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Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?


The media play a huge part in sport; we find out what's happening, how our team is doing and it creates great sporting moments and sports celebrities and stars. This course looks at the role played by the media in sport and how this has changed with the development of internet and satellite TV. Who calls the shots – athletes, teams or the media moguls? How do social scientists explain this relationship between sport and the media?

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 1 study in Health and Wellbeing.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • explore the relationship between sport and the media and understand that this is a social relationship

  • understand how sport is part of wider cultural relations and, especially of popular culture

  • look at how the media create sporting heroes through the stories they tell.

1 Sporting moments

1.1 They think it's all over

They think it's all over … it is now!

(Kenneth Wolstenholme, 1966)

This is one of those iconic sporting media moments. It happened a long time ago, when Geoff Hurst's third goal in the dying seconds of extra time clinched England's 4–2 win over Germany in the 1966 football World Cup final. People who were not even born, let alone at Wembley or watching the game on television, still recognise the phrase. The expression may have become a cliché, but it is the media transmission of the moment that makes it so memorable and iconic in the history of football. It is moments like these that create media–sport relationships and illustrate their importance.

Much of our experience of sport as a spectacle is mediated – most of the time, most of us cannot actually be there. Media coverage has been central to extending the reach of sport across time and space. However, what we see, hear and read through the media is not the same as being there; the technologies of the media and the choices made by journalists, producers and directors stage and structure what we experience.

In this course we are going to explore the close relationship between sport and the media. To become an iconic moment in the history of sport, like the 1966 World Cup final, there has to be media coverage. Those sports that are not covered suffer, while others have been staged specifically for television. How do the media frame sport? What stories do the media tell?

We start by exploring the links between sport and the media in the modern world. In Section 2, we look at two of the dominant modes in which the press has traditionally reported on sport, namely celebrity and sensationalism, and ask how social ideas and debates stage what is reported and how. In Section 3 we turn to two key features of sport that generate core pleasures of watching, following, reading and writing about sport – the creation of narratives and heroes.

The media are strongly implicated in how people understand the meaning of sport and thus have a part to play in changing understandings of sport. The sporting conversation associated with this course is an interview with Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), focusing on the role of women in sport and its representation. The WSF plays a big part in promoting the participation of women and in ensuring that they are central to sport and not on the sidelines. Listen to this conversation now.

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David Goldblatt
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, imagined the games as ‘the solemn and periodic exultation of male athleticism with the applause of women as a reward’. Some years later, still fighting to exclude women from athletic events at the Games, he argued, “If a woman wishes to pilot an airplane, no policeman has a right to stop her but when it comes to public sports competitions, women’s participation should be absolutely prohibited.” He was not alone and though attitudes at the International Olympic Committee might have changed, sport remains a predominantly male world, shaped by masculine culture. Today I’m joined by Sue Tibbals, Chief Executive of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation which campaigns to change that culture and to open the world of sport up to women. Hello, Sue.
Sue Tibbals
Sue, the pictures don’t lie, turn on a sports channel and 19 times out of 20 it’s men and it’s men watching men play sport. Is sport inevitably or intrinsically a, a male domain?
No, not at all and it isn’t in other countries so we know that this isn’t a, a natural state of affairs. This is a culture that’s quite specific to this country actually. We know that only 5 per cent of all media coverage shows women playing sport which is why it’s maybe not so surprising that when you talk to young kids today and my son aged four, I cannot persuade him that women play football which is embarrassing but, of course, he doesn’t see them play football so perhaps it isn’t so surprising. It’s really endemic.
I’m intrigued by the idea that Britain is a peculiarly masculine sports culture. Where if we wanted to see a more feminised sports culture should we go and look?
As is often the case, the Nordic countries are leading the field and sport means something quite different, but also in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not just that sport includes women but that the activities that constitute what sport is would include running and aerobics, anything that’s about being active is about sport, whereas here it’s so tied up with highly competitive team sports and obviously mainly football.
Though it’s funny isn’t it with football because that’s one of the areas where women seem to be participating a lot more than they were in the past. There’s been quite a big expansion of girl’s and women’s football in this country.
It is growing very fast. In fact it’s the fastest growing sport but overall only one per cent of women play football compared to 13 per cent of men so it’s level with Pilates for women. But it is growing and, of course, that’s exciting, it shows that there is the interest there. If girls are encouraged, if they’re given the opportunity they’ll play and that goes back to the point about this. It’s not a natural state of affairs. This is a culture that we raise our, our girls into. It’s not just that it’s not fair, which it isn’t, but actually reputationally it’s a huge own goal because it puts sport at odds with a society which in so many other ways is now equalising. It makes sport look like an anomaly.
Let’s take a slightly closer look now at what sport actually women do. We know they’re doing less than men in this country but they’re also doing different stuff.
Yeah, I mean it is a very, very different profile so of the top 10 things that women and men do, 6 out of those 10 are sports, what most people would recognise as sports, for men and only 2 for women and those 2 are tennis and badminton. So the top 5 things, swimming, running, aerobics, gym-based activities, not team sports. I think tennis and badminton are sort of 6 or 7 in the list and that’s why football, even though it’s fast growing, isn’t on that list at all, so women tend to prefer to exercise than play sport. Only 3 per cent of all women take part in any team-based sport. Often the motivation for playing will be different so it will be for health and fitness rather than for socialising and pleasure – which seems a shame. I think it’s all linked into diet cultures that women are part of too and you’ve got half the population here who are basically doing sport in a very different way and that’s not understood by the sector.
I’m interested in the instrumentalism. You go running because you want to stay fit. You want to be healthy, you know, there are all sorts of body issues as well. Why is it women are not attracted by the kind of play dimension, the kind of sheer pointlessness actually of most sports, the idea that we do ’em not for any instrumental reason but just because it’s fun?
Well, I think that women would do and are doing more team-based sport for fun and, actually, if you think about sort of softball leagues, or even five-aside football actually, there are many more mixed leagues. I think that’s appealing nowadays that women and men are happy to play sport together and they can do it after work or in the lunch break so that stuff is growing. I think maybe the problem comes in more that at school it was about team sport and it was about competition, so you had to be good at it. So those that were good obviously did well and perhaps have gone on to do sport in their lives. Those that weren’t, were terrified (possibly), humiliated (quite likely), cold (certainly), all of which often meant you had to do it in a pair of navy PE knickers which again humiliating and in a changing-room where there’s no showers or shower curtains and girls are quite demanding and vociferous these days and I think they’re just saying, “No, I’m not doing it”.
But, apart from the navy blue knickers, isn’t that the same for men?
Well, I guess you then have to look at the, the gender differences more broadly and I think there are a whole host of things, particularly as girls reach puberty, around self-image and body image and we just have to recognise that again culturally girls are raised in a completely different environment with this huge emphasis on appearance and conforming to a beauty ideal. So girls inevitably care hugely what they look like and, maybe, you know, it’s interesting to ask isn’t it, are there actually sort of deeper differences here in terms of desire to be competitive, readiness to take part in quite rough sports and so on and I think it’s quite hard to deconstruct because generally with equality issues you have to, in the end, say until we are in a completely equal society, it’s impossible to know what’s nature or nurture but what we do know is at the moment there’s a huge amount of nurture going on that could explain all of this. I just look though at those girls who are now playing football and really enjoying it, actually if you create the environment and the opportunity girls want to do it.
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Let’s take nature out of the equation then and focus in on nurture, you’ve talked about the importance of school and school sports culture in dissuading many girls from participating. You’ve touched on questions of wider body image in our society, are there other kinds of barriers that are preventing or dissuading girls and women from participating in sport?
Somehow girls are being put off very, very young and actually in terms of just gendered identity it’s quite interesting that the Equal Opportunities Commission which has now been wrapped up in the Commission on Equality and Human Rights but they looked at what forms gendered identity and found that sport is one of the things that you talk about to denote whether you’re a boy or a girl, at four, five years old – very, very young. So it’s recognising that the cultural barrier sets in very young. What can help girls, looking at the range of activities available and recognising that actually going onto the hockey pitch and playing hockey is asking quite a lot of a girl who (a) has very little confidence or possibly even the literacy, physical literacy, skills and maybe it does need to start with dance, yoga, table tennis, mountaineering. There are so many other sports that aren’t gendered in the same way. Sport Scotland have trialled an approach in Scotland where, rather than have sports clubs that are based on a particular sport, say with a football club, they just have a club for girls and what they’ve done is started with stuff like dance and aerobics but found that as the confidence has grown in those activities the girls have then wanted to go on and do the team sport stuff.
Schools, in a way, are one of the easier points of intervention for anyone who’s campaigning on these issues but there’s also a great plethora of informal and formal sports organisations in this country, athletics clubs, football leagues, etc., etc. What kind of culture is out there in those organisations? How good are they at encouraging girls and women to come into sport?
On a scale of 1 to 10?
Point 5, perhaps.
Point 5 is low. How did we end up with sports clubs and a kind of amateur sports participatory culture that, by the sounds of it, is pretty exclusionary?
First of all the points made about the people that run them tend to be people that have participated in and excelled at that sport and so it’s still a huge emphasis on competition and success so the ‘keen but crap’, if I’m allowed to talk about these folks, the people that really love doing something but don’t actually do it very well, often are left on the side lines. I mean there are some great campaigns like ‘give us back our game’ in football which is trying to get parents to calm down about the competitive elements of sport, but you see that really in focus in sports governing bodies and I think what I would say is that they‘re very poor at understanding their potential audience. There is pressure being applied because the Government, quite correctly, is saying public money can’t be added in to the huge amount of money in sport that comes from commercial revenues and saying public money needs to be driven at actually increasing participation and making sure people get a good quality experience. But I think that there’s still a huge amount of culture shift that needs to happen in sports governing bodies. There are some notable exceptions.
Give us the good news story. Tell us about the notable exceptions.
Well I, I think cycling’s quite interesting in that it has obviously been doing very, very well at the elite level and yet, of course, they’re taking advantage of all the wider policy genders around cycling because of concerns about the environment and health and fitness and have managed to evolve the governing body to be quite responsive to all of those agendas and I know that there are still people that would say, even for cycling, there’s too much emphasis on the medals and you can see why ’cause, of course, that’s where they get all the plaudits and attention but actually a very few people want to cycle in that way but they have managed to diversify.
Let me ask you a question then about cycling and its presentation to the world. I picked up a magazine called Observer Sports Monthly recently and there was Victoria Pendleton who is, er, a gold medallist in cycling for Britain, a leading role model for young women and girls to come into cycling and there she is naked on a bicycle on the front page of the magazine. How do you respond to that?
Well actually there was, I think it was the fiftieth Anniversary Edition of the Observer Sport magazine and they published all the covers and it was fascinating to look through them all and see that on the occasions that they did show women, they were highly stylised and often sexualised images which, of course, generally isn’t the case with the guys. I know David Beckham always gets raised as the exception as a sports star who seems particularly interested in being seen as a sexual object but he is the exception. So Victoria Pendleton, I mean, she was obviously doing the Lance Armstrong shot that had been done previously and I think, in some ways, you think well why shouldn’t an athlete be pictured naked? The difference in her case is that it is in a culture in which women are always depicted or often depicted as a sexual being, not predominantly as an athlete and I think that’s the difference with the shot but also recognising that it’s very hard for female athletes to break through and they’re in a really difficult place aren’t they ’cause they either play the game, give the sports editors what they want and get their kit off and get the profile and get the promotion and get the money and actually have a successful career or they don’t. Our job is to point these things out and say we need to start actually championing women athletes because of their athletic achievement and the fact that they happen to be pretty or not is really not the point, really not the point and as an organisation one of our goals is to make being active, attractive which is difficult because you’re not going to stop this being a beauty obsessed culture but we need to shift our conception of beauty so it’s no longer about being passive and decorative which is actually what women have been primarily valued for, for hundreds of years.
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It’s very easy, in a way, to sort of pick off the media for its forms of representation of women in sport. Are there any positive stories? Are there areas in the British media where there has been some genuine innovation in the current coverage of women’s sport?
In terms of the mainstream media I’m not sure that there’s been a radical shift and we measure media coverage year on year and it’s actually gone down over the last year.
What about the coverage of netball by Sky? They seem to have made quite an effort to, first of all just televise the sport and find ways of televising the sport that is appealing to the viewer and it is unquestionably of all team games, this is the game most closely identified with women and, you know, they’ve put it out there on Sky1 and Sky2.
Absolutely true a good example and we want to see much more of that. Setanta have bought the rights for women’s football off of the BBC so that is now a big question as to whether they will continue to promote that because women’s football was drawing in much, much bigger audiences
What about non-traditional media? Is there any more room in that area for a different kind of coverage of women’s sport?
There is and there’s some interesting stuff coming through so there’s a new on line magazine called Sport Sister that’s aimed exclusively at the women’s market and it is for women who love sport, love playing sport, watching sport, also carries brands of clothing and so on and, as an organisation with Nike, actually we’ve just had a lunch with the editors of some of the big women’s magazines which was fascinating and a really big breakthrough for us would be to get the Marie Claires and the Grazias and so on, seeing that actually there could be a place for women in sport in their magazine and it isn’t all about well-being and therapy and spa pampering treatments and I think 2012 is a powerful driver because it is the time actually when you do see women do sport because it isn’t football and Kelly Holmes is, of course, the face of the last Olympics and the fact that she’s a woman and a black woman is amazing because you just generally don’t get either of those groups coming through very much.
It’s interesting that you brought the issue of ethnicity and race up because it seems to me there are interesting parallels between the struggle for equality on grounds of gender in sport and on grounds of race. Black athletes have been struggling for over 100 years now to be fully accepted within, er, sports culture and they’ve battled many of the same problems to do with negative stereotypes, practices of exclusion and so on. What strikes me about the struggles around issues of race is that it has its 1968 moment when Tommy Smith, 200-metre gold medallist, and John Carlos, the bronze medallist, stood on the podium at Mexico City and during the playing of the American National Anthem raised their fists in what became interpreted as a black power salute, an iconic moment that blew open the issue of race and sport and inequality and it’s never been forgotten. It remains a kind of cry and a plea for freedom. Has women’s sport yet to find its Tommy Smith?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that that hasn’t happened and you do wonder why because it is really quite scandalous that women are given such short shrift in, in sport. I mean, I wonder whether it’s a sort of reflection on feminism in society more widely and I think it has been going through a period where an awful lot of people have either just assumed everything is going to be all right or, if things aren’t, just then think well this is just how things are, it’s just a natural state of affairs and you see that in the commentary, you know, people will just say “But women are rubbish at sport” as if that’s just a matter of fact and it’s not challenged. All too often when the media does talk about women’s sport it’s because someone has said something that is just so outrageously sexist. It happens all the time. I think it was my first week in this job that Mike Newell blamed losing a game on the female lineswoman, deeply irrational kind of thought process, but that hit the press and we actually went and gave him a bunch of flowers because the FA had more calls from women wanting to be referees and lineswomen because of that, because they didn’t know they could be, so he actually did the women a service. But as an organisation we’re trying to pull the thing into focus a bit more. It’s not quite the thing you’re talking about. I think an athlete would need to do that. I think Billie- Jean King is the one that is most associated with the fight for women’s equality in sport but we’re trying to bring some political pressure. We’re convening a commission on the future of women’s sport that’s going to bring some senior people to come and look at some of the big barriers and one is around leadership.
What is the state of the gender breakdown of the leadership of sports organisations in this country?
Well, there are only four governing bodies that have a female chief executive out of the hundreds that there are so it’s, it’s tiny. FA, cricket, cycling – no women on any of its boards or executives.
Final question, you mentioned that you have a, a vision for an active society and active women in that society, let’s imagine ten years from now, things go as you would like them to do, how different will our sports culture look like at all levels?
I’d like sport in this country to be about more than league sports so it, it remembers that it was about recreation and about socialising and about community and people having fun together, a society that actually raises girls to aspire to be active and to see being active and fit as being beautiful so that they don’t stop literally, stop and atrophy when they hit puberty. I’d love to see women’s football on the telly on a Saturday afternoon alongside men’s football and for those football players to be paid and have women, sports women as household names in the way that so many of the male sports people are, so it becomes a completely normal and natural state of affairs, so that if you are a sporty girl you don’t feel like you’re the odd girl in the group, it’s completely normal.
Thank you very much, Sue.
My pleasure. Thank you.
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1.2 Sports media

The media play a key role in the creation of iconic moments, sports celebrities and major sporting events, and in our everyday experience of sport. Sport is global not only because it is played across the world, but, more importantly, because the media transmit information across the globe so fast and so effectively to create a culture of sport and to place sport so prominently within popular culture. The media, like sport, are part of a massive global network that developed through the twentieth century and was strongly linked to the technological developments that made communications so important politically, socially and economically. We watch games on television, listen to commentaries on the radio or the internet, find out scores on the internet and on our mobile phones, and read about sport and the politics of sport in the newspapers. However, media messages are not simple, transparent reports of what is happening, on or off the field of play. The media are part of the whole process and experience of sport; they play a part in constructing our understanding of sport.

Pause for a moment to think about how you use the media in your own experience of sport – what part do different media play? Information can be instant: we can listen to ball-by-ball commentaries transmitted by satellite from the other side of the world or receive updates on mobile phones anywhere at any time. We no longer have to wait for the football results on the radio or buy a newspaper for match reports. But as well as giving us immediacy, the media also shape our perceptions of what is happening in the sporting world – the big events, the superstars. The media decide what matters to some extent. Think about sport and you think about media transmissions, in words, sound and images, as well as actually playing the game or being physically present at sports events.

Football (soccer) illustrates the role of the media very well.

Activity 1

Log on to two Premiership football league club websites and look at their welcome (or landing) and home pages (use a search engine such as Google to find the clubs you choose).

  • What first strikes you about the sites?

  • What information is highlighted?

  • What is listed on the menus on the home page?

Now compare the Premiership sites with two Coca-Cola football league or Conference football club sites. The majority of clubs outside the top of the Premiership have Premium TV websites, but the really big clubs often produce their own sites and do not rely on buying in the Premium TV format. However, just look and see what you notice on the home pages.


Bear in mind when reading this discussion that what we saw on the websites we discuss may have changed by the time you look at them.

We looked at Arsenal and Chelsea, both of which greeted us with invitations to watch their own TV online when we accessed them. The top Premiership clubs have not only very sophisticated websites but extensive menus of options, which include plenty of opportunities to gather information about the club and to spend money, whether on club merchandise or on betting. Lower league clubs do not have their own TV stations, but do offer the opportunity to receive club news on your mobile phone. When we looked at Cambridge United's landing page it had the image of a mobile phone inviting us to sign up immediately. Sheffield Wednesday also highlighted the possibility of receiving mobile updates as well as offering several chances to engage in online betting, using the same corporate deal that many of the clubs have. What is most noticeable is that the top clubs clearly have more resources to spend on their websites, and having their own online television is a significant bonus. However, all the clubs have an internet presence that links their supporters to the club, team details and, especially, club products. Commercial links are very apparent in football, although the fans are central to the club, not only as the purchasers of club merchandise, but also as the most important element in the club's history and culture. Most clubs also have ‘community’ sections on their sites, though you may have to look carefully to find them. Fans are nonetheless addressed as consumers and customers. All clubs have a ‘Customers' Charter’, which sets out the club's obligations to its supporters and the wider community (Woodward, 2007). Some clubs are more proactive than others in reaching out to the wider community to promote social inclusion and bring in under-represented groups of people, for example from ethnic minority groups who do not have a history of following the sport, women, girls and disaffected young people. If you looked at Charlton Athletic's site, for example, you would have seen a section called ‘Women's Team’ (at Arsenal, women are called ‘ladies’ ) and extensive coverage of community activities and those promoting social cohesion and diversity. What is most striking about these websites, however, is the high priority afforded to the promotion of products and media links.

The relationship between the media and sport is certainly not unique to football, and was involved in the development of all sport through the twentieth century. How did this partnership between sport and the media develop and what sort of partnership is it? Who calls the shots, or is this an equal relationship? It is certainly a dynamic one. In this course you will be looking at how the links between the media and sport have developed and at what makes sport part of culture, especially popular culture. Which themes characterise the relationship between sport and the media?

1.3 Summary

  • Modern sport and the media are closely linked in a variety of ways.

  • One area of connection is through big events and sports celebrities.

  • The media also provide routine coverage, scores, results, venue and scheduling details and everyday information, often at speed; for example, through the internet, and satellite and mobile phone technologies.

  • This type of coverage is illustrated by the example of English premiership football sites.

2 Face off: the changing relationship between sport and the media

2.1 The historical relationship between sport and the media

We want you to look at two readings that focus on two key moments in the historical relationship between sport and the media. Take this as an opportunity to practise your note-taking skills.

Activity 2

Now read the extract by Richard Holt and Tony Mason (2007), who discuss popular sports coverage in the UK from the 1960s to 2000, when the piece was written.

  • Why do they regard this era as historically significant?

  • What are the key changes?

  • Sport is part of popular culture, which is itself represented through the language of sensation and hyperbole. Significant changes took place in the 1960s, when earlier measured and constructive criticism of sport and sporting performance gave way to a new sensationalism and hyperbole, which is now commonplace.

  • Media coverage of sport is both extensive and diverse; it became particularly extensive from the 1960s, and now occupies more than 20 per cent of the Sun and the Daily Star, with banner headlines, colour and coverage of scandals.

  • The 1990s saw further developments post-Bosman, with fuller European coverage of, for example, the increase in international players.

  • New identities are constructed through the media representation of sports celebrities, the vast majority of whom are men, if largely ‘unreconstructed’ men. By the 1990s this became more polarised into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

  • Another feature of change is the approach to women's sport, which became increasingly sexualised.

  • ‘Personalities’ dominated sports coverage, opening the way for the growth of the sports celebrity and demonstrating the links between sport and popular culture.

  • Sports media have to accommodate social changes, including a trend towards a reshaping of football as a sport that intellectuals (Nick Hornby, the quality press) and women could now follow.

Since this article was written, the internet has led to big changes in the ways in which people follow sport and are recruited as fans, but the unremitting march of celebrity coverage and the integration of sport into mainstream popular culture persist. The internet provides greater democracy of access and interaction as well as immediacy, although our reflections on Premiership websites suggest that sports' web pages are often dominated by commercial interests. Over the last two decades, the political economy of sport has been transformed by digital technologies and satellite television. Sport in turn has, however, proved to be the lynchpin of commercial success for many of the new media giants, given the enormous global coverage of sport, its popularity and significance seems to rise.

Activity 3

Now read the following extract from Globalization and Sport, 2001, by Toby Miller, Geoffrey Lawrence, Jim McKay and David Rowe, which reflects upon some of these large-scale intersections between sport and the global media.

Think about these questions as you read through the extract:

  • What does the media's response to Michael Jordan's retirement show about global sport and popular culture?

  • What is the importance of television in the development of modern sport?

  • What is the particular contribution of modern media technologies to the experience of sport?

  • What is the media–sport complex?

  • How are global inequalities played out in the media–sport complex?

Now read the extract 'Sports media sans frontières' by Toby Miller, Geoffrey Lawrence, Jim McKay and David Rowe.

  • The Michael Jordan example brings together three aspects of the sport–media relationship: 1 athletic excellence (individual star); 2 sponsored by Nike (commerce); 3 NBA on television (media).

  • Sport and the media developed inextricably together.

  • Sport has greatly influenced developments in world television and subsequently satellite communications and the internet.

  • Media technologies permit an experience of sport that is as near as possible to ‘being there’.

  • Sport is at the leading edge of technology.

  • The media–sport complex places media at the heart of the culture of sport; sport feeds the media and the media re-create sport and sports' stars.

  • The media are competitive, like sport.

  • The creation of national identities on the global stage may obscure differences of gender and ethnicity, and differences between various parts of the world and the power relationships in play.

2.2 Summary

  • Developments in sports media have included a move towards more sensationalism, very similar to that in other popular cultural fields as represented in the tabloid press.

  • Sport coverage adopts the language of popular culture and its techniques (images, personal stories about family and personal problems).

  • Technologies and technical developments are crucial to the media–sport complex, whereby mediated sport culture creates the feeling of ‘being there’.

  • Sport is at the interface between the media and corporate finance and commerce in this complex.

3 The meanings of sport: narratives and heroes

3.1 Shining examples

Sport, it should be clear by now, has a symbiotic relationship with the media. Newspapers, radio and television have enlarged the audience for sports and greatly enriched the enjoyment that can be gained from following sport. Sport provides the media with copy and content along with readers, viewers and customers. Why does sport provide such good content and in such quantities for every sort of media? What is the public getting and what is it that the public likes? Sport provides many pleasures and may fulfil many needs, but perhaps the two most important are its capacity to create a diverse array of meaningful stories and a range of sporting characters, heroes, villains, celebrities and fools. These in turn provide compelling content for the news stories, magazines, television shows and websites that make up the media of contemporary popular culture. Which stories we pick up, which heroes we value and why will vary across and within societies, and the media are central to the selection of them and the shaping our understanding of these sports stories.

Some of these arguments have been explored by Michael Mandelbaum in his book The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do (2004). Mandelbaum explores the US devotion to these three sports, which he links to different stages of the nation's development; baseball with the agrarian past, football as the model of the industrial age and basketball as post-industrial. For our purposes, what is most relevant about his argument is the way he addresses the question of why Americans are so keen on these three sports – what makes them so popular and important? First, Mandelbaum argues that baseball, football and basketball resemble the ancient literary form of the epic, in which heroic protagonists overcome a series of challenges in order to accomplish their ultimate goal. Second, he suggests that these sports are attractive because they are coherent; they make life intelligible and comprehensible. In modern life such sports also provide a haven of security amidst the confusion and insecurity of the post-industrial world. Each sport:

is a model of coherence for two reasons. Each is transparent: spectators can see for themselves what is happening and why. And each is definitive. At the end of each game, the spectators and the participants know which side has won. While the news section of the daily newspaper may report the baffling and the unintelligible, the sports section features succinct histories that everyone can understand, with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.

(Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 8)

Mandelbaum argues that not only does contemporary sport play a significant role in modern societies by providing coherent stories, with clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but also sport provides ‘shining examples’ (Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 10) of stars who are celebrities, heroes and role models in an activity that is much more than entertainment, because sports women and men really do what the spectators see them doing.

Interest in movie and sports stars goes beyond their performances on the screen and in the arena. Newspaper columns, specialized magazines, television programs, and Web sites record the personal lives of celebrated Hollywood actors, sometimes accurately. The doings of skilled baseball, football, and basketball players out of uniform similarly attract public attention. Both industries actively promote such attention, which expands audiences and thus increases revenues. But a fundamental difference divides them: What sports stars do for a living is authentic in a way that what movie stars do is not.

(Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 10)

He quotes the baseball star Sandy Koufax as saying ‘I don't think ballplayers are really entertainers … The customers come to hear the entertainers perform; they come to watch us live a part of our lives’ (quoted in Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 11).

One sports star who has crossed not only the Atlantic but also the boundaries of sport, entertainment and popular culture is David Beckham (Figure 1), former England men's football (soccer) captain, partner of a pop singer, fashion icon, role model and, at the time of writing, player at LA Galaxy (where, even though a superstar, he may feel he benefits from association with another such figure by sporting Michael Jordan's number 23 on his shorts).

Figure 1
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/PA Photos ©
Copyright © Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/PA Photos
Figure 1 David Beckham

Whatever his celebrity status and star rating in the terrain of popular culture, Beckham is more than an entertainer, because his sporting talent is the source of his heroic status. Sports stars often carry heroic status and are a source of ‘admiration and emulation’ (Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 11).

In some senses, Mandelbaum presents a rather simplistic argument about sport and its stars. Other commentators distinguish between celebrity and heroism within the field of sport, demonstrating the difference between sporting celebrities and sporting heroes.

Mike Marqusee uses the examples of the basketball player Michael Jordan and the boxer Muhammad Ali to make this point (Figures 2 and 3). Jordan is famous, first, for making more money out of sports than any other athlete in history and, second, for his association with the Nike corporation:

The America of which he is a symbol is corporate America and its winner-takes-all-ethic. His blackness has been deliberately submerged within his Americanness, which is reduced, in the end, to his individual wealth and success.

There is … no way we can emulate Michael Jordan … In contrast, we can all emulate at least some of what Ali did outside the ring … the adherence to conscience in defiance of social pressure, the expression of self through a commitment to a higher cause and a wider community. It was the willingness of the Greatest to link his destiny with the least and the littlest that won him the devotion of so many.

(Marqusee, 2005, pp. 295–7)

Figure 2
Mark J Terrill/AP/PA Photos ©
Copyright © Mark J Terrill/AP/PA Photos
Figure 2 Michael Jordan
Figure 3
AP/PA Photos ©
Copyright © AP/PA Photos
Figure 3 Muhammad Ali

Although Mandelbaum asserts that narrative and coherence, and the status of heroes and role models, provide us with some ideas through which to understand the popularity of sport and the popularity of media coverage of sport, he has not provided many tools for thinking about how the media actively chooses, shapes and interprets sport, and how we as readers and viewers, in turn, interpret and accept or reject the telling of the tale.

Activity 4

Use the internet to search for three more contemporary sports stories. Take a look at these current stories and ask yourself why they have become stories; what kind of narratives or icons do they depict and in what way?

3.2 Summary

  • Modern sport is characterised by stories and heroes.

  • There is enormous interest in the lives of sports celebrities, who become the heroes of the sports stories that the media present.

  • Sports stars may be more ‘real’ than film stars because they actually do what they are famous for (i.e. they really perform athletic feats, they don’t act out parts).

4 Conclusion

  • Since its invention, modern sport has been closely linked to the mass media as a central part of popular culture.

  • The media have expanded the reach of sports audiences and helped populate and enrich professional sport.

  • Sport provides exciting content for the media through comprehensible narratives and modern heroes and celebrities.

  • The media are selective in their coverage of sport, demonstrating inequalities such as those of class, ethnicity and gender, even though sport crosses social boundaries in its appeal and is frequently deployed to represent the nation.

  • Sport and the media are very closely enmeshed; sport provides material for the media to communicate, but the media play a big part in determining which sports are covered and what meanings are attached to them.

  • The media have shaped sports by:

    • a.emphasising some and ignoring others

    • b.creating new sports and competitions

    • c.changing the rules of some sports

    • d.framing and reinventing sport as narratives with engaging characters.

  • Sports stories come in a range of forms, from sensationalist popular newspapers to ‘highbrow’ cinema.

  • Technologies are key players in the media–sport complex.

  • The history of the relationship between sport and the media is always underpinned by economic factors, none more so than in the current climate of sport as global culture in all its transnational manifestations.

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Except for third party materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

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The content acknowledged below is Proprietary and is used under licence.

This extract is taken from D170 © 2008 The Open University.

Reading 3.1 Holt, R. and Mason, T. (2007) ‘Sensationalism and the popular press’ in Tomlinson, A. (ed.) The Sports Studies Reader, Routledge. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Books, UK;

Reading 3.2 Reproduced by permission of SAGE Publications, London, New Delhi and Singapore, from Toby Miller, Geoffrey Lawrence, Jim McKay and David Rowe (eds) Globalization and Sport. Copyright © Toby Miller, Geoffrey Lawrence, Jim McKay and David Rowe 2001.

Course image: Ronnie Macdonald in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence.

Figure 1 Copyright © Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/PA Photos;

Figure 2 Copyright © Mark J Terrill/AP/PA Photos;

Figure 3 Copyright © AP/PA Photos.

Adaptation of works by Michiel Jelijs: [Details correct as of 12th May 2009]

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