdued blatant references to black people (including AfricanAmericans) and members of other racial or ethnic groups as less intelligent than their white counterparts. Further, studies in recent years indicate that some racial groups (especially African-American men) are not marginalized, but are instead highly visible, although in limited roles, in the sports–media complex.
Still, according to Hoberman (1997) and Cashmore (2005), issues of representation exist in the reinforcement of racial ideologies, such as the reproduction of “natural” black superiority and that of the typical deviant or dangerous black man. Billings (2004), who examined commentary about quarterbacks in US college and professional football leagues, found that in televised games, references to non-white athletes have emphasized athletic ability in ways that imply diminished cognitive ability. Hoberman has argued that reinforcement of these images, coupled with the absence of people of color in other areas of the news, such as politics and business, has resulted in the false belief by black youths that sports – and sports alone – are their only path to upward mobility.
Although racial and ethnic minorities are visible, elite-level athletes who participate in adapted sports are virtually invisible. Although the Paralympics is second in scope and size only to the Olympics, it receives relatively little coverage in Canada, Australia, Europe, and Asia and is ignored in the US, receiving less coverage than sports such as billiards and bowling. When adapted-sport athletes are covered, studies show that they are portrayed as objects of pity instead of as authentic sports heroes; an example is network coverage of Paralympian Hope Lewellen, which Schell and Rodriguez (2001) found focused far more on her disability than on her athletic accomplishments.
Sports communication is dynamic and complex as it interacts with economics, technology, politics, and social life. Sports offer real-time drama, often on the world stage, in a language (the body in action) that can be read across cultures. A public appetite for “sportainment,” coupled with corporate desire to reach target audiences through sports programming, guarantees that offerings and opportunities will continue to grow. The infusion of interactive technologies makes the possibilities even greater.
As technology and social changes interact with the sports–media complex, communication scholars must recast their questions and seek to understand how new ways of mediating sports interplay with cultures. For instance, how will younger sports consumers and gatekeepers define sports? How will the increasing specialization of and interactivity between media producers and audiences, and the infinite opportunity for coverage and communities provided by the Internet, influence the ways ideology is reinforced? More research that examines the motivations of producers and of audiences in relation to emerging sports–media texts is needed.
- Billings, A. C. (2004). Depicting the quarterback in black and white: A content analysis of college and professional football broadcast commentary. Howard Journal of Communications, 15(4), 201–210.
- Boyle, R., & Haynes, R. (2000). Power play. London: Longman.
- Bryant, J., & Holt, A. M. (2006). A historical overview of sports and media in the United States. In A. Raney & J. Bryant (eds.), Handbook of sports and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 21–44.
- Cashmore, E. (2005). Making sense of sports, 4th edn. New York: Routledge.
- Coakley, J. (2004). Sports in society: Issues and controversies, 8th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Denham, B. (2004). United States and international media portrayals of Carl Lewis amid revelations of a positive drug test. International Journal for the Sociology of Sport, 39(2), 167–185.
- Duncan, M. C., Messner, M. A., & Willms, N. (2005). Gender in televised sports: News and highlights shows, 1989–2004. Los Angeles: Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.
- Gerdy, J. (2002). Sports: The All-American addiction. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
- Goldman, R., & Papson, S. (1998). Nike culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Grainger, A., Newman, J. I., & Andrews, D. L. (2006). Sport, the media, and the construction of race. In A. A. Raney & J. Bryant (eds.), Handbook of sports and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 447–468.
- Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets: Lesbians and homophobia in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Hoberman, J. (1997). Darwin’s athletes: How sport has damaged black America and preserved the myth of race. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Horne, J., Tomlinson, A., & Whannel, G. (1999). Understanding sport: An introduction to the sociological and cultural analysis of sport. London: Spon Press.
- Jhally, S. (1989). Cultural studies and the sports/media complex. In L. A. Wenner (ed.), Media, sports, and society. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 70–93.
- Koppett, L. (2003). The rise and fall of the press box. Toronto: SportClassic Books.
- McChesney, R. (1989). Media made sport: A history of sports coverage in the United States. In L. A. Wenner, (ed.), Media, sports, and society. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 49–69.
- Messner, M. (2002). Taking the field: Women, men, and sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Projansky, S. (2001). Watching rape: Film and television in postfeminist culture. New York: New York University Press.
- Raney, A., & Bryant, J. (eds.) (2006). Handbook of sports and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Real, M. (1998). MediaSport: Technology and the commodification of postmodern sport. In L. A. Wenner (ed.), MediaSport. New York: Routledge, pp. 14–26.
- Rowe, D. (2003). Sport, culture, and the media, 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Sabo, D., Jansen, S. C., Tate, D., Duncan, M. C., & Leggett, S. (1996). Televising international sport: Race, ethnicity, and nationalistic bias. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 20(1), 7–21.
- Sage, G. (1998). Power and ideology in American sport: A critical perspective, 3rd edn. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Schell, B., & Rodriguez, S. (2001). Subverting bodies/ambivalent representations: Media analysis of Paralympian, Hope Lewellen. Sociology of Sport Journal, 18(1), 127–135.
- Shugart, H. (2003). She shoots, she scores: Mediated constructions of contemporary female athletes in coverage of the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team. Western Journal of Communication, 67(1), 1– 31.
- Torr, J. D. (ed.) (2003). Professional sports: Examining pop culture. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.