February 2011 Archives

... Here's a round-up of this week's group blog posts from my Sports, Media, & Society class. For a full description of the "group blogging" course component, see here.

STATEment looked at the round-the-clock coverage of Carmelo Anthony's (NBA) trade last week to the New York Knicks (Here's a great mash-up they link to that illustrates the way the trade has dominated the news cycle).The group considers the way beat reporters have jumped at the opportunity to weigh-in on the Anthony trade: "Beat reporters across the country are excited that something is happening in the professional basketball world; no matter how distant or irrelevant the trade is to their actual beat, they have found a way to tie the trade back into their writing." Using Lowes' work, the group explains the widespread interest in the Anthony trade by considering the ways pressures and constraints facing sports beat reporters have made reporting on the trade more likely. The group provides links to a few stories that emphasize "fluff instead of hard news and rumors instead of facts." 

Lowes argues that journalists employ routines to deal with the pressures and constraints they face on a daily basis. Those routines, in his argument, make some content more or less likely than others. STATEment, then, drew on a useful perspective from class to try to understand why we might see so much attention paid to a specific topic (it can also be used to understand why some sports and topics infrequently make it into print). While Lowes' perspective is helpful, it can't explain everything: during the second half of the semester we will fill in some of the gaps, exploring the cultural dynamics that shape (and, in turn, are shaped by) sports media content. Are there values (e.g., "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing"), norms (e.g., common promotional strategies), and beliefs (e.g., assumptions about gender and sport) that may also provide helpful explanations for the relative attention paid to the Anthony trade rather than other sports or topics? This is where we're headed with things...

To provide an example of this sort of cultural perspective on sport and the media, look no further than this past week's post from another class blog group--Cause and Effects of Sports and The Media! This group looks whether "parity" exists at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level of big-time intercollegiate football. After developing their argument, the group says, "In a 119-team league, where half of the teams lose every week, can we really say there isn't fair parity when 60+ teams have a chance to go to a BCS Bowl any given season?" Further, the group questions whether the public would be as interested in college sports if the playing field was leveled via television contract redistribution: "If these contracts were distributed amongst all 11 conferences and all teams had an equal chance of contending for a national title, would we want to watch? Personally, I wouldn't get too excited over Louisiana Tech versus Wyoming in the big game."

Note that while this post addresses economic issues of competitive balance in intercollegiate sports, it also provides a cultural perspective on sports and the media. The group incorporates key cultural assumptions about the relationship between sports and society. For instance, they note that, "The United States thrives on the ideal that all are created equal. Every person has just as much of a chance of being successful as everyone else. Many feel that this same concept should carry over into the sports world, especially in college football." The group also says that, "Everyone loves a David vs. Goliath matchup in sports." From a cultural perspective, we can look at these two statements and consider how ideas like the "level playing field," "the underdog," or a "Cinderella story" are shaped by a broader U.S. culture that celebrates these very ideas. Are sports, then, shaped by our cultural assumptions about "equal opportunity," "upward social mobility," and "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps"? Furthermore, how does emphasis on these sporting ideals shape the wider U.S. society and culture? Our Jhally reading for Thursday will begin our thinking about sports media as texts that shape and are shaped by the broader socio-cultural context (p. 83-88). 

Another group also examined issues in intercollegiate football, specifically Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's recent creation of the company "Radical Football" that is aimed at bringing a playoff system to big-time college football. Despite the $500 million figure Cuban has floated as an inducement for implementing a playoff, this group notes that those in positions of power within the college football establishment are resistant to change: "If the higher-ups of colleges and universities, along with government officials and conference presidents, are in no rush to change the current BCS format, then it seems highly unlikely that any modifications will be made in the near future." Fans may want a system that provides all FBS schools a shot at a title, conferring greater legitimacy on the term "national champion," this group's post highlights how the uncertainty associated with potential changes leaves those in position to enact that change clinging to the established though unpopular status quo.

Another fourth looked at the growth and success of a major intercollegiate sports media property -- the NCAA men's basketball tournament or "March Madness." They provide a brief history of the event's relationship with CBS, the media outlet that has carried the tournament since 1982. The group considers some of the promotional strategies CBS has employed, including a shift in focus from "the Final Four" to more expansive coverage (and interest) on the tournament's entirety (i.e., "March Madness"). They also note CBS' incorporation of new technology in their broadcasts and content delivery, the company's new deal with Turner that will bring the entirety of an expanded 68-game slate to TV, and the opportunities for sponsorship and promotion that these technological and organizational moves facilitate. While this group has tried to tackle an topic that would take volumes to fully encapsulate, their post does provide a nice synthesis of important sports/media developments related to the event. As the group sums it up: "The NCAA tournament will continue to expand coverage and find ways to incorporate a larger audience in their package. It captivates viewers and fans for over a month while it brings in multi-million dollar checks to corporations who continue to cash in the tournament's advertising opportunities."

Our Sports, Media, & Society class has talked a good bit this semester about the symbiotic relationship between sports and the media. As Robert McChesney points out, "Media attention fans the flames of interest in sports and increased interest in sports warrants further media attention."

Two blog groups in the class used this insight as a jumping-off point for their posts this week (For an overview of the class' group blog project, see here). One group provided an excellent analysis of the growth in major media coverage of high school sports in recent years. The group used National Signing Day as a timely example of this growth in coverage. They explain that, "Media outlets swarm high school gymnasiums to watch young men who have not yet attended prom (and some who will decide to skip it for college football practice) decide their immediate future." The group goes beyond examples, though, as it looks at why such media outlets have emphasized youth content. They point out the constant gaze of sports journalism toward the future (as with coverage of Sebastian Telfair and LeBron James), the emphasis on those high school sports that feed commercial collegiate programs (i.e., football and men's basketball), and the low-cost events that high school sports coverage provide media outlets. 

The intense interest of the media in high school athletics has been of particular interest to myself; Marie Hardin and I have examined some of the ethical questions raised by this trend in coverage for sports journalism and for sports journalism educators.

Another group looked at NBA player Kevin Love's "numb#rs" campaign, pointing out how symbiosis between sports and the media can occur, not just at the team or sport level, but also at the individual level of the athlete. As the group explains, "[The numb#rs campaign] was a commercial for a cologne sponsored by Love with the premise being that he has the "numb#rs" or statistics to make the all-star team . . . Kevin as an athlete is gaining notoriety and popularity because of the media promoting his product and commercial.  The media on the other hand is going to get people talking about it and checking it out." This is a very sharp observation that highlights not only a symbiotic relationship between star athletes and the media institutions that create and benefit from that stardom--it also shows how that relationship is being forged in a new/social media environment.

A third group looked at the growth in advertising and sponsorship in college sports. This group points out two specific examples of this growth. First, they note the prevalence of blow sponsorship geared toward reminding us that "You're watching the Rose Bowl presented by Citi." Second, they highlight the huge sums broadcasters like ESPN are willing to pay for rights to broadcast big-time college sports. These huge contracts and the growth in college sports advertising and sponsorship may seem tangential, but as this group points out, having college sports events and associated programming like "College Gameday" makes ESPN, "a significant draw for advertising." This group highlights how Home Depot aims to make their mark through the platform provided by ESPN's "College Gameday."

This post also dovetails nicely with our discussions of issues in intercollegiate athletics this week in class. On Monday we looked at the tenuous state of intercollegiate athletics finances and the troubling implications of a win-at-all-cost atmosphere for the academic mission of intercollegiate athletics. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics' 2010 report, the reports by the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, and the ongoing work by the folks at USA Today (see here, here, and here) all do a nice job speaking to these issues. I'm also very excited about our guest lecturer for Wednesday; Kathleen O'Toole will talk to the class about her dissertation research, which explores the choices and broader social dynamics of the 1920s and 1930s that saw the migration of intercollegiate sports from educational radio to commercial broadcasting.

A fourth group looked at the collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA that could result in a lockout if a deal isn't brokered by March 3. The group gives a run-down of the three key issues in the negotiations, including "revenue sharing, rookie wages and an 18 game schedule that the owners have proposed."   

Finally, one group wrote about the implications of a Pacquiao/Mayweather fight (rather than a more anticipated Pacquiao/Mosley card) for fans and for the future of the sport.

Mega-events offer outlet for against-the-grain analysis & critique

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Sports mega-events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the Olympics offer grand stages for the participants (athletes & others), organizations, and institutions associated with each; these mega-events also provide an opportune stage for analysis and critique of the relationships between -- on the one hand -- these very participants, organizations, and institutions, and -- on the other hand -- culture, society, politics, and economics. That is, of course, if those offering the analysis and critique can manage to be heard over the cheerleading.

Several articles have caught my eye recently as intriguing analysis and criticism concerning the NFL and society. Each are, in my opinion, definitely worth a read:

NPR's Michele Martin looks at concerns about football-related long-term brain injury from the NFL down to pee wee. Further, she goes on to point out the social toll our exuberant emphasis on youth sports may have: "this might be particularly insidious in sports dominated by poor kids, especially poor black kids, because the people involved are so busy congratulating themselves on how they are saving the kids from ruin."

The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins considers whether "Jerry World" -- referring to Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones' new $1.15 billion stadium -- is the direction the league should be going in. While Jenkins acknowledges that the Super Bowl can be a valuable source for civic pride, this Super Bowl highlighted for her that "luxury can be debasing." She points out that everyday fans have been priced out of the spectacle, while the taxpayers in most of the NFL's U.S. metropolitan areas have been asked to pick up much of the tab for stadium and luxury box construction over the past 15 years.

Finally, progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin has been on a tear of late (see here, here, and here), highlighting the non-profit, public ownership of the Green Bay Packers by the citizens of Green Bay -- a unique arrangement in U.S. professional sports (NFL bylaws, interestingly, say that no other NFL franchise is allowed to employ a similar ownership structure).

Zirin has been busy of late...

** He's got a new book out, "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love." 
** His new documentary "Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports" (produced by the good folks over at the Media Education Foundation) is getting attention within academic circles and in major sports media outlets.


My Grandma's a journalist

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So this is pretty cool. I just found out recently that my grandma is a reporter for her assisted living facility's monthly newsletter. My dad sent me the newsletters for November 2010 and January 2011. Her articles (with the "Jane C." byline) are on page 8 in each month's newsletter. Here's a color scan of page 8 from the November issue where you can see her in a picture at Bob & Ruth's in Naples, NY (Third from the left, with purse). On page 2 of the November issue she's the "mystery person" and is listed as Jane under the Newsletter Staff's reporters. No word yet if she's eyeing up one of the editor positions...

Graduate Student Forum hosts panel discussion of WikiLeaks

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Last week Penn State's College of Communications' Graduate Student Forum hosted a panel discussion of WikiLeaks. Planelists included myself, Julia Fraustino (College of Communications, Juyoung Lee (College of Communications), professor Derek Muller (Dickinson School of Law). I found the panel an enriching experience that benefited from diverse perspectives on the implications of WikiLeaks on a variety of social concerns, including privacy, security, the public's "right to know," international relations, journalistic ethics, and self governance. Penn State's Collegian provided this write-up for the event.

The Graduate Student Forum has really developed into a valuable asset for the College and it was a privilege to be part of this panel. While Brandie Martin's moderating produced an organic discussion of the topics above, I had also prepared the following remarks on WikiLeaks, including the value of the cables for communications researchers: Remarks on Wikileaks.doc. Here are some of the resources I had drawn on for putting together these prepared remarks: Der Spiegel, Dan Carlin, & Counterspin on Wikileaks.doc 

This week's installment of student blog posts for my Sports, Media, & Society course (see the overall project's description here) were rattled off during a week of heightened anticipation; the Super Bowl is this Sunday, and while the game may turn out to be legen--wait for it--dary, several groups from the class chose to focus on an element of the broadcast that will result in plenty of talk show top-10 lists, YouTube searches, and water-cooler banter--Super Bowl advertising. 

As a group named STATEment explained, we don't actively avoid Super Bowl commercials like we often do other advertising: "It's ironic how commercials are normally the break in the broadcast that viewers long to fast forward, but during the Super Bowl, there is no such thing as a commercial break. The three to four minutes between the live event are filled with much anticipated advertisements that entertain viewers and serve as water cooler talk and social media hashtags for days." Drawing on AdAge research that shows a growing proportion of the Super Bowl broadcast set aside for advertising time, STATEment suggests that the value of this advertising time is enhanced by young Americans' intrigue with Super Bowl advertising. The group cites a study by ad agency Venables Bell & Partners that calls this phenomena the "Mad Men" effect, pointing out that most young adults prefer to watch the game with commercials and a quarter of those surveyed would pay a $0.99 subscription to watch the ads if necessary. 

Like STATEment, The Replacements also looked at the cultural (and economic) phenomenon that is Super Bowl commercials. After pointing out the cultural capital that comes with being "in-the-know" about Super Bowl commercials, the group looked at the extraordinary sums paid by U.S. corporations for spot advertising during the Super Bowl. They raise the question: "is all of this spending on Super Bowl ads really necessary?" Approaching the answer from the position of corporate advertisers and their efforts at expansion, The Replacements cite Barry Judge, Chief Marketing Officer of Best Buy, whose company will be placing their first spot ads during a Super Bowl this year. Judge's comments incorporate a bit of old marketing wisdom and a bit of the new. In a fragmented media environment, the Super Bowl still offers a mass audience (point 1) where advertisers can borrow from the enormity of the event, elevating the importance of their message (point 2). The branding opportunity is immense (point 3), but the Super Bowl advertising we'll see this year will certainly incorporate more social media integration aimed at encouraging identification with those brands beyond the 30-second spot ad (point 4).

With all this emphasis on Super Bowl commercials, another group--titled Cause and Effects of Sports and the Media!--looked at the Super Bowl in relation to John Gerdy's claims about major professional and "big time" college sports events. Gerdy suggests that these events should no longer be called "sporting events:" According to Gerdy, "These events are entertainment extravaganzas, subject to all the promotional marketing gimmicks of a three ring circus." This group's assessment of Gerdy's sport versus entertainment proposal--"Maybe." While the group points out that much of the Super Bowl audience says they watch the broadcast for the ads more than the game, this group argues that for the 52 million or so folks that watched the last year's Super Bowl for the game, indeed, "there was a game and a true sporting event . . . sports and entertainment can live in harmony - because it is profitable doesn't make it any less of a sport." (Then again, Gerdy might argue that the entertainment orientation shapes sports in important ways, as compared with playing the game "for its own sake.")

In all, the focus on Super Bowl advertising in these first three posts reminded me of some of the ideas discussed in Matt McAllister's (1999) essay "Super Bowl Advertising as Commercial Celebration." As McAllister (College of Communications, PSU) explains: 

Commercials during the Super Bowl since the mid-1980s have been given special status. They often have characteristics more in line with entertainment media messages than stereotypical commerical media messages. They are hyped by pre-release advertisments or public relations-influenced news stories, just like movies. They feature socially and culturally prominent people, including politicians (just like news stories), new and old celebrities (just like movies), and sports personalities (just like the Super Bowl). They are much more expensive to produce, per second, than virtually any other form of television, and are not shy about trumpeting their expense. They assume a foundation of knowledge about their own social status among viewers. They are reviewed the next day with the same criteria as the newest Hollywood blockbuster (p. 421) 

These first three groups' interest in Super Bowl advertising reflect, perhaps, how U.S. celebration of commercial culture has become even more punctuated over the past decade (or, at least, the awareness of this celebration).

A fourth group--with the self-explanatory name COMM 412 Group Blog--looked at the goliath that is the "Worldwide Leader in Sports"--ESPN. The group raises the question: "how big is too big?" They provide some stunning statistics on the expanse of the dominant sports media brand, including Barron Magazine's analysis that, "ESPN is worth over 40 percent of Disney's entire net worth." The group suggests that greater competition from the likes of Versus might only lead to further ESPN expansion, and that more regional and local approaches are being equally explored by the "Worldwide Leader." The group argues that eventual competitors--ideally, in their view, smaller ESPNs--would "need to be creative, innovative and offer the audience an aspect of sport that ESPN doesn't, starting and growing from there."

Aside from noting the size of ESPN, its tendency to try to "turn over every rock and then some," and its "irrelevant chatter," this group runs into a problem that I think critical analysis of sports media so often runs into: If we're going to critique the size or practices of a sports media outlet, we're often hit with the following rebuttal--"What's the big deal... lighten up... it's just sports." To a certain degree, this rebuttal has some substance; a critical perspective on "hard" news coverage, representations of women in advertising, or violent video games seems to find more traction when we're looking at the media's influence on society and culture than does critical analysis of sports coverage (recognizing that critique is not inherently negative, as the connotation might suggest). This is why critical analysis of sports and media requires sharp perspectives (which we're ideally developing in this class) for understanding the often subtle and seemingly natural ways that sports content both reflects and shapes U.S. culture. This group is on the right track in questioning the impact of watching sports "through ESPN-tinted sunglasses," and I hope that, by the end of the semester, they'll be able to bolster this argument with a more developed normative lens on the sports-society relationship: What kind of relationship do we want to see? And how does ESPN's cultural fare stack up against that vision?

Another group looked at the ascendancy of Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his opportunity to shake "The Next Brett Favre" tag that he entered the league with. A final group reflected on an On the Media segment concerning the ethics of reporting on steroids in baseball. The group argues that writers should "lay off players and stop destroying their reputation publicly."



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