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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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?
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).
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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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.
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: www.flickr.com/photos/thewolf/2353907103/ [Details correct as of 12th May 2009]
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