Media Sport Culture - An Education in the Politics of Acquisition


By David Rowe
Knowledge bank: Sport and exercise professionals generally have a deep, even romantic attachment to sport. While the field of sport, exercise and physical education has much to commend it, it is important that professionals in this division of the ‘body industry’ have a complete and unsentimental grasp of it.

In this paper, David Rowe traces the outlines of the sport industry and highlight some of the key factors that underlie it, in particular the forces that fashion the global sports labour market and the workings of the sport media. 

Sport and exercise professionals generally have a deep, even romantic attachment to sport, and a commitment to the celebration of the body as an object of approved performance.  Sport, exercise and physical education have been justified on many grounds, including the promotion of lifelong health and longevity; the distraction and diversion of youth, especially boys, from ‘unhealthy’ and ‘immoral’ pursuits; developing self esteem among citizens, including positive attitudes to body image and athletic capability among girls and women; enhancing the combat readiness of the population; encouraging international exchange and understanding; reinforcing and raising levels of sociability, and instilling national pride (Cashmore, 2005; Guttmann, 2004; Horne et. al., 1999). 

In all these and other instances, professionals are expected to produce performative benefits through systematic intervention, while at the same time contributing to the development of a sports industry that has continuously modernised, as amateurism gave way to professionalism, and voluntary organizations became components of the burgeoning services sector.  Sport and exercise professionals have been progressively integrated with, and implicated in the operations of, the sport industry itself, as the commercial corporate sector has exerted greater power over governments and peak sport organizations.

While the field of sport, exercise and physical education has much to commend it, for every positive dimension there is a negative possibility.  For example, much physical activity is far from healthy, causing injury to the body, and, especially in elite sport, creating pressures to play with injuries and to take pain-killing and performance-enhancing drugs with serious health consequences. 

Sport, especially among boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, may displace study as an avenue for social mobility, despite the poor statistical chances of ‘making it’.  Failure at sport may be psychologically damaging, and its competitive culture can encourage cruel and unkind comments about opponents that are deeply wounding.  Sport may display and encourage some of the worst displays and practices of sexism and ethnocentrism, while aggressive patriotism and national, racial and ethnic stereotyping are often evident in international competitions (Bairner, 2001; Baker and Boyd, 1997; Birrell and McDonald, 2000; Carrington and McDonald, 2001). 

It is important, therefore, that professionals in this division of the ‘body industry’ have a complete and unvarnished grasp of it.  In this paper, I want to trace the outlines of the sport industry and to highlight some of the key facets that shape this important socio-cultural phenomenon.  In particular, I will contextualise the structure and practice of contemporary sport, seeking to propose areas of effective intervention for sport and exercise professionals that benefit the institution of sport and its primary constituencies, rather than interests seeking to use sport for their own purposes.

The Media Sports Cultural Complex  
In various earlier publications I have used the concept of the media sports cultural complex to highlight the contemporary sport formation (Rowe, 2004a). 

In short, I argue that over the last century there has effectively been a merger of two formerly separate institutions – media and sport.  This convergence has occurred because each has been able, synergistically, to supply the other with important benefits.  For sport to become professional in character and national, international and then global in reach, it could no longer rely on physical spectator presence in stadia that was its economic staple until the mid 20th century. 

For the media, especially in electronic form, technological capability for disseminating content had by the same period (the mid 20th century) far exceeded the imagined provision of screen material (Williams, 1974).  Sport helped to fill this emergent televisual space by providing the broadcast media with passionate followers (and so enthusiastic advertisers and sponsors), ‘live’ action, constant and cyclical news, replays, studio discussion material, and so on.  Sport, at first reluctantly and then enthusiastically, traded media access to events and audiences for broadcast rights revenue, in the process creating the foundation of a celebrity sport star system, and advancing the development of commodity logic within sport (see various contributions to Wenner, 1998).

In many countries (especially in Europe), broadcast sport was developed by national media organizations that saw in the institution of sport a useful means of developing a sense of shared national culture. 

It later emerged – as had already been discovered in countries like the United States with mainly privatised broadcast systems – that the televisual sport spectator market could create an exchange value far beyond that of the place-based sport economy (Bernstein and Blain, 2003; see various contributions to Rowe, 2004b). 

The separation between amateur and professional sport also advanced the detachment of sportspeople (mainly male) from the neighbourhoods and non-sport occupations in which they were previously embedded, making possible the highly professionalised, lavishly remunerated elite sport typified at its most global level by association football (Whannel, 2001). 

These developments, though, could never be confined to the simple idea of more people watching the same modes of sport from a distance performed by better paid athletes.  Sport became pervasive across the entire spectrum of contemporary culture, from the Internet to the cinema, the back page of the newspaper to the gossip columns, prime time television to radio magazine programs, and all the other media spaces where it could be shaped and shape itself to diverse audiences (Boyle and Haynes, 2000; Rowe, 2004a). 

As sport moved from neighbourhoods and stadia to highly dispersed, technologically mediated sites of reception, it articulated with many other domains of culture and commerce.  Sport came to be used to attract audiences to the screen, audio, print and now online and mobile telephonic sites where advertised goods and services and corporate brands could be exposed, and, indeed, sold as a consumer item in its own right. 

The social institution of sport can be seen, therefore, to have been both transformed by major cultural, economic and technological changes accelerating across the societal spectrum in late- and post-modernity, but also to have been a key vehicle for the furtherance and, indeed, the contestation of those same changes. 

I and colleagues have previously described elsewhere the five simultaneous, uneven, interconnected processes which characterize the present moment in sport: Globalization, Governmentalization, Americanization, Televisualization, and Commodification (GGATaC).  They are in turn governed by a New International Division of Cultural Labour (NICL). (Miller et. al., 2001: 4).

By this we mean that sport is both a pivotal change agent and testing ground for these major transformative processes that do not constitute a coherent set of developments, but, instead, can be regarded as influencing, by turns systematically and chaotically, the fabric of contemporary socio-cultural existence. 

In summary, the NICL has opened up new flows of professional sporting labour around the world, especially when sourced inexpensively from less to the benefit of more affluent nations.  Globalization (Maguire, 1999) is encouraging greater portability of people, ideas, capital, technologies and media messages around the world, but at the same time is provoking substantial anti-globalization sentiment, just as dedicated, Americanized cultural exports may be embraced, resented or fail to ‘take’ in foreign soils (as with the failure of American football to establish itself in other countries despite expensive marketing campaigns). 

The traditional sport doctrine of fair play and respect for opponents that encourages a self-controlled citizenry may be contradicted by xenophobic populist campaigns trading on unpleasant national stereotypes (on both sides).  Free-to-air television coverage of major sports events may give way on commercial grounds to subscription television, leading to protests at the restriction of its reach and calls for government regulation.  Traditional sport clubs may become, or take on the appearance of, franchises, provoking objections from fans that “our team is not for sale”.  

In other words, the world of sport is perpetually one of contestation and uncertainty, its balance of forces disturbed by its combination of appeal to collective popular sentiment and political economic calculation.  The media are deeply implicated in all these processes and disputes because they have the capacity to uncouple (at least partially) sport from place and so to create global sport spectacles, while also offering the multifarious ways of ‘reading’ them from different vantage points (see, for example, the special issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 2004 addressing the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup; Roche, 2000; Tomlinson and Young, 2006).

The recent World Cup of Association Football in Germany, for example, garnered huge television audiences, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporting that: 

  • Global television audiences for the start of the World Cup were up 26% compared with the 2002 tournament, according to a report.
  • The most popular game of the first five days was Brazil's victory over Croatia, seen by an average 60 million people.
  • The research was carried out by media analysts Initiative in 23 countries.
  • They say more people are watching this time because matches are shown at more convenient times than the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. (BBC, 2006: n.p.)

There is a considerable interest in the size of TV sports audiences for global mega-media sports events because they confer legitimacy on events themselves, offering a seemingly unequivocal measure of global interest at cultural level. 

These statistics can be used to attract capital in its orthodox form, but can also be converted into geo-political currency.  For example, the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics were used explicitly to signal the unrecognised, elevated position of that country as an economic power and political force (Larson and Park, 1993), the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the forthcoming 2010 World Cup of Association Football presented as clear markers of national progress of the post-apartheid Republic of South Africa, and the forthcoming 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics realising and symbolising China’s integration with world polity, sport and business.   

These national symbols of social and political progress are connected to the economic sphere through the notion that the country is ‘open for business’ and able to manage with efficiency and panache a major sport spectacle (Toohey, and Veal, 2000) which is an ironic twist of the 1960s civil rights chant, ‘the whole world is watching’.  Some of the world may be watching directly through sport tourism (Hinch and Higham, 2004; Weed and Bull, 2004) and, in greater numbers by reading the observational reporting of print journalists, but above all it is watching through television.  

The commercial value of this TV sport audience is of such consequence that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) commissions research and publicly comments on it in statements,  like the one below, that contest claims of time zone viewer sensitivity or falling viewer numbers:

Television coverage at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ reached 213 countries, virtually every country in the world, with over 41,100 hours of dedicated programming.  This represents a 38% increase in coverage over the 1998 event and set a new record for a single sporting event.  Contrary to some expectations, live audiences were not affected by the time zone differences for viewers in Europe and Central and South America.  In fact, the cumulative live audience showed an overall increase on the 1998 figures.

Although the overall global audience was down on France 98, this decline was entirely due to the introduction of audited audience measurement in China for the first time, which allows for more accurate reporting … FIFA has taken the lead in deciding that a more accurate solution needed to be introduced and that this was the right time to do it.  As part of this drive towards a more rigorous approach, the viewing figures for 2002 included more audited viewing data than for any previous FIFA World Cup™.

The cumulative audience over the 25 match days of the 2002 event reached a total of 28.8 billion viewers. The corresponding audience for France 98, with unaudited viewing figures for China, reported 33.4 billion.  However, if China was excluded from the statistics for both events, the totals show an increase of 431.7 million viewers (+ 2%) for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.

These impressive figures make the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ the most extensively covered and viewed event in television history. (FIFA, 2006: n.p.)

The size of the television audience for global sports events has, as FIFA recognises above, been so routinely exaggerated through careless extrapolation and hyperbole that it has been subject to greater calculative rigour to restore its credibility.  This is occurring at a time when the proliferation of media technologies, platforms and viewing sites is making it harder to establish. 

Nonetheless, claims of a truly ‘global’ audience are still illegitimate given the continuing access to television difficulties for many peoples in Africa, Asia and South America.  The problems of even basic TV reception for still sizeable numbers of people is well depicted in a recent Spanish film comedy,The Great Match (La Gran Final)(2005), which tells the story of three groups of people living in Mongolia, Niger and the Amazon trying to watch the television broadcast of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup final between Brazil and Germany held in Yokohama, Japan. Theirs is a major battle with aged technology, poor reception and inadequate power to watch a game that, for most in the affluent West, could be watched in the comfort of the living room.  That they manage to do so in large, spontaneously formed groups reveals both the very different contexts in which television is viewed, and the difficulties of audience measurement that preoccupy peak sports organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

This emphasis on television audiences and market shares is, of course, closely connected to the economic foundation of the whole event, with its heavy dependency on broadcast rights revenue, advertising and the ‘exclusive’ partnership/sponsorship of global corporate brands like Coca Cola, Gillette, McDonald’s, Hyundai, Yahoo!, Mastercard, Toshiba and adidas.

The last company mentioned, like its competitor Nike, demonstrates how an ancillary market in sportswear and equipment (again, heavily branded) has been created that, ultimately, has turned highly utilitarian clothing and footwear into everyday and even high fashion.  This market, in turn, encouraged a fully-formed sport star system, complete with gossip columns and paparazzi photography, to enable the brands to be displayed beyond the field of play, and paid endorsements. 

Again, it is impossible to conceive of these key features of contemporary sport without the sustained involvement of the media, of which sport professionals now require an ‘insider’s’ knowledge.  A key element of this command of media sport is the perhaps unpalatable appreciation that many sports are so dependent on the media that the latter are shaping it, and that the media have the power to make or break particular sports.  It is important, then, to assess the media-sport power balance, and this might be done by examining critically the extent to which the media concentrate on some sports and neglect others, and also lavish attention on some sportspeople and show little interest in others.

Media Sport Hierachies  
Both professional and amateur philosophers enjoy engaging with the classic epistemological question, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?’  This is a matter that concerns not just whether an event has occurred, but whether it has been observed and so registered and recorded. 

In relation to the media and sport, the equivalent might be, ‘If a professional sport event is not covered by the professional media, did it happen?’ 

Of course, for those present it was a real event, and various forms of amateur and semi-professional media, especially those that are internet based, can provide evidence and even a moving (in both senses of the word) record of what occurred.  But the extent to which only partially professionalised, ‘viral’ or independent media can sustain a sport beyond ‘cottage’ level is highly dubious.  This is an especially important question that has a key influence on parallel issues of cause and effect regarding which sports might flourish and which are unlikely to succeed.  This is not a simple matter of particular sports being made successful by media, especially by television coverage. 

While media may stimulate interest in sports (such as basketball during the 1990s) and construct competitions with a physical dimension (such as The Amazing Race), the kind of long-term, dedicated participant and spectator foundation required for sports to be both large-scale and sustainable cannot be readily conjured up by the media. 

Similarly, ‘folk’ sport and other cultural practices may persist with negligible or intermittent media coverage.  However, the media are crucial to the professional and commercial flourishing of sport because they simultaneously cater to, and fuel, popular interest in it, while also providing much of the capital infrastructure, through television broadcast rights, that enables it to survive and develop as an industrial enterprise.

Thus, the media, especially television, produce their own hierarchy of sports that is self-sustaining and has profound implications for the relative position of those sports.  A large international survey of the sports press conducted in 2005 (encompassing 10,007 articles in the sports pages of 37 newspapers in 10 countries)discovered that the print media cover, with some national variation, a very narrow range of mainly male sports (Schultz-Jorgensen, 2005). 

There is, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap between print and broadcast media as to which sports are heavily privileged (Rowe, 2004a), irrespective of whether newspapers or television stations have common owners (although, of course, there are clear connections between sporting priorities within a single media company).  If an Australian component (in which I was involved) of the international survey of the sports press is appraised, it can be seen that there is a high concentration on a small range of sports in the press, and that this pattern confers an enormous advantage on those sports in determining the profile, and so commercial position, of these sports.

The survey consisted of a content analysis of the sports pages of selected newspapers over 14 consecutive weeks from April 11th until July 24th 2005, alternating the day sampled every week (for this reason, predictable factors like seasonality, as well as extraordinary events such as corruption or athlete sexual assault scandals, should be regarded as actually or potentially affecting the findings)1.  

In Australiathe sports pages of the Sydney Morning Herald (a major metropolitan broadsheet newspaper owned by the Fairfax company); the Australian and the Herald Sun (respectively a national broadsheet and a Melbourne-based metropolitan tabloid newspaper, both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation); and the West Australian (a tabloid regional newspaper based in Perth that is independently owned) were subjected to content analysis in the sample period. 

The total number of articles for the four newspapers in the sample period was 1,131 sports articles, of which 330 were in the Sydney Morning Herald.  The main sports represented in the Sydney Morning Herald sample are presented in Table I below:

Table I: Most Frequently Represented Sports in the Sydney Morning Herald by Article in the Sample Period 

Sport Percentage of articles Number of articles
Rugby League 23.6    78
Rugby Union 14.8        49
Australian Football 9.6            32
Association Football 9.3 31
Equestrian (including Racing) 9.1 30
Cricket 8.5 28
Tennis 5.5 18
Golf 4.2 14
Other Motor Sports 3.3 11

It can be seen from the data presented above that almost 90 per cent of sports articles in the Sydney Morning Heraldin the sample periodwas devoted to just nine sports, with a single sport (rugby league) approaching a quarter of all sports stories.  Correspondingly, several sports presented in the Table 2 had less than two per cent of all articles in the sports pages:

 Table II: Sports in the Sydney Morning Herald by Article in the Sample Period with Less than 2 per cent of All Articles  

Sport                                                                                                      Number of Articles

Boxing                                                                                                   6

Basketball                                                                                             5

Cycling                                                                                                  5                   

Formula 1                                                                                             4

Swimming                                                                                             3

Netball                                                                                                  3

American Football                                                                                 2

Squash                                                                                                 2

Track and Field                                                                                     2

Baseball                                                                                               1


Indeed, the sports of field hockey and gymnastics were not covered at all in the Sydney Morning Herald sample. 

When the same calculation was made for all four Australian newspapers in total, there was, as can be seen in Table III below, considerable similarity in the patterns of coverage.  Variations can be explained by such factors as regional sport preferences (rugby league, for example, is much more popular in Sydney, New South Wales than in Melbourne, Victoria), while the reverse is the case with Australian Rules Football. 

There are also socio-demographic variations in sports following (the Sydney Morning Herald covers extensively the socially elite sport of rugby union because it fits well with its targeted ‘up-market’ readership, whereas the targeted readership of the Herald Sun is further down the scale of social class, with corresponding variations in the pattern of cultural (including sport) taste preferences (Bennett et. al., 1999).

Table III: Sports with Articles over 2 Per Cent of the Total in All Four Newspapers by Article in the Sample Period 

Sport Percentage of articles Number of articles
Australian Rules Football 30.8 348
Rugby League 14.8 167
Association Football 8.0 90
Equestrian (including Racing) 7.3 82
Rugby Union 7.0 79
Cricket 6.5 74
Tennis 5.6 63
Golf 4.2 48
Other Motor Sports 3.6 38
Basketball 2.1 24
Boxing 2.1 24

Some sports are not only under-represented in the sports press but, at least in sampling terms, invisible (see Table IV) below. 

Of course, the international sports press survey provided a framework that embraced sports that have great or little apparent appeal in various countries, and so reveals national taste preferences in sport through the sport media.  Nordic and Alpine skiing, team handball and volleyball are much more popular in Europe than in other continents while, similarly, martial arts, table tennis and badminton are more prominent in Asia. 

These data reveal that globalization in sport is by no means ‘complete’, given the wide variations in sport media coverage, participation and spectatorship, but they also suggest, as is supported by the full international survey, the ways in which different national media sport markets work in a highly concentrated way that generally favours male-dominated sports, and with a high level of collusion between sport journalists and the commercial sport industry (Schultz-Jorgensen, 2005).

Table IV: Sports Not Covered in the Sports Pages of All Four Newspapersin Australia in the Sample Period

Alpine Skiing                                                                                         
Beach Volleyball                                                                                    Bodybuilding and Fitness Sports                                      
Canoe and Kayak                                                                                 
Dancing (all kinds)                                                                                
Martial Arts
Nordic Skiing
Sailing (all kinds)
Table Tennis
Team Handball

The extent to which these patterns of media sport coverage are self-evidently the product of sporting popularity, and the degree do they establish a circular feedback loop, whereby intensive media coverage stimulates and reproduces sporting popularity, should be keenly debated, especially when one key measure of a specific sport’s standing is media coverage itself. 

Indeed, within as well as between countries, sports with substantial levels of participation and spectatorship are often not well represented in the media.  Here other questions, such as gender, come into play (Creedon, 1994; Rowe, 2005;Scraton and Flintoff, 2002) which are not the main subject of this paper, but must be prominent in any analysis of sports power structures, including in the discussion of sport celebrity below. 

In the context of this discussion, the next matter to be addressed is the manner in which sports and sportspeople reach beyond the sport media and into the wider world of the entertainment media, where sporting celebrity is created across the wider culture, and thereby helps further to entrench particular sporting interests at the expense of others, and so reveals again the power of the media over and within sport. 

Since the late 21st century the media have successfully turned sport stars who were once mainly ‘local heroes’ into global figures like basketballer Michael Jordan, whose visual image and name were once surveyed to be the most recognisable in the world (Andrews, 2001).

Sport and Celebrity  
Sport tends to conceive of itself as the ultimate meritocracy, with the clear measures of success and failure in open competition providing the kind of transparency that is rarely apparent in other types of business or, indeed, in politics (despite their analogous measures of financial or electoral fortune).  In the sport world, then, talent, diligence and motivation should operate in combination to enable sportspeople to be sorted into reliable hierarchies, with team sports introducing additional complexities of group and interpersonal cohesion. 

Setting aside the aberrant phenomena of corruption (such as bribery) and cheating (such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs), the deep involvement of the media, advertising and commercial sponsorship in sport creates the circumstances whereby the success of individual sportspeople and teams is substantially the product of non-sporting factors.  Thus, it might be asked, ‘are sport celebrities the best in the business, or the best for business?’ 

As noted above, the media contribute to and even construct a sports order.  Within sports, calculations are also made concerning the ‘saleability’ of sportspeople in relation to qualities that may not reflect actual sporting performance.   

It can, of course, be argued that professional sport is not just about performance on the field of play. This is undoubtedly correct – sport is of no intrinsic worth, and, if its major justification is its contribution to the nation’s health, it is a rather inefficient and eccentric form of exercise.  As physical culture sport can be aesthetically pleasing, but often quite ugly, and the sports narrative can be compelling, but only erratically so. 

The principal motor behind professional sport is passionate, largely irrational fandom (Horne et. al., 1999) but media sport culture has flourished by moving well beyond this base to connect with more diverse constituencies for whom sport may be of little more than passing interest, or which may attract attention for reasons that have little to do with sport.   

From a commercial point of view this is a logical development – sport stars are merely one form of ‘talent’ that can be promoted and sold in the same way as television actors and pop singers.  But, just as acting and musical talent are often subjugated by other forms of appeal, sporting performance can recede in importance, displaced by marketing strategies and image manufacture.

Thus, sport and exercise professionals need to consider their role in the production and reproduction of celebrity in sport, and the extent to which they may be, intentionally or otherwise, implicated in such processes.   The media sport marketplace does not only favour a concentration on certain sports, but also on particular sports organizations and people (Andrews and Jackson, 2001; Whannel, 2001).  Thus, a celebrity system has been created that has created a series of ‘brands’.  These may be peak sport bodies (such as FIFA, IOC), clubs and teams (Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chicago Bulls) and, with variable relationships to the above organizations, individual stars (Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Yao Ming). 

The appeal of a star is preferably that they are unquestionably the best performers in their given sports, but this is not the main criterion and is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for achieving sport celebrity.  There are many other variables, including the intensity of the marketing and promotion campaigns behind them; their capacity to operate effectively at both national and global levels; their ability to sell other products and services, including their own image; and something less tangible and predictable – the capacity to capture the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times).

Sport celebrity, then, is produced at the intersection of athleticism, industry, image manufacture and cultural momentum.  The complex construction of the sporting elite makes it difficult to disentangle cause and effect in sport ‘ranking’, and so problematises the principles on which esteem, status and reward in contemporary sport are based.  As Ellis Cashmore (2002: 164) notes in his book devoted to the ‘phenomenon’ of the prominent footballer David Beckham: 

Whether or not Beckham is a charismatic genius touched by greatness isn’t my real concern; this book isn’t about whether he deserves such a transcendent label.  Or whether his talent is exaggerated.  He creates electrifying football on the field; but he too has been created.  Created by a fandom, wide and variegated, and infinitely generous in its acclaim.  Assisted by a calculating, efficient publicity apparatus, Beckham has been afforded a status beyond the grasp of the merely talented.  The kinds of qualities, perhaps gifts, he’s thought to possess have propelled him into spheres unknown to previous generations of footballers, and even contemporary players of comparable if not greater technical ability.

Isolating this sportsman’s qualities from the “calculating, efficient publicity apparatus” that feeds into a voracious media machine is a near impossible task.  Beckham’s current and previous clubs, Manchester United and Real Madrid, both have their own television channels, with the latter now broadcasting inter-continentally via satellite on a digital platform. 

A key aspect of this branding exercise involves the sale of television subscriptions and merchandising in relatively unexploited Asian markets.  This strategy has not only involved broadcasting European sports events in Asia, but, via the aforementioned NICL, it has entailed attracting Asian sportsmen to ‘mature’ media sport markets overseas in order to infuse them with new consumers from populous, economically developing countries.  Thus, apart from their obvious sporting talent, Korean footballers like Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young Pyo playing English Premier League football, or basketballer Yao Ming in the USA’s National Basketball Association (NBA), bring substantial economic benefit through new spectatorship. 

Indeed, it has been suggested that in some cases player recruitment has been made on the basis of the lucrative enlistment of fans from their country of origin.  Thus, Wilson (2005: n.p.) has noted in relation to association football, “in Scotland, Celtic have admitted they partly bought Japanese player Shunsuke Nakamura for the ‘opportunities he will bring in terms of commercial spin-offs, especially in Japan and the Far East’”, quoting Cannon’s remark that “clubs have their eyes on four potential prizes: new sponsorship deals, match fees, merchandising opportunities, and overseas TV rights”. 

Off-season tours by European football clubs to Asia and America, coupled with sponsorship deals like Chelsea’s with Samsung, Everton’s (Chang Beer), Manchester United’s (Vodafone) and Arsenal’s (Emirates), are pivotal components of the sport celebrity system. 

Securing such resources has the structural effect of separating sports, clubs, teams and athletes into a small, transnationally oriented elite and a much larger group of locally focused and much less affluent organizations and individuals.  Sport and exercise professionals are, similarly, distributed across this growing divide. 

The powerful commercial forces that construct sport celebrity have a distorting effect not only on who prospers in sport, but what constitutes ‘success’ in sport.  For example, it was noted above that sport remains male-dominated, especially in team games.  But it is possible for women to be prominent and very well remunerated, especially in the more affluent professional individual sports such as tennis and golf.  One traditional way of achieving attention and reward for sportswomen that highlights the fusion of sport and entertainment is the projection of a sexualised image that has little in common with sporting performance (Hargreaves, 1994; Messner, 2002). 

Probably the best-known example of sport celebrity created through sexuality rather than high performance is that of the now-retired Anna Kournikova, who garnered media coverage (Harris and Clayton, 2002) out of all proportion to her status as a tennis player who has never one a major singles tournament.   

Yet, through sponsorships and endorsements of companies like adidas, Yonex, and Omega, and Berlei, and appearing in men’s magazines such as Maxim and Loaded, Kournikova has been more visible and better remunerated than many women players who have been more successful on court (by 2002, at the age of 21, she had earned over US$40m).  Indeed, in the 2001 season, Kournikova earned only US$334,000 actually playing tennis, just over 3 per cent of a total income of US$10.6 million (Hooper, 2002).  Kournikova’s relative failure as a player (in terms of her financial rewards) did cause her sponsors concern, revealing that sport celebrities are ultimately expected to excel at their chosen sports discipline, but her case also indicated that celebrity can be achieved (if not sustained) in sport without peak performance (Smart, 2005).  

In sport, as with other zones of celebrity, fame, conspicuousness and reward may be dynamic, unstable and unpredictable.  For example, Korean American golfer Michelle Wie has attracted considerable sporting and commercial interest after turning professional in 2005 just before her sixteenth birthday, and the trajectory of her career is as yet unclear.  But with large sponsorship contracts with Nike and Sony, she instantly became the world’s highest earning female golfer and third highest earning sportswoman in the world after tennis players Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams (BBC, 2005).  Those with an intimate or passing involvement in sport might legitimately ponder such exposures of the workings of the media sports cultural complex.  

The intention of this paper is not to induce cynicism among sport and exercise professionals.  To do so would be futile and self-defeating, because sport is an important element of contemporary culture that does offer many benefits for participants and spectators (some of whom are the same people, or who switch roles at various stages of the life cycle).  As David Andrews (2006: 270) argues:

Sport’s tacit visceral physicality, dramatic uncertainty, and subjective interpellation make it a compelling and seductive aspect of popular existence for both spectators and participants alike.

Sport is, then, physical culture, popular pleasure and service industry, and it can hardly be insulated from the material world in the manner proposed by its own mythologies.  Thus, those with professional and affective investments in sport – in many cases these are one and the same - must come to terms with the major processes described above that shape contemporary society and the world of sport within it that, in turn, exerts its influence on that society at global and national levels.  Instead of ascribing to these processes the power of ‘unstoppability’, it is possible to intervene in the formal and informal politics of sport, rather than submit to a sense of resignation at the inevitability of it all.

A vital prerequisite of understanding sport in order to improve it is the recognition of the power of the media in sport, and of media sports culture within the social formation. 

It makes little sense to advocate the ‘de-mediatization’ of sport – as noted above, without the media, sport would not be the socio-cultural force that it has become, and would remain largely a part of pre-industrial folk culture or the principal domain of the local physical artisans and craft workers of early modernity.  For sport to return to earlier modalities would not only be anachronistic, it would also imply that a ‘golden age’ of sport once existed that has been extinguished by malign influences. 

But the ‘purity’ of traditional sport is an illusion, with critical histories of sport offering strong evidence of commercialism, corruption and discrimination in earlier epochs (see, for example, Guttmann, 2004).  The ‘politics of acquisition’ described in the title of this paper is one that revolves around the capacity to place sport’s popularity in the service of many, diverse interests and agenda, especially by utilising the media’s capacity to capture and relay messages ranging from which branded commodities to consume, to how one’s own and other nations should be viewed (Wenner, 1998). 

Effective interventions in this politics of sport should be based, in the first instance, on asking the awkward questions that are often left unasked in the face of the hyperbole surrounding contemporary sport: 

  • Why do some sports and sportspeople receive such apparently disproportionate rewards and attention at the expense of others? 
  • What is the role of the commercial media in creating and maintaining such sports hierarchies, and how can conflicts of interest between sports organizations, sponsors and media be controlled? 
  • How can structural social inequalities of class, race, ethnicity and gender be resisted rather than reproduced in sport? 
  • In what ways can sport be democratised, enabling more people involved in it at all levels to shape its development, rather than leaving key decision-making in the hands of small clusters of sports administrators and corporate executives. 

These are by no means new questions, but they are often submerged by currently dominant notions of maximising capital return, securing media profile, undermining the positions of competitors, and concealing or excusing the many negative phenomena in sport that continue to bedevil it. 

These circumstances place a special responsibility on the sport and exercise professionals who can be expected to exercise guardianship of sport.  In any occupation, it is often easier to accept the status quo, and to be reluctant to challenge entrenched institutional ideology and common wisdom. 

Sport, with its powerful Olympian ideals and myths of transcendence, is particularly resistant to critical inquiry, because to confront its failings is often seen to betray a noble institution.  By contrast, it can be strongly asserted that contemporary sport is in urgent need not of more public relations, but of greater public and professional scrutiny.  Those who inhabit and operate its organizations, from the lowest to the highest strata, and from the training ground to the television studio, can surely lead rather than obstruct this project of sporting renewal from the heart of the media sports cultural complex itself. 

This paper is a development of the one delivered at the 2005 Play the Game Conference and was presented to the Korean Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (KAHPERD) International Sport Science Congress (ISSC 2006), August 21-23, 2006 Yongin University, GyeongGi-Do, Korea


1. The financial and in-kind support of The University of Newcastle (Australia), Play the Game and the Walkley Foundation, and the research assistance of Nathaniel Bavinton, are gratefully acknowledged. 


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