It's a Whole New Ball Game
This article originally appeared in Issue# 36
TV sports is a ritual for millions but few fans stop to consider how the media has changed the game.
It's the dog days of August. Outside, the heat is high and perspiration is dripping. The kids are off swimming and the lawn needs mowing. But it will have to wait because inside, on the tube, is...football!
The Kickoff Classic, a made-for-media contest held each August, matches two of the previous season's top-rated college teams in an effort to build excitement for the annual race for football glory. Whatever the outcome of the game, however, the existence of the Kickoff Classic primarily illustrates the symbiotic nature of sports and the media, especially television: they need each other.
On the one hand, athletic contests provide television with a nearly perfect program form. Media critic Les Brown notes that sports events are "at once topical and entertaining, performed live and suspense-fully without a script, peopled with heroes and villians, full of action and human interest and laced with pageantry and ritual."
On the other hand, television fuels public interest in sports by paying team owners millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast games and playoffs for the sole purpose of drawing fans to their sets and keeping them there for the duration of the commercials.
For the last three decades at least, sports has increasingly become a media creation, with television as the chief benefactor. But with sports ratings falling in some areas and advertisers taking a second look, the days of continued expansion seem to be over.
If we as media consumers want to participate responsibly in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, we need to understand television's impact on sports, and ultimately, on society and on us. Also, we need to realize that we shape the media by our choices.
Sports have always attracted major corporate sponsors because, as fans, we follow our favorite teams so faithfully. A 1986 poll by Sports Illustrated revealed that 84% of Americans watch sports on television at least once a week; 71% of the respondents considered themselves fans. In a 1982 poll, 81% of the men and 67% of the women said they would be "angry" if major sports events were unavailable on network television.
We need sports as an outlet because play is an important part of life. As critic Hal Himmelstein writes, "We're desperately seeking relief, with no personal risk, from the monotony of our everyday lives; we want a manufactured emotional high or even an emotional low. Then after the joy or the despair quickly wears off, we can return to our own world in which our place is as secure as it was yesterday and the day before."
Our seemingly insatiable demand for more sports over the years, especially more televised sports, lies behind a number of changes in how the media cover sports and, as a consequence, in the sports themselves.
Time tells. Because time has value, especially for electronic media, it provides a telling window onto these changes.
Television makes its own rules. A game which moves too quickly for the camera, such as ice hockey, had a short life on American network television. On the other hand, the world's most popular sport, soccer, gets little American network exposure because teams score so few goals and there are no "time outs" (and thus no opportunity for commercials) during the 90 minutes of play.
Television interests clearly lie behind the increased number of night games, particularly for major league baseball. Two out of every three baseball games are played in artificial light. Without much regard for crisp October temperatures, baseball now holds most of its playoff and World Series games during primetime evening hours. A lone hold-out team, the Chicago Cubs, will eventually play home games at night - not because of inadequate spectator support, but be-cause night games produce more sought-after TV revenues.
The starting time for athletic contests has also been manipulated to serve the TV fan. Executive producers think nothing of having spectators arrange for brunch or early dinner if a high noon starting time works best for the TV schedule. A noon starting time becomes necessary to fit two games or major events into a single afternoon. In recent years, programmers have discovered that the 11:30 a.m. eastern time slot can be used for West Coast events to attract a sizable national TV audience.
Once a football or basketball game has begun, its natural ebb and flow are disrupted not only by natural breaks dictated by game rules, but also by the periodic "TV timeout." These breaks are called by a clearly identified official whose job is to stop the game on cue from the television director when time is needed to run the game's sponsoring commercials.
For the viewer, commercial interruptions have come to be an accepted part of the game. Stadium spectators adjust to these unnecessary breaks in the action, as they do to starting times and scheduling designed for the convenience of a national viewing audience.
The media have also altered the rules, playing fields, and the type of uniforms and equipment used by teams and athletes.
More Than a Game
The small screen has helped inject more life and color into the games most suited for it. The National Football League changed its rules to encourage greater use of the fan-pleasing forward pass. In baseball, the designated hitter and "lively" ball have put more offense into the game and onto the screen.
Golf changed from match to medal or stroke play in order to guarantee prospective TV sponsors attractive celebrity golfers in the final stages of an event. And tennis introduced the tie-breaker to end long drawn-out deuce games.
Tennis players also abandoned their traditional "tennis whites" for colorful costumes and yellow balls — because they project better on TV. In hockey, the once-solid center line was changed to a broken one so the fans at home could see it.
Longer seasons provide more opportunities to generate the revenues that net-works, team owners and sponsors, and professional players seem to demand. The football season, for example, not only seems longer than it was in the 1950s — it is longer.
In exchange for increased fortune and fame, college teams readily agree to play games even before students arrive on campus for fall classes. At the other end of the schedule, bowl-bound athletes find themselves foregoing Christmas vacation for football in January.
Expanded schedules mean that we can no longer mark the year's four seasons by major sports, which now overlap in the extreme. The football season starts soon after baseball's mid-summer break. Baseball finally concludes with the World Series in October after football has reached peak form. Basketball opens in November and stretches into the following June.
But schedule expansion has occurred mainly in major sports' second season, the playoffs, which heightens the drama and unpredictability that attract large audiences. Competition crescendos as top teams strive for supremacy — or survival. Because of the lure of television's dollars, the major college basketball playoff field has grown from 16 teams to 32 to 48 to 64, enticing more fans to become involved in the countdown to the fortunate final four and eventual champion.
But the ultimate in expansion is simply the sports program schedule itself. In addition to the blockbuster events, the networks each offer sumptuous fare every weekend in their "wide world" coverage of everything from figure skating competitions in Moscow to surfboarding in Hawaii. Real sports junkies can further feast on round-the-clock offerings from ESPN (an all-sports cable network that fills the gaps with videotaped events), and supplements supplied by regional syndicators and independent super stations such as Atlanta's WTBS and Chicago's WGN, whose signals are distributed via dozens of cable systems.
And Sports Tonight
And then there's the news. As much as 25% of a local news half-hour may be devoted to reporting scores and interviewing favorite coaches and players. On weekends, an extended "Sports Final" reviews the week and reruns the big plays.
As advertisers become more selective and consumers choose from a multitude of media options, the vast banquet of the last 20 years may be contracting to a manageable meal.
To extend the analogy a little farther, the sports fan coming off a media binge needs to consider what kind of sports regimen would constitute a well-balanced diet. Promoters give us what they think they can sell — from slickly hyped boxing matches to narrow-cast repeats of local Little League games. But it's up to us to allocate our time and our dollars.
In the meantime, a little reflection on .the mores and meaning of media-fled sport wouldn't be out of place. Do television sports, for example, limit our participation as athletes or spectators? Do they enhance or hinder our social relationships? Do they encourage a sense of wholeness in our lives?
It's a cliché that the best seat in the house is often in front of the television set. To take that a step further, ask yourself how many times, as a spectator in the stands, you've caught yourself waiting for the instant replay.
In this way we get what we always want but seldom get in life — a chance to re-experience a peak moment. But this expectation and others the media creates fragment an experience that would otherwise be an integrated whole. Only awareness of this process can help us put the pieces together again.
"TV created a new appetite for big league sports, and the major leagues — to nearly everyone's satisfaction — were willing and able (in the jet age) to supply a new diet of big league franchises. And besides contributing to the expansion of existing leagues, TV helped create entire leagues out of whole cloth (the AFL, the ABA, etc.) It raised pro football to a par in popularity with baseball It introduced millions to tennis and golf and turned pro sports into a socially acceptable profession, and a desirable one.
– Feeding Hungry Fans, Don Kowett, TV Guide