Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sports and Media Ownership

One of the stranger aspects of US sports is the propensity for many of their teams to be owned by media companies (although given Silvio Berlusconi's interest in AC Milan, maybe it isn't that unusual). This article at Slate focuses on recent media developments with the Washington Redskins, but deals more broadly with the issue of sports teams and their dealings with the media. In this sense, a desire to control strongly every single aspect of the team that gets reported on is hardly new at all - just look at Sam Allardyce's refusal to allow access to Five Live reporters, or Alex Ferguson's repeated spats with the media.

The crucial part of the Slate article is this:

But on the continuum from pure entertainment to hard news, where does sports journalism reside? Where should it reside? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and other pro games are nothing if not entertainment. While it's possible to mine hard news from the entertainment industry, most sports coverage is entertainment about entertainment. Pro football and baseball don't receive more ink than pro soccer and hockey because they're more newsworthy or more "important" in any cosmic sense, but because they're more popular. More entertaining.

To a certain extent, that's true. If sports weren't popular, they couldn't justify the acres of newsprint they take up throughout the week. The fact that the Sven tapes could get such a wide reporting is testament to this, too. And there is something joyous about reading a particularly good piece of writing about sports - try looking at Gideon Haigh's diaries of the Ashes summer for proof of that. Yet sports journalism, as with any journalism, requires objectivity if it is to appeal to anything other than the partisan fan.

So control of the local media probably isn't too much of a problem anyway. Unless you have a local reporter with a significant grudge, local sports reporting tends to reflect the biases of the supporting population - cheerleading when the team is good, quick to stick the knife in when times are less good.

Controlling more national media is, however, more problematic. Sports may be entertaining, but there is nothing particularly interesting about a former player simply pontificating about how great his team is - like when Ian Rush and Phil Thompson are employed by Sky as Liverpool analysts. The best sports commentators are good because they aren't afraid to say what they think, and because they pick up things that others miss - Michael Johnson on the BBC athletics coverage, for example, is a breath of fresh air, because he's prepared to criticise British athletes rather than praise them for mediocre performances. John MacEnroe on tennis, too; his analysis is strong and will give constructive criticism rather than buy into the popular story of the week. You don't hear much love for Ian Wright as an analyst, for good reason.

The worrying thing about official coverage of sports teams being increasingly carried out by biased parties is that you get sycophancy, not analysis. Of course, if that becomes the norm, then sports will hoist themselves by their own petard. If the official line being parroted clearly does not correlate with what is being offered on the field, the fans will be less willing to hand over fistfuls of cash in return for all sorts of crappy merchandise. To a certain extent, given the amount of money that many coaches and players get paid, they should be held to account if their performances on the pitch are not up to scratch, not given soft-ball questions by journalists keen to cosy up to the management in the hope of a big splash (that, of course, raises questions about journalism in general, but that's a matter for another day).

There is, though, a chance for the rest of the country being saved from the often insipid nature of sports journalism. That comes in the form of the Internet, in the form of bloggers, in the form of podcasts. Eric at Off-Wing Opinion produces a weekly 'radio' show in podcast form; it's self-stated aim is to do sports coverage as they feel it should be - sober analysis, judgement as rational as is possible in what is an emotional business, and a depth to discussions that is sacrificed all too often in mainstream media because of the desire to maximise revenue and appeal to a lowest common denominator.

That's the beauty of freedom of speech - if we don't like what is being provided to us, we have the right to fight back. By not validating the purveyors of the comment we dislike. By putting forward our arguments against them. By doing our best to try analysis the way we want it to be. And with the Internet, we're given the chance to do that.