SPORTS MEDIA AND REPORTING
When in 2012 Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited launched a takeover bid for James Packer’s Consolidated Media Holdings, it was just the latest evolution in what has been a symbiotic relationship between Australian sport and the media since at least the mid-19th century.
Sport was at the heart of this deal. The aim was to give News a 50 per cent share in Foxtel, but far more significantly, a 100 per cent ownership in Fox Sports, the prime pay television sports outlet. Late in 2012, the Federal Court approved the $2 billion takeover. News Limited would dominate sports coverage in Australia because more and more events were migrating to the pay domain, despite government efforts to protect free-to-air coverage.
Australia’s knowledge of and attitudes to sport have been derived largely from newspapers and magazines, radio and television, the internet and now social media, so media interests have always seen sport as an essential ingredient in their offerings.
Until the end of World War I, newspapers were the principal public source of sports knowledge. Bell’s Life (1845–70), the Australian Town and Country Journal (1870–1919) and the Referee (1886–1939) all flourished, while specialist journals for cricket and other sports sprang up and later closed. Major daily papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun, the Age and the Argus, the Adelaide Advertiser and the West Australian devoted considerable space to sport.
This dominance was challenged and later supplanted by the electronic media. Originally, overseas sporting news arrived in Australia by ship. The telegraph revolutionised both the media and sport because it quickened the immediacy of interest, which had a commercial spin-off.
Film also became important, and the running of the 1896 Melbourne Cup was one of the first moving images taken in Australia. The nexus between sport and film strengthened through newsreels. By the mid-1920s, radio was already a major force. Sporting events were among the first to be broadcast live in Australia, and by 1939 radio sports commentators were stars. The roles of newspaper reporters were changing. By World War II, they were more interpreters than reporters, with the latter role increasingly going to the radio broadcasters.
By the early 1950s, race-callers, cricket and football commentators, such as Norman Banks, Clif Cary and Ken Howard, were skilled, highly paid celebrities. They took sport to every community in Australia, and even internationally, as the reputation of Australian sport grew. Alan McGilvray typified the impact of commentators during this era. He played cricket for New South Wales in the 1930s but then gravitated to broadcasting and called every Test match in which Australia played from 1946 until 1985.
But in 1956 television took over as the lead purveyor of sports coverage, its importance encapsulated in the prominence given to telecasting the Melbourne Olympic Games. By the 1960s, the telecasting of live sports events and the beginnings of magazine sports shows were well entrenched. With the advent of colour television in 1975, sport became a staple television diet on the ABC and commercial television networks.
Personalities dominated other sports as well in this new phase. In Rugby League, Rex Mossop was the go-to man from 1964 until 1991, and brought a colour to the game unlike any other. A former dual international in Rugby League and Rugby Union, he joined ATN7 when it began Rugby League telecasts, the first in a legion of ex-players who have dominated commentary. Mossop was very different from McGilvray: a tough and direct man who was as famous for his speech mix-ups as for his description of the game. At the end of his time at ATN7, Mossop and his offsider Barry Ross were suspected of having charged fees for allocating teams Match of the Day status.
Until it was professionalised, Rugby Union was very much an elite sport, and Gordon Bray was the lead ABC commentator. That image of the game became complicated as eligibility rules allowed players to cross from League to Union and back again, which did not sit well with Bray and similar callers.
The power of television over Australian sport was best demonstrated in 1977 when Kerry Packer established a rival international cricket series to defy the Australian Cricket Board, which had passed over his bid for television rights, in favour of the ABC. Packer’s World Series Cricket lasted for three years before a 1979 truce saw Packer gain the rights to all Australian cricket for a 10-year period. From then on, the possibility of substantial television rights drove the planning for all sports organisations, while media organisations had to factor sports broadcasting rights into their financial planning.
That rise of a commercialised sport affected all the media giants—for example, News Limited has to cater to the different football tastes in the various states and territories. Regional rivalries in sport have become powerfully felt through strong media representation and development— particularly in the successful State of Origin Rugby League series between Queensland and New South Wales (est. 1982).
Radio and the other media had to adapt. In radio, a number of stations, like 2KY (1925– ), devoted themselves entirely to horse racing, tied to the gambling industry, which in turn has developed closer media links with sports events. The Sports Entertainment Network—SEN116 (2004– ) in Melbourne and SEN1323 (2004–05) in Adelaide—moved to an all-sport format in an attempt to gain market share. The rise of allsports television channels led to the creation in 1995 of what became Fox Sports in Australia.
Specialist sports magazines began to emerge as radio and television coverage came to dominate the market. Early titles like the Sydney Sportsman (1900– ), Football Record (1912–88) and Sporting Globe (1922–88) were joined by magazines such as Australian Cricket (1968–98), Rugby League Week (1970– ), Tracks (surfing, 1970– ) and Inside Sport (1991– ).
From the mid-1990s, the internet began to have an impact. By the turn of the 21st century, the sports presence on the web was significant. This allowed sports consumers to break the hold held by media organisations over reporting and interpretation. By 2011, for example, The Roar (http://www.theroar.com.au) had daily coverage of a bewildering range of sports provided by largely independent reporters. The print and television industries also began to migrate their sports coverage online and on to smartphones. It was no accident that ‘3’ became the principal sponsor of Australian cricket. Sport was seen as central to the commercial success of this media form.
Most recently, social media have become significant. A Facebook and/or Twitter presence is now mandatory for all sports and media outlets. This has also opened up commentary and criticism opportunities to subscribers, creating a more independent view of sport.
Throughout this media evolution, several trends are discernible. The first is that the coverage of sport has become increasingly superficial, with far less explanation. This is partly due to a lack of space, but it also stems from the dilution of professionalism in sports coverage, in a field now dominated by former sports stars.
The second trend concerns the commercial aspect of sport. Newspapers initially advertised to attract spectators to sporting events; the grounds themselves were largely unadorned with advertisements. Then commercial radio linked listeners to advertising during the course of the action. Sport, for example, encouraged consumers to buy the radio sets in the first place. The impact of this was felt very early. In 1931, for example, R.C. Packer struck a radio deal with cricket superstar (Sir) Donald Bradman. The Australian cricket authorities refused permission for Bradman to work for Packer. Bradman threatened not to play against England, backed by Packer. The authorities relented, demonstrating the commercial power of the media.
When television arrived, that process accelerated. In the early radio days, sports organisations commonly paid for the privilege of having their events put to air, but the 1970s that process had been reversed, and by the 1980s sports in high media demand were earning millions of dollars every year. By the late 20th century, sports venues and participants had become saturated billboards.
The web and social media have yet to really commercialise their activities, except where deals have been done with rights holders in terms of cross-media. That is one reason why the 2012 Rupert Murdoch–James Packer deal carried so much significance, because News Limited would become a sole provider via Fox Sports and all the associated spin-offs into telephony and social media.
The third trend was for the playing conditions and practices of sport to be calibrated by the media. In the television age, game times and playing circumstances are altered to suit television and associated advertising schedules. One recent example concerned the 2012 Olympics, where the Australian men’s hockey side discovered they were scheduled to play a string of very early morning matches in London to suit television audiences around the world. Some sports, like tennis and golf, now have ‘for television’ exhibitions, built around personalities who just happen to be active in sport. This trend is manifested clearly in 20/20 cricket. This three-hour version of cricket was designed purely for television audiences. Its success saw it replicated around the world, and it has changed the entire face of cricket following, scheduling and strategic planning.
The fourth trend is the creation and remuneration of sports stars. Radio turned prominent players into personalities, and television transformed them into celebrities. That transformation has been capped by social media, where stars have their own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites. With regard to the fifth trend, television has internationalised Australian sports tastes and possibly undercut national identities. Television brought baseball, basketball and gridiron into the centre of Australian life.
Finally, it is important to recognise the role of the media in the preservation of sport’s social status quo. Newspapers largely reported only those sports in which the readership was already interested. That began to change with the rise of the internet, and has arguably accelerated with the emergence of the social media. Two case studies exemplify this.
While women athletes were some of the most successful for Australia from the 1950s onwards, few achieved mass coverage. Successful women’s teams in hockey and netball were ignored while less successful men’s teams in all sports were lionised. There is a direct link here to the impact of television rights that has made quite ordinary male sports figures extremely well paid. There are still only a handful of women sports writers and broadcasters. However, the internet and social media are beginning to change this trend—although women’s sport remains hugely disadvantaged in the media.
The other case is soccer (known outside Australia as football). The game became highly significant in Australia as part of the immigrant diversification process in the 1950s and 1960s, so became trapped within its ‘ethnic’ shell, partly by its long association with SBS. Despite the rise of a host of Australian international stars and football’s huge international presence, in Australia it has a low media profile. Yet the web and social media have begun to change this.
Ironically, as the economic, political, ethical and social complexity of sport increases, sections of the Australian media have begun to develop a more analytical outlook. Major media outlets have investigated the great sports issues like drugs, betting scandals, business arrangements, financial transactions, sexual harassment and so on. Sports matters are now as likely to be found in the political and business areas of the media as in the traditional sports ones. However, this is also the one area where the web and social media have begun to make a serious difference. The major sports still have an indirect power over a small number of journalists: publish an unsatisfactory story and future access may not be guaranteed. However, the independent analysts of the web and the Twittersphere are not so inhibited, and on any given day any number of stories will appear there that struggle to get a place in the broader mainstream media.
That might prove to be the biggest change for a long time, but if the Australian pattern continues in this sports–media relationship, it will not be the last.
REFs: B. Hutchins and D. Rowe, Sport Beyond Television (2012); M. Nicholson, Sport and the Media (2007); D. Rowe (ed.), Critical Readings (2003); B. Stoddart, ‘Sport on the Information Superhighway’, Jnl of Sport and Social Issues, 21(1) (1997).