The Media’s Influence on Sport

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The Tour de France was created in 1903 as a way for local French newspaper L’Auto (ancestor of the current daily L’Equipe) to sell more newspapers after stagnating sales from competition with Le Vélo. Long-distance bike races had always been a popular means to sell more newspapers, but the suggested distance of the TdF was unheard of.

After the first edition of the TdF, the circulation of L’Auto increased more than sixfold and the race was profitable enough to return in 1904, by which time Le Vélo had been forced out of business. The race made a success out of the platform, and the platform made a success out of the race.

The first Tour de France started outside the Café Reveil-Matin in the village of Montgeron. L’Auto reported:

“The men waved their hats, the ladies their umbrellas. One felt they would have liked to touch the steel muscles of the most courageous champions since antiquity. Who will carry off the first prize, entering the pantheon where only supermen may go?”

From a commercial perspective, bike racing (and all sporting events) can be reduced down to one simple product: content. Sports bring out real life suffering, courage, passion, alliances, victory, cheating, disappointment, and drama. Raw emotion and primal human behavior. You could not write a better script for telling a story. Event organisers such as the ASO are basically content producers.

Media have recognized the power of sport for a long time now. It is regarded as one of the cornerstones of content that is consumed better than anything else. News, drama, opinion…it’s difficult to capture such a large market, but sport has always delivered.

Media and sport have always had symbiotic relationship. Without one the other does not exist. In cycling, the ASO (organiser of the TdF, Paris-Roubaix, etc) is the parent company of L’Équipe. RCS (Giro d’Italia, etc) owns the Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. What better way to fill the pages of a newspaper than to create the content yourself?

The Media’s Influence on Sport

Media has had an impact on sport for a long time. We see many examples where media demands can fundamentally change the sport itself.

For example, the 2008 Beijing Olympics.Thanks to NBC’s financial muscle, NBC persuaded the IOC to change the times on the final swimming heats to 8am (Beijing time) so that the American public could watch Michael Phelps win his gold medals in prime time. Many people will argue that NBC practically owns the IOC.

Another case of the media’s influence on sports is when NBC struck a deal with the NFL whereby they wanted to show the best games on Sunday nights. They convinced the NFL to have a flexible schedule whereby they completely rejig the match-ups in part of the season so that the best games are broadcast on Sunday night to accommodate the television viewing audience (therefore advertisers).

In Pat McQuaid’s open letter to pro cyclists regarding the radio ban:

“I begin by informing you that in 2008 I was convened to a meeting with the biggest producer of television images of cycling, France Television, and was told by senior executives clearly that if radios were retained in cycling and used as they were being used that the coverage of cycling on television would be reduced.” “The support of the media – particularly television – for this readjustment is a demonstration of the necessity to intervene on this point: the course of too many races is now a foregone conclusion, and this limits enormously the large scale visibility of cycling.”

Cycling has been traditionally covered in print media, but you can see the effects when the big business of television broadcasting comes in and starts throwing their weight to accommodate their needs. They can end up dictating the rules of the sport.

Conflict Of Interest

Another one of the difficulties with this is reciprocal relationship is when the media looses their perspective on journalism. Media should come across as unbiased. If they own the product (or vice versa), can they really be critical and objective? Is it unfiltered editorial? Or are we just reading an advertisement? It’s one thing to sponsor a property, but it’s another thing to own the property. Once the media owns a property, it starts treading that fine line on being able to do their job properly as media. I often wonder if the “war on doping” is intended to be in the athletes’ best interest, or just good business for their newspapers.

As I begin to understand more about media, the more conflicts of interest I begin to see. The media’s impact on sport is very intertwined. It’s hard to decipher where it begins and where it ends. Money follows media, and media follows money.

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