US Sports And Television: A Marriage Made In Heaven And Hell

  @Gooch700 on January 09 2013 5:55 AM
Green Bay Packers
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers totaled four touchdowns in Green Bay's 28-27 win over the New Orleans Saints last week. Reuters

The United States is a sports-mad country – professional and collegiate athletics generate billions of dollars annually, attracting tens of millions of devoted fans.

In a few weeks, the Super Bowl will be watched by more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone, while the NCAA "March Madness" tournament is almost as big an event.

Elite American athletes like Lebron James, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant are not only extravagantly compensated, but enjoy global acclaim and iconic status.

The extraordinary success and popularity of sports could not have reached such stratospheric levels without the support of television. Pro sports leagues sign billion-dollar contracts with the networks, guaranteeing huge windfalls for team owners, executives and, of course, the players themselves.

However, like other parts of mass media, sports broadcasting is facing some serious problems, including a fragmented market, the growing disillusion of fans tired of massive salaries paid to top stars and the rising threat posed by the Internet.

International Business Times spoke to a media expert to sort out the current state of sports broadcasting and journalism.

Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York City.

IB TIMES: U.S. pro and college sports are now a multibillion-dollar industry. Do pro clubs today generate the majority of their income from the TV money, rather than ticket sales and corporate sponsorships?

STRATE: Yes, broadcast and cable television revenues represent the main source of profit, supplemented by the licensing of merchandise. Actual attendance at the event has been of increasingly less importance to the business of professional sports over the past half century.

IB TIMES: ESPN emerged in the early 1980s, coincident with the appearance of cable news networks. How has ESPN changed the face and nature of American sports?

STRATE: ESPN has dramatically altered our relationship to sports in a number of ways. Sports broadcasting used to be limited to the time period surrounding the actual playing of a game, and to relatively brief reports on local news broadcasts.

ESPN gave us sports programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Increased quantity has intensified the interest in and the availability of sports, but also in some ways made athletics less special.

ESPN also represents a shift away from a local orientation to sports to a national, and sometimes international, perspective. Local broadcast stations would make deals with local teams, and thereby feature only the home team on a regular basis. Broadcast networks would present us with a revolving line-up for games of the week (and on special occasions like Thanksgiving), until shifting to whatever teams made it to the championship games in their respective sports.

Before television, there was a strong connection between teams and the communities that they were situated in. Broadcast television began to undermine that connection, and cable television in the form of ESPN has led to further deterioration of the local connection.

ESPN, as a network devoted to sports coverage, is able to offer much better quality television, a more professional and entertaining product, than the sports programming produced by local stations, so this reinforces the erosion of community in sports.

IB TIMES: Baseball was the most popular U.S. sport until the 1960s -- by the next decade NFL football rose to the No. 1 spot. Was this due primarily to televised NFL games?

STRATE: Absolutely. Baseball is a sport that translates poorly to television. If you try to show the entire field of play, you lose too much detail, and it's too hard to see what's going on. So instead, the tendency is to focus on a narrow part of the game, which is great if you know the game well, as you can see details about how pitchers and batters go about their business, but you lose the subtlety of fielders' movements behind the pitcher, base-runners taking leads, etc.

Baseball is a holistic game, and suffers when it is atomized in this way. Someone once commented that if you only watch baseball on TV, you'd think that the first baseman is always positioned on the first base bag, because they never show him fielding his position -- only when he's taking the throw to first, that's how misleading television coverage can be.

Of course, it's also a commonplace that television favors action, and baseball is too slow-moving for the TV audience. It's a game of strategy, a thinking game, which is why it worked so well before television became the dominant medium. It's a game that you can put into words, a literary game, and so not surprisingly baseball novels hold a significant place in American literature, and also was easy to capture in newspaper reports, and even in the verbal pictures painted by radio announcers.

Baseball is also a game of statistics, and in this respect as well newspapers played a significant role as a medium that printed batting averages, earned run averages, and the like, which readers could pore over at great length. Statistics do not, however, do well on the television screen. So, television undermined baseball's role in American culture, and replaced it with football, which was not all that popular a sport before the 1960s. But football could work well on television because the line of scrimmage requires only a narrow field of vision, one that the TV camera can easily capture, and once the ball is in motion, all that the camera needs to do is follow whoever is holding it, or wherever it's thrown, or kicked.

Even so, football did not become the national pastime until after the introduction of the videotape replay in the 1960s. As much as football is thought to be a game of action, the action tends to be relatively brief, with long periods of waiting in between. One study of an early Super Bowl game found that there was only about eight minutes in which the ball was actually in play. The instant replay allows the brief moments of action to be repeated several times, and from different angles, providing many times more action than is actually present during the game. Without it, football would not be that much more exciting than baseball.

IB TIMES: Television sports broadcasting did not really commence until 1950 or so, when millions of American households bought TV sets. In those days, was the revenue generated from TV negligible to the teams? What was the principal source of their income?

STRATE: At the start of the TV era, the main source of income for sports teams was generated at the stadium through ticket sales, supplemented by sales of food, merchandise, stadium advertising, etc. Without all of that television money, players' salaries were much lower, they lived in the community and were a part of the community, and owners themselves maintained a relationship with the community, they were beholden to the fans to a much greater extent than today.

IB TIMES: Has the TV sports market become saturated and cannibalized, given the plethora of stations, networks and games available? That is, are individual games losing their once-big audiences?

STRATE: All of the constant coverage certainly has diluted the value and significance of individual games. Fans themselves have become increasingly disillusioned with the games due to the enormous emphasis on profits, not to mention the many scandals, strikes, etc., that come up.

IB TIMES: Did regional sports networks, like YES in NY, NESN in Boston, and WGN in Chicago, arise because of this fractured market?

STRATE: As disillusioned as fans have become, there still is a local connection to sports teams, and cable provides the opening for increasingly more specialized programming, and channels. So if there are enough fans who would rather watch reruns of games played by their favorite teams from a few years or decades ago, rather than watching a live game played by teams they don't really care about, then a channel can be sustained that would cater to those fans.

This especially appeals to fans of a team that isn't doing well at present, but had winning seasons in the past. Nostalgia has always been a part of sports culture, and these channels are only beginning to exploit the possibilities of replaying past games from the archives.

IB TIMES: Are males between the ages of 18-49 still the target demography audience for sports programming? Or has that changed?

STRATE: The male demographic is still dominant in sports programming, but there is recognition of the increasing numbers of women in the audience. As is generally the case, there is a lag between demographic changes within the audience and adjustments in the programming to reflect those changes.

IB TIMES: Golf tournaments and tennis matches typically do not draw big ratings, but the top stars in these sports make huge money. Is this because they generally appeal to the affluent, thereby attracting blue-chip advertisers?

STRATE: It used to be said that the only reason golf tournaments were televised was because television executives play golf. That was before Tiger Woods, of course, but the fact remains that golf is not exactly the most attractive sport for television coverage. Tennis is more exciting to watch, and made a shift from elitist to popular mode several decades ago.

The advantage that both sports have is the emphasis on individual players, so that the most successful, and also the most attractive and distinctive individuals, can become celebrities, attract a great deal of attention, and this opens the door to advertising revenue, and not just for high-end products.

IB TIMES: Do the TV networks make a profit on sporting events in general? I recall the first year that the Fox television broadcast NFL football -- the network lost something like $350 million. How can they sustain losses like that?

STRATE: In general, yes, they make profits.

If networks could control the outcome of sporting events, they'd make sure that teams in major markets like New York City and Los Angeles always wound up in championship games, because viewership goes down when you have two teams from, say, Rust Belt cities.

When it comes to coverage of the Olympics, there's a need to determine what games to show on the network and what to relegate to cable channels, not to mention whether to show them live or taped if the games are held in another part of the world. But there is no question that in the long run having the broadcast rights is profitable, and helps the network in harder-to-quantify ways, for example, in promoting their television series during the Super Bowl and in simply providing the network with legitimacy, status, and prestige, as the NFL did for Fox.

IB TIMES: Has it come to a point where the TV networks influence how, when and where games are played? For example, forcing World Series games to be played on weeknights to maximize ratings, allowing for commercial breaks, expansion of playoffs so more games are played, etc.?

STRATE: That's been true for a while. As much as there has been criticism of the scheduling of games, weekday games are rare, and scheduling has shifted to accommodate national audiences, which moves the start time back on the East Coast.

And expanded leagues and the addition of playoffs also provide more television programming, and makes that programming more attractive to audiences.

IB TIMES: Boxing was a very big sport in the 1950s, but seems to have declined in popularity ever since. Nonetheless, top boxers receive huge money, although matches only appear on cable pay-per-view outlets. What generates such revenue?

STRATE: As special events, there is quite a bit of revenue generated by pay-per-view through a variety of outlets, and on an international scale through the rights to re-broadcast, made available through on-demand or download. Plus, there's money generated via advertising and promotion.

But it has been a long time since we've had the kind of superstar boxers that once dominated American sports like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. As the public has come to realize the consequences of traumatic brain injuries, both boxing and football have become less appealing.

IB TIMES: In the 1950s, didn’t baseball club owners fear that televised games would discourage people from coming out to the ballpark and thereby hurt attendance and revenues? Did this indeed happen? Or did they realize that TV gave them unprecedented exposure to the public?

STRATE: The main thing is that television revenue made attendance increasingly less significant to the owners. As I mentioned before, television does a poor job of providing a sense of all that's going on during a baseball game, so the direct effect on attendance was nothing like what the owners' feared.

However, in undermining baseball's attraction, and creating audiences who were increasingly more impatient with the slow pace of the game, television damaged baseball's value irreparably. In response, owners, have turned the stadium experience into a kind of media frenzy, with jumbo screens constantly displaying images of the players, close-ups of the game, advertisements, and a variety of clips all in the attempt to keep attendees from being bored.

Paradoxically, this further devalues the game itself, and destroys the mentality, and concentration, needed to appreciate it.

IB TIMES: In the 1940s and 1950s, most baseball and football play-by-play broadcasters were employed by their respective radio and TV stations. Now, it seems they all work for the teams they cover. Why did this happen?

STRATE: At first, the live sporting event was the main business of sports teams, and broadcasters covered that event, as they might cover other types of events in reporting the news.  As television revenue became the main source of profits for the teams, they came to realize that they were no longer in the business of creating live events, but in the business of producing television programming, not unlike a studio that produces a TV series.

With that understanding came the desire, and the need, to maintain complete creative control. When the stations employed the broadcasters, they were able to say things that are critical of the team or the management, but now they are part of the promotion of the team-as-programming.

And more recently, this has extended to the creation of cable channels, like YES by the New York Yankees, and SNY by the New York Mets. This is a bit of a reversal, as there was a time when some sports franchises were owned by broadcasters; for example, CBS owned the Yankees for about a decade before selling the team to George Steinbrenner in 1973.

IB TIMES: Howard Cosell is probably the most famous and controversial U.S. sportscaster in history. What impact did he have on the profession? And could Cosell -- with his homely looks, nasal voice and obnoxious personality -- be hired by a TV network today?

STRATE: Cosell made the television sportscaster into a celebrity, rivaling and sometimes eclipsing the athletes themselves. While there is no single individual with quite the same visibility as he enjoyed, individuals such as John Madden (whose celebrity extends to football videogames), and Bob Costas, who recently made waves by courageously commenting on gun violence during a football game, are Cosell's heirs.

But with so much money at stake in sports programming today, I'd doubt anyone could be as critical as Cosell was willing to be and survive. As for his looks and voice, he did have the advantage of being a distinctive personality that could play well as a supporting character on television, but you are probably right that today the tendency would be to put attractive individuals on screen, and Cosell would probably not make the cut.

IB TIMES: In the late 1960s, a number of prominent black athletes, including Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), made provocative statements – through the media -- on politics, civil rights and the Vietnam War. Why have black athletes largely refrained from activism over the past 40 years?

STRATE: American society went through major changes during the 1960s, and prominent individuals from all sectors of society, entertainers, the arts, intellectuals, etc., spoke out on the major issues of the day. Watergate, and Richard Nixon's resignation marked the end of that period, and since then the nation has not been as extremely divided politically, however much we may speak of ‘red states’ vs. ‘blue states,’ or as extremely divided along racial, gender, or generational lines.

Of course, those earlier generations of athletes had to fight for equality and respect, while their successors did not. And on a cynical note, with so much more money at stake, there is much more risk in being identified as a controversial figure, and losing out on advertising and merchandising revenues.

IB TIMES: When did “sports journalism” begin to be taken seriously? For example, the Wall Street Journal did not have a sports section for many years.

STRATE: There's a difference between sports journalism being taken seriously, and news about sports being taken seriously.

Baseball reporters were respected for their literary ability in the early 20th century -- Ring Lardner comes to mind, for example. As sports became fully entwined with the media entertainment industry, especially with the evolution and expansion of cable television during the 1990s, it became as worthy of business reporting as the activities of the film or popular music industries.

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