Television Runs Sports, And That's Not Good

The mass media provides the financial foundation that drives commercialized sport. That has been the case for decades now.
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"Television buys sports ... Television tells sports what to do. It is sports and it runs them the way it does most other things; more flamboyantly than honestly. -- Leonard Shecter

The mass media provides the financial foundation that drives commercialized sport. That has been the case for decades now.

Today, the sports media, most notably television, is more powerful than ever. As an example, approximately 75 percent of NFL revenues come from television rights fees, up from 45 percent in 1979.

Newspapers and radio have long been linked with commercial sport but television and sport represent the true symbiosis.

The question is has television done more harm than good to our sports?

Due to the money television networks have invested in sports, they've been able to influence sports in many ways, including modifying the rules of the games.

Television executives aren't interested in the purity of sport, or the rules, traditions and values of our games. They simply look for ways to make sports more "entertaining" in an effort to increase profits. If this means modifying the rules, and screwing with the traditions and values of our sports so be it.

For example, all television rights agreements now call for pre-set television timeouts during games in order for the sport's television partners to air as many commercials as possible. (Which also means the fans in the stands get to listen to more ads blaring through the scoreboards.) Momentum in games is often affected by these TV timeouts, and the games tend to drag on and on. (Thankfully, we have DVRs now and if the fan times things properly these commercial delays can be avoided.)

Television networks are the de facto determiners of schedules and starting times for our sports. Schedules and start times are manipulated in order to maximize ratings, and thus, advertising revenue. It doesn't matter if baseball playoff games end at 1 a.m. on the East Coast, jeopardizing the long-term future of the game because young fans are in bed. It's all about maximizing dollars today, not the best interests of the sport or its stakeholders.

Adding the DH in baseball, which completely ignored the history and tradition of the game, can be traced to TV's desire to get more offense, scoring and home runs in the game in a quest to lure more fringe fans (and yes, boost ratings and advertising revenue).

Traveling and palming violations have gone the way of the dinosaur in the National Basketball Association (NBA) because television execs found them to be annoying hindrances to exciting offensive plays like slam dunks.

Television executives have long pushed for longer regular seasons and extended playoffs because they love the programming content sports provides. The result is more games where athletes aren't at their peak due to fatigue and injuries. For the fan, regular season games become devalued and the entire regular season is cheapened as more and more teams are allowed into the playoffs. This is especially the case with the NBA and NHL.

In recent years, the college sports landscape has been significantly altered due to conference realignment, which has been driven completely by - you guessed it -- the chase for more television revenue. As a result, long-time traditional rivals have been split up and schools are being placed in conferences that make no geographic sense - increasing the travel burden on college athletes (in all sports, not just football), many of whom would actually like to be students as well as athletes while they're on campus.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the greed of the sports media has filtered all the way down to the high school and youth sports levels. Our educational system and youth sports organizations are increasingly selling out their educational and child development values when they allow high school basketball and Little League baseball games to be televised nationally.

To make things worse, these sports media conglomerates rarely balance their profit motive with anything resembling corporate social responsibility.

"The sports media has an obligation to cover all of the world of sports, including money, power, and the major social issues that are playing out," says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Review Project, an independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. "You certainly have to be able to cover these issues [in addition to the actual games] to call yourself a good sports journalist or sports journalism organization."

Where's the in-depth analysis of contemporary sports issues? Where are the town hall-like discussions? Where's the well-rounded examination of an important sports problem from financial, educational, legal, and health perspectives?

As an example, while sports journalists who cover college sports have done an okay job examining which teams are breaking the rules, they've been poor when it comes to analyzing whether the rules and the underlying amateur system make any sense to start with.

The sports media may never step up and play a more socially responsible role in the world of sports. They may continue to be driven strictly by profit-at-all-costs ethos and not be interested in improving sports for all of its stakeholders.

But at the very least the sports media should follow a Hippocratic oath for sports: "First, do no harm."

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