Mail Monday: Did the Media Hurt Sports?
A reader asks whether sports media ceased being a "complementary good"
Sometimes, a subscriber leaves a comment that is particularly thought-provoking. This one, from Bookman, has been rattling around my head since I read it.
I'm not sure if this applies to anybody else, but as a long-time sports fan in the 1990s and 2000s, I was a fan of two related but distinct things -- actual sporting events and then all the written/verbal commentary, interviews, analysis, and personalities involved. For example, I loved watching Jordan play, but I also liked reading Sam Smith writing about him, interviews with Jordan, Bobby Knight's stories about him, "The Last Dance," Jordan's HOF induction speech, etc. Basically, sports media (broadly defined) was a complement to actual sporting events and made sporting events much more enjoyable
I've now flipped 180 -- I still like sporting events, but for me at least, all the non-game content is a net negative. Its shrill, partisan, ill-informed and noticeably poorly written (ESS being an exception, he is a terrific writer). It makes me like sports less.
ESS has discussed the declining popularity (as opposed to revenue) of major sports in the US. I'd argue that the sports media itself is a large part of that. Basically, it was providing a complementary good (in economic jargon) to sporting events, and as the complementary good deteriorated in quality to the point where it was a net negative, it caused a decline in demand for the primary good, in this case major sporting events.
Yes, it’s true that any commenter who compliments me stands a better chance of getting highlighted here, but more importantly, this is an intriguing thesis. My guess is that if I shared it with a lot of media peers, they’d scoff. Blaming the media for a decline in sports interest? Why, we’re just commentators. It’s like blaming the audience for the quality of a play.
Fair enough, but there’s probably a happy medium in how The Media should conceive of its own impact. On the one side, you’ve that grandiose “DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS” attitude in legacy journalism and on the other, especially in sports, there’s a “I’m nobody” mentality. The latter mentality is informed by the (mostly true) recognition that the athletes are the stars and you’re something of a scavenger off their fame.
But what if the media as a collective does have an impact on how a sport is consumed? I’d argue that it does, both positive and negative. An underrated issue for the NBA during the 2020 Bubble was that media wasn’t mingling with the players. Obviously there was an ideological component to why interest in that postseason was so low, plus a general Covid component, but I’d argue that the absence of on the ground story crafting was felt. Humans are story digesting machines; It’s how we make sense of the world. Fewer media interactions meant fewer stories, and added up to less cultural traction.
Someone might counter Bookman’s mention of Sam Smith here, given that his The Jordan Rules, was such a controversial bombshell. That book was criticized on the basis of undermining a popular, positive story, with negativity, but I’d argue that Michael Jordan only becomes more interesting to people when his viciousness is highlighted. Overall, the book was about the basketball, and anything that gets audiences thinking about the game is likely overall a net good for a sport.
If I’m going to piggyback off Bookman’s critique, perhaps the flaw in Twitter age sports media is that a focus on the game gave way to a lot of other noise, especially when certain game issues overlapped with ideological concerns. Sports became a platform to demonstrate high mindedness, a means to a virtuous end. I should note that I’m not excluded from this. I’m sure that I did my fair share of sports-as-sanctimony when writing about basketball in my 20s.
In conclusion, from a sports popularity perspective, Twitter ended the complementary good phase. It was too powerful a social technology, distracting journalists and leagues alike away from the games and towards chasing certain forms of affirmation. The question now is whether we’re out of that distracted epoch. As discussed with Jay Caspian Kang, it seems like cultural and political issues are less prominently highlighted in sports media. Does this mean that the media is trending towards complimentary good again, or has something else happened? I’m curious what the readers think.
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