Welcome to Open Court, the newsletter and platform space where we explore the things we need to talk about in sports and life. I'm Joanne C. Gerstner, a sports writer, author, decent tennis player, cat lover and lover of 72-degree spring weather. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the state of sports media, particularly the area of broadcast TV. I am heading to Las Vegas today (hi from the plane streaking over the great Midwest!) to speak at a media conference on Sunday, and I am charged with diving into that topic. I am still working through what I want to say, because man, I have all the thoughts.
I’m coming to this from a few perspectives: as a sports fan, sports media consumer, sports journalist, a woman who advocates for other women in sports media, and now, also a college professor of sports journalism. So yes, I tend to think about this stuff above and below the surface. The blessing of getting older is being able to see the layers, and fully realize that the answers are rarely as clear as you want. So I am sitting back and thinking.
Our sports world is dominated by the weight of broadcast. That determines what time games start. Where events are held. What you see in your market. How teams build their rosters from the revenue streams their clubs take in. There are the commercials we live to debate during the Super Bowl. The dumb things that are said on the air. The smart pieces that make us see our favorite athletes or sports or issues in a new light.
TV changed sports, as the spectacle is often more engaging on a screen versus the in-person experience. The Super Bowl halftime show looks better at home than from your pricey stadium seat. The real costs and logistical hassles of going to a game makes it easier to sit in our residences with flat screens for event viewing, with free water, unlimited snacks, a comfy couch and yes, lovely no-wait bathroom facilities. (Of course, bathroom equity now! Speaking as a woman...ladies room lines in stadia are a curse on our society.) But if you can't afford/access cable or an app or good wifi, don't have a smart TV, or don't know how to hook gizmos to take you OTT/antenna - there will be slim pickings to see.
Our technological capacity to show sports in different and breathtaking ways, from slow-mo to drones/sky cams for views. Goal and penalty review cams change the very outcome of a contest. We depend on the replay, and now the meme/gif, social media video hit as a critical part of our fandoms.
New channels, like the ill-fated Fox Sports 1, launch with big hype of being the greatest disruptor. The standbys, like ESPN, try to to satisfy the masses with live sports, chat shows, hard news and documentaries. Local sportscasts, on the legacy networks, struggle to keep their four minutes of space at 5, 6, and 11 pm to reheat the old highlight format that worked so well in 1982. If there is a breaking weather alert, sports goes. Sorry kids, we can grab more eyeballs with a tornado alert than your NBA playoff highlight from 36 hours ago.
Our attention spans to watch a whole game, like baseball checking in at 3 hours, are not aligned these days. We don’t have the time, space or the patience, sit with the game. Sports broadcasts are often the inconsequential background noise of our lives, running in silence on the many TVs that litter our restaurants, lobbies and bars.
They are everywhere, yet nowhere, in our lives.
But when we need to gather together for an event, like the Olympics, the upcoming World Cup, or NCAA tournament, broadcast is our first choice. The wrinkles of today involve how we consume the broadcast - on a flatscreen, our laptop or on apps/phones.
More of our games and content are being sent off to apps, where we will pay more to see the same things. (Yes, they promise more, but in the end, you don’t have more time to watch more things.) Our cable-cutting ways are not going away, killing ESPN and other providers' 40-plus years of monopoly in getting everybody to pay for everything - even if you never watched it.
The good news about the fragmentation of the sports broadcasting industry comes in the windows of opportunities opening for other sports. Women’s basketball - college and WNBA - is finally getting the resources and air time to gain and sustain real audiences. Smaller sports, such as curling, that were reduced to tiny bits of airtime during the Olympics, now have regular homes.
A lot of the younger journalists I mentor, as a professor or as another woman in the business, don’t want anything to do with sports writing. I started on the writing path long ago, as that is where my heart and talents live. They still are entrenched there, but I have branched out in the other mediums of sports media as my life and career progressed.
My younger ones only want to go into broadcasting. Not writing. And not too much old school reporting. They want to be the show. The personality, the commentator, the host. They want to be the expert, even though they more than likely will never be the NFL star that usually slides into the broadcast booth as the star analyst.
I support them in their career goals, but also urge some thought about how to build a career, rather than trying to be the next Stephen A. Smith clone. After we talk for a little about their dreams, it turns out that their exposure to TV sports far outweighs anything else. Their concept of a newspaper sports section does not exist. They don’t have the culture of growing up reading the Sporting News or ESPN the Magazine or Sports Illustrated.
SportsCenter, the argument of the day talk show, and games on TV are their reference points for sports media. The men are in the broadcast booth, the woman is the sideline reporter - and that is that.
We are influenced and shaped by the reality we see. Sports TV is on all the time. It is huge business and money maker. Content is king, and ad dollars rule.
So I have all of these things swirling around in my head. How do we have effective sports media, serve audiences with broadcasts, provide coverage of games, make money for our employers, innovate and also create career opportunities for more than just the select few?
What is the path forward in this swamp?
Good luck to me, as I have until Sunday to figure that out.
Will let you know what happens.
(Small note: I will be going to the Neon Museum at night…I will try to jump on @joanneg313 for a quick live to show you why it makes me so happy. Look for me late Saturday night.)
Until then, see you Tuesday!
Open Court publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays, bringing you the stuff we need to talk about with author and sports journalist Joanne C. Gerstner.
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