PAUL ROUSE: Sporting bodies should fear getting it all their own way

The allure of media productions controlled by the sports association is both obvious and understandable. And yet the downsides are significant, also, writes Paul Rouse

The tensions that are now readily apparent between the major sporting organisations in Ireland and media outlets are not new ones.

The decision of team managers to decline to speak to the media — or to particular parts of the media — as, say, Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin and Joe Schmidt and Jimmy McGuinness have done in recent times is no recent phenomenon.

Similarly, the manner in which certain managers have torn into journalists — as Martin O’Neill has taken to doing with Tony O’Donoghue — is not new either.

In the greater scheme of things such tensions can be dismissed as relatively trivial attempts to assert or remind where true power lies. Ordinarily, they have always been something transient, something that passes with the personalities who end up at odds with each other.

This is because of the great compact between the media and sporting organisations that has been of such enormous mutual benefit since the modern sporting world was forged in the second half of the 19th century.

Within this compact, careers have been made and so have heroes. Most of all, fortunes have been made.

This is a truism which has extended from newspapers at the end of the 19th century through the arrival of radio in the 1920s and 1930s and on to the TV revolution of the 1960s and beyond.

At every juncture the relationship between sports organisations and the expanding media changed to reflect new technological possibilities.

These changes were rarely easy. Often, they produced tensions that simmered and occasionally exploded.

The question that matters now is the extent to which the change that is underway is going to fundamentally remake the relationship between sports organisations and the media.

This change centres on the internet and the fact that there is no aspect of the modern world that has not been reshaped — in whole or in part — by the revolution that is taking place all around us.

Sporting bodies should fear getting it all their own way

Whether you lament the way the internet has changed the way people relate to each other, or whether you — on the other hand — celebrate the possibilities created by its apparently boundless capabilities, there can be no denying the transformation that is being wrought on how people live.

Inevitably, the operation and presentation of sport are being altered by internet-based technologies and modes of behaviour.

In terms of the relationship between sport and media organisations, one thing that matters already is the still emerging potential for sports organisations to essentially serve as their own publishing houses and broadcasters.

This phenomenon is part of the wider upheavals underway across the media world where older institutions are under immense pressure to remain relevant and to find new ways to make money, while new forms of the media and content delivery are seeking to carve out an ever greater presence.

There can be no denying that there is a genuine fear (and maybe a little anger also) in media circles about the evolving nature of this aspect of the relationship.

One area where this manifested itself — in terms of sport – was with the Martin O’Neill contract extension interview on FAI TV, broadcast on YouTube. This was a genuinely important story and yet here it was on an in-house TV production with no capacity for independent journalists to ask questions.

It was a timely demonstration of the enduring manner in which the men who run the world’s main sporting associations do not want to have to deal with any dissent. They may preach democracy and debate, but they live by another creed.

So the allure of media productions controlled by the sports association is both obvious and understandable.

And yet the downsides are significant, also.

The thing is that such productions and the propaganda that is usually emitted by in-house publications usually reduce the content included to a dreary rehearsal of cliché heaped upon cliché.

Ultimately, the whole corporate garb that surrounds staged media events with star players as their focus (to give one example) are used to facilitate a centralisation of the message.

While that has its attractions, the scale of the dross is such that it almost always achieves nothing:

And when in-house journalism is invariably insipid, monotone, and produces such meaningless froth that it evaporates and leaves no trace, its limitations are painfully revealed.

It can only be intensely frustrating for reporters who report on sports to witness this and to see stories which they would like to write, instead being managed in this way.

But sports journalists themselves also hold power. There are many, many stories to be written in and around sports organisations that will directly challenge the soft-sell of the marketeer.

As Leonard Cohen sings in his beautiful song Anthem:

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Perhaps being denied access to a particular type of story will push journalists through the cracks and into a different space. It would be really interesting to watch this happen.

Sporting bodies should fear getting it all their own way

It’s not that journalists don’t look for such stories as it is, but the environment is undoubtedly coloured by the demands of access. With genuine access increasingly denied, why would the sporting press not adopt a more adversarial or investigative position?

There is another way in which the power balance in this arena does not necessarily reside with sports organisations in the longer term.

After all, it was newspapers and then radio and then television, more than anything else, that turned sport into mass spectacle.

And it is this idea of mass spectacle that has delivered huge wealth into sporting organisations through sponsorship and media rights and other associated enterprises. What will happen as that is progressively undermined?

As things stand, the huge audiences delivered by carving out a space in the mainstream are unmatched in any other cultural sphere of modern life — this is where the compact between sports organisations and the media has proven such a success.

When it comes down to it, there are significant limits to what any sports organisation in Ireland can do in terms of producing its own content and distributing it.

And the wisdom of turning away from a symbiotic relationship that has allowed sports and media to thrive in concert is not immediately apparent.

This is not to argue that there should not be change or that change is not inevitable. It is, of course, inevitable to the point that it is already underway. But the meaning of embracing new technologies needs to be understood and the belief that they can bring gain without loss is not realistic.

Where does the balance lie in all of this?

Have the GAA or the FAI or the IRFU — to pick the big three — designed a coherent plan for the future? Or are they just making it up as they go along, intoxicated by the possibilities of delivering unmediated content?

It would be interesting to see what such a plan might look like — and to have a forensic look at how realistic it might be. Maybe it would end up looking a little like Brexit — something that’s a glorious idea for a self-serving few, but one that ultimately crashes on the rocks of real-life challenges.

The capacity of the media to deliver information, interpretation, and entertainment in relation to the world of sport is an elemental part of the modern sporting world. 

Stripped of all the talk and speculation and human stories that drive narratives, sport is infinitely less interesting. But the best narratives always have a little grit in them — and grit demands independence.


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