By: Tom Malone
Sports media as we know has not always existed. Modern-day sports journalism evolved with American social trends and profit-hungry businesspeople that changed the shape of news in general.
Before William Porter’s Spirit of the Times coverage of horse racing (and lower class boxing), most upper class citizens viewed sports as a vulgar hobby. The Industrial Revolution of the 1850s drew waves of immigrants to large American cities and expanded the lower class audience, eventually giving Spirit of the Times 100,000 readers.
According to sports author Tracy Everbach, “Flamboyant sports writing in the era of yellow journalism attracted newspaper readers and contributed to building a worldwide image of the United States as an economic, political, and athletic power.”
After the Civil War, baseball rose in popularity. The newly established Major League Baseball players created a players’ union in 1885. In congruence with late 1800s labor unions, the players went on strike in 1889, calling for higher salaries.
The 1920s ushered in the daily sports page. Sports author Lawrence Wenner said, “A 1930s survey revealed that fully 80% of all male newspaper readers read some portion of the sports page on a frequent basis.” The Associated Press added a sports department during this era in accordance with the growing trend.
Advertisement and promotional facilitators caught on to the money-making potential that the new found dual product media market for sports provided. Evidence of payoffs by boxing promoters to sports writers and editors existed. Wenner said, “The close interaction between sports promoters and sportswriters was at times so corrupt that it led more than one sportswriter to quit” (58).
The relationship between sports writers and promoters essentially created famous publicity events such as the MLB All-Star Game.
Shift from Print to Radio
By 1929, one-third of American homes had a radio, which provided opportunity for sports publicity. Graham McNamee became the first official sports broadcaster in the 1920s with his error-filled blow-by-blow boxing commentary.
NBC and CBS dominated the radio scene after finding profit in selling advertisement space during radio shows. Wenner stated, “Advertisers soon began to purchase the right to broadcast major sports events” (59). In 1934, the Ford Motor Company paid $100,000 to sponsor the World Series on radio.
Transition from Radio to Television
Television allowed sports media to grow exponentially. The National Football League became American’s leading spectator sport due to its almost made-for-television excitement. “In 1958, [NFL Commissioner Bert] Bell permitted ‘television time-outs’ to increase the amount of revenue each game could generate,” said Wenner (62).
CBS followed in 1962 when the corporation paid the NFL $4.5 million for broadcasting rights, which increased its Nielson ratings by 50 percent.
ABC’s deal with the new American Football League in 1960 established the organization, but NBC’s $42 million, five-year deal solidified its future. The NFL and AFL merged in 1970 in a deal that guaranteed NBC and CBS equal coverage.
ABC fought back with 1961’s Wide World of Sports, 1970’s Monday Night Football, and legal rights to broadcast the Olympic Games. ABC Sports enhanced the entertainment value of televised football through the perfection of instant replay, slow-motion, and highlight reels.
Between 1974 and 1984, network programming hours dedicated solely to sports doubled.
Sports broadcasters became celebrities who could control rating through their entertainment value, thus earning big-name broadcasters annual seven-figure checks.
Ad dollars essentially promoted and funded the creation of new sports leagues, lengthened schedules, and various championship games (college football bowl games being the most notorious). Today, there are 79 sports networks devoting over 41,000 yearly network hours to sports coverage.
New Media and Beyond
Sports news coverage found new facets of distribution with online media. From the casual blogger to legitimate corporate websites, anyone with an Internet connection can participate in the discussion through spatialization.
The sports industry has grown exponentially due to its use as a media marketing goldmine. Sports author Raymond Boyle said, “The sports industry now regularly involves major media and financial institutions as well as government intervention.”
After The Getty Oil Company sponsored the inception of ESPN, the sports media force reached 75 million homes faster than any other network, insinuating that sports journalism as an institution is here to stay.
According to Those Guys Have All the Fun, ESPN diversified and launched a magazine to directly compete with the domineering Sports Illustrated.
Sports continue to run on a path of commercialization and commodification. Brand exposure crosses various facets of sports media: print, broadcasting, and online production.
What does the rapid rise of sports media mean? Wenner said, “As one part of the social world robs people of meaning and emotional gratification, another part offers it to them in the form of commodified spectacles.”
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales