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The world of sport in the age of mass media has been transformed from amateur recreational participation to spectator-centered business. The commercial incentives for sport to cooperate with television, film, radio, newspaper, and magazine to consistently expand the “spectacle” aspects of the event are ever increasing. Much more is at stake than material gain, however; the players and fans depend on sport as spectacle for esteem, honor, dignity, identity, and status.
Today’s sporting spectacle presents an encompassing drama: actors, ritual, plot, production, masculinity, rage, pride, chance, and social message are all brilliantly choreographed in the sport spectacular. For the committed fan (derived, indeed, from the word “fanatic”) winning produces overwhelming exhilaration, defeat, deep depression. Yet even in defeat there is always hope for the next game or season. Fans and players become inseparable actors in the same drama.
Early Spectator Entertainment
Evidence for organized sporting events can be traced to Egyptian culture as far back as 5200 BCE; however, evidence for sport spectatorship is extant only from the first century BCE. The Grecian Olympic Games were the first to offer dimensions of spectator entertainment as well as opportunities for civic and religious ceremonies. Grecian appreciation of athletic grace was soon to be usurped by the spread of the Roman Empire and the accompanying appetite for sport spectacles laden with violence, such as gladiator matches and chariot races. The attendance records for Roman sporting events remained unchallenged until the period of the industrial revolution. As families moved into the cities, leisure time increased, and this, combined with concomitant developments in transportation and communication technology, allowed spectators to bond as a community and develop regional rivalries while regularly visiting distant stadiums and keeping track of “their” teams.
Impact of Technology on Spectator Sport
In the mid-1800s, the steamboat and railway networks, soon followed by the electric streetcar, opened up the city to suburban areas, carrying sport crowds (and players) to horse races, baseball games, football matches, and intercollegiate rowing events. When Thomas A. Edison developed the incandescent bulb in 1879, he inaugurated a new era in the social nightlife of the metropolis. Within a few years sport arenas with electric lighting were hosting night games. The advent and expansion of use of the telegraph, newspapers, and radio during this same period fostered, for the first time, sport reporting and spectator following of distant, even international sport. As technology advanced, pictures of sporting events were added to newspaper articles; the still camera, a precursor to the video camera and televised sport, was first to provide visual information to millions of remote fans.
With the broad democratization of television and televised sports in the 1960s, thousands of enthusiasts never had to leave their homes to take in a sporting event. The Internet, of course, has further complicated and fragmented the sport spectator experience. Beginning with the 2001 Major League Baseball (MLB) World Series, audiences could express their approval or disapproval of team managers’ decisions during the game via the Internet. Today every MLB game can be downloaded upon its completion, so fans are able to relive new and classic ballgames at any time. Sport spectatorship is inextricably linked to technology development.
In contemporary Western society, sport is a spectacle in three noteworthy ways. Sport is (1) a public performance of a large scale or impressive nature, such as the grand exhibitions of the Olympic Games; (2) a regrettable public display, as in the deplorable behavior of destructive international soccer fans; and (3) a commodity, a tool of pacification, depoliticization, and “massification,” exemplified by professional football’s commercially exploitative Super Bowl.
Sport as an Impressive Televised Performance
The transition to large-scale, extraordinary sport spectacles is directly connected to the widespread popularity of televised sport, which got underway in the United States the afternoon of 17 May 1939, when the first televised baseball game was put on the air by NBC. The picture impulses of a game between Princeton and Columbia University from Columbia’s Baker Field marked the beginning of a romance between the new medium and sport.
Until the perfection of color television, slow motion, and replay shots in the 1960s, team sports could not easily be conveyed on the small screen and therefore constituted a small portion of network budgets and program time. When ABC decided to make sport a centerpiece of its programming, other corporations had no choice but to follow, and an all-out war between networks for supremacy in sport television ensued. In the 1980s “superstations” employing transmission satellites also joined in the fray. The moguls of sport quickly began to package their games as even greater spectacles so they would be more appealing to television audiences. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) expanded their playoff formats so that sixteen teams (more than two-thirds) reach the championship tournaments. Halftime periods have been shortened so that television audiences will be more likely to stay tuned, and prearranged schedules of time-outs have been added to football, basketball, and hockey games to make time for commercials.
The Good and the Bad
Even in the televised sport age, the anticipation of actually attending a sport stadium adds immeasurably to the excitement, evidenced by continued sellout crowds at Pakistan’s Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, the Dallas Mavericks American Airlines Center, or Manchester United’s Old Trafford. Once at the stadium, the sharing of emotions with other fans heightens the intensity of the experience.
On one hand television cheapened and trivialized the spectator experience. Too many seasons, games, teams, and “big plays” have diluted the poignancy and potency of the sporting experience and have diminished the capacity of sport to furnish heroes, release people from the ennui of daily life, and bind communities. Television contributed to the rise of a new set of sporting ideals: nationalism, sportsmanship, and civility were replaced by self-indulgence, win-at-all-costs attitudes, and supremacy of commercial interests.
On the other hand, television broadened and deepened the drama of the spectacle by stimulating an even broader audience, offering an exciting narrative text that begins long before the game, framing meaning, and setting a tone that hypes the contests and specifies the conflicts worthy of conjecture. Close-up, slow-motion, and replay shots add to the appreciation of beautifully executed plays, and many fans now prefer to watch sport on television instead of being in the stands because, ironically, they feel closer to their heroes. For instance, in the sport of soccer, the Premier League’s David Beckham not only scores goals and brings fame to his team, but televised sport has also helped him branch out into films (Bend It like Beckham) and product endorsements (Adidas, Marks and Spencer, and Gillette), bringing him into contact with his devoted fans more and more often. Made-for-media grand-scale spectacles, such as the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games or the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl halftime show, have large television audiences and are only indirectly related to sport.
Pageantry, political rhetoric, and showbiz extravaganzas now characterize today’s grand-scale sporting events. In September 2000 Australian Olympian Cathy Freeman, an Aborigine, carried the Olympic torch for its last leg up toward a vast waterfall before she ignited the cauldron. In an extraordinarily intricate and dangerous spectacle, flames surrounded her as a choir sang and deafening orange fireworks illuminated Sydney’s sky. The spectacle was the grandest of opening ceremonies to that date and had significant political implications given the Australian government’s political relationship with the Aboriginal people.
No one at first expected the Super Bowl to far exceed all other sport spectacles in the size of its domestic audience (140 million people). In the twenty-first century nearly one billion people worldwide are routinely expected to view the exhibitions that the NFL and its advertisers have in mind. Advertisers use the broadcast as a way to roll out new products and pay over $2 million for a thirty-second commercial spot. The highlight is always the halftime show, and the 2004 version was the most spectacular and controversial yet. The finale was a duet with American celebrity recording artists Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, during which Jackson’s breast was (un)intentionally exposed. The sensationalism and shock value achieved was directly in line with the goals of the sport/media complex.
Sport as a Violent, Sexist Spectacle
Sport is also a spectacle in the sense of being a regrettable display. As the task of attracting a sufficiently large audience to satisfy advertisers becomes more and more challenging, “mediatized” sport has wrought two negative features: (1) increased violence associated with (male) professional sport on the field, court, and rink; in the stands; and at home, and (2) the entrenchment of the trivialization of women’s sporting accomplishments, sexualization of women’s bodies, and overall subordination of women’s roles.
In the game, brutal tactics have led to an epidemic injury rate in football, and similar license in other sports (hockey and basketball) has been well documented. More often, activities that lead to the temporary incapacitation, knockout, or injury of competitors are the norm.
Mindless acts of violence intricately tied to win-at-any-cost ethics and retribution have led to player indictments. For instance, in 2004 National Hockey League play, the Vancouver Canucks’ Todd Burtuzzi attacked the Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore from behind. Moore suffered a concussion and a fractured neck. Burtuzzi was indicted for assault causing bodily harm and plead guilty.
In the stands, fan violence can be deadly. For at least two decades there has been a widespread tendency for English fans to be castigated for aggressive behavior, drunkenness, and open displays of xenophobia and racism. Spectators have cursed, yelled racial slurs, given death threats, and thrown objects onto the field. During Euro 2000, disappointment turned to violence in Charleroi, France, as supporters of the English team brought terror to the streets following a loss, resulting in 850 arrests. And in one of the most grotesque displays of human belligerence, over three hundred people were killed and one thousand injured in a Lima, Peru, soccer riot in 1964. Fans may feel so invested in the drama of sport and nationalism that losses become too painful to bear.
Empirical evidence supports the appeal of sport violence. One recent study found that more (perceived) violence in football matches led to greater enjoyment, so in addition to actual hostility between players, emphasis by commentators on athletes’ antagonisms augments audience enjoyment. Another study discovered that watching televised sport at home was connected to seemingly senseless and brutal attacks on the female partners of fans.
Feminist sport critics who study the portrayal of female athletes in the mass media reveal the degree to which the sport media contribute to the oppression of marginalized groups, particularly women, by reinforcing “natural” sex differences through representations of sports that privilege and empower men over women. Female athletes are more often celebrated if they play “feminine” sports, those that depict females in aesthetically pleasing motions and poses, often emphasizing the erotic physicality of the female body with tight bodices and short skirts (e.g., gymnastics, tennis, and figure skating).
Skating emphasizes artistry over athleticism, and its use of grace, music, and costume have a culturally influenced gender appeal designed to attract and sustain female viewers and titillate male viewers. International tennis sensation Anna Kournikova is one of many female athletes better known for her modeling career than on-court achievement. The spectacle of sport allows her to earn more in endorsements than any other female player, despite her indifferent performances, while women who have won recognized tennis tournaments on the international circuit gain much less income and attention. In mainstream sports women also play passive, supporting roles and conform to patriarchal standards of sport and femininity. Scantily clad female models (car racing), cheerleaders (gridiron football), or half-time dancers (basketball) secure a large audience of men by creating an atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity.
Many more women are absent from televised sport because they are prevented from participating or because their sports are not considered sufficient audience draws and are therefore not promoted through mainstream media. Despite the fact that women’s athletic participation in modern-day Olympic Games exceeds their participation in any other major sporting event, a sexist ideology persists in the media which highlights and reinforces the supposedly natural differences between males and females and overwhelmingly favors men’s participation as they compete separately in the same sport (e.g., downhill skiing) or in sex-exclusive sports, such as synchronized swimming and softball (women) or boxing (men). Professional female athletes receive disproportionately less television, radio, and magazine coverage than their male counterparts. The sport spectacle in the twentieth century has given men an arena in which to create and reinforce an ideology of male superiority.
The quintessential example of a violent, sexist, “mediatized” sporting spectacle is the pseudosport of professional wrestling. While discounted as a genuine sport by most, professional wrestling has evolved into a culturally powerful multimedia complex. Specifically, professional wrestling’s mandate is to excite audiences via contrived and hyperviolent athletic competition and to portray “hot babes of wrestling” as sexy props on the margins of the men’s matches or against each other in titillating showcases of “raw feminine energy.” It teaches lessons about masculinity and femininity to massive audiences who tune in for both sport and theater. The World Wrestling Federation, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Australian Wrestling Federation have prospered because they offer entertainment consistent with the entrenched interests of the sport/media/commercial complex.
Sport as a Commercially Exploitative Spectacle
Finally, as a tool of “massification” and pacification, spectator sports appear to provide escape from the pressures or banality of the work world; however, patrons are subsequently trapped by corporations, which use sports as commodities to fuel desires, stimulate demands, and create new needs, essentially creating more work. Despite the fact that athletes’ performances can be breathtaking, a race won or a ninth-inning base hit hair-raising, these aspects of the spectacle are considered a “free lunch” or bonus of the commodity spectacle, which is one created purely for its market value; sport serves the purpose of providing audiences for advertisers. The strategic vision of using sport programming (produced cheaply and transferred easily across cultural and linguistic borders) to reach new international audiences is being aggressively shared by a growing number of media organizations: Eurosport, Sky, ESPN, Fox, and Japan Sports Channel, to name a few. The competition to secure the rights for seasons and finales has intensified to unprecedented levels of financial investment on the part of media outlets. For instance, BBC pays £105 million for the rights to Saturday and Sunday night Premier league highlights; Fox acquired the rights to MLB baseball’s playoffs, World Series, and All-Star Game for $417 million per year; and NBC pays $2.2 billion for rights to broadcast the Olympics.
Creating a “big-time sport” spectacle has led to big drug abuse, big recruiting briberies, and big academic cheating among major American colleges. Along this loathsome byway, the black athlete has been especially misused. The belief that people with dark skin are driven by brawn rather than brains was used to justify colonization and exploitation during slavery and continues today to justify manipulation and exploitation in “mediatized” sport. In the NFL and NBA the majority of the workers are black; yet the majority of the owners, administrators, league presidents, and network executives are white and make millions of dollars more than the average player. Many black athletes, although recognizing that pro sports are akin to slavery, refuse to let go of their share of the pie. Inflated contracts are confused with achievement and the end of racism, and audiences and athletes alike have been pacified and de-politicized. Some argue that greed has changed the spectacle into a circus. On the other hand, without media coverage and the considerable amounts of money paid by advertisers and corporations, the popularity and revenue-generating potential of commercial spectator sports would be seriously limited. Even without ever visiting a stadium, dedicated fanatics can experience the unpredictable drama, human transcendence, and joys of performance through newspapers’ daily sports pages, television and radio broadcasts, and Internet updates.
Communication technologies have raised sport spectatorship more than a thousand-fold. Multichannel direct-satellite services, and Internet sports give fanatics the ability to choose from numerous live sporting events any time games are being played, anywhere in the world. With increased awareness of sport-related violence and discrimination against women and black athletes, sporting spectacles will become increasingly more humane and fair, but the almighty dollar still reigns, and the media will continue to provide the type of spectacle that will maintain the biggest audience. The Western sport spectacle has been completely revolutionized in under a century and is now transmitted to and imitated by nations worldwide.
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