Sport as Entertainment: 3. Technology

Which came first – the commercialisation of sport or the dominance of technological media as the means by which it is experienced?

 

Like the chicken and the egg, the answer is neither easy nor, frankly, important.  The point is that technology now enables us to “consume” sport from around the globe and technological media businesses are prepared to pay vast prices for the rights to broadcast sport.  This has become the predominant source of the revenue that has further driven the commercialisation of sport.  A continuous, interdependent cycle has been created.

 

The role of technology in sport is not a new phenomenon.  Television played a key role in the commercialisation of numerous sports some decades ago.  But a new wave of technological development is changing the landscape even more than television did in the 1970s and 1980s.  Pay TV is now a hugely influential player when it comes to broadcasting rights, but even it is becoming “old hat”.  Internet and mobile devices are increasingly the platforms of choice, especially for younger audiences.  For providers, broadcasting sport is a mechanism whereby they can encourage consumers to upgrade their devices and subscriptions. For sporting clubs and competitions, branded apps are both a lucrative revenue source and means of increasing consumer engagement.

 

Crucial to any analysis of the role that technology has played in transforming sport into entertainment is the distinction between connection and connectivity.   Put simply, technology enables infinitely greater connectivity between sports and their audiences but it has shattered the connection that was once fundamental between the sport and the place or community in which it is played and in which it is viewed.

 

Thanks to technology, it is now easier for me in Melbourne to watch Manchester United, the New England Patriots or the LA Lakers than it is to walk a couple of blocks to watch my local footy team.  It is also likely to be cheaper to do so than pay the costs of transport, admission and food to attend a major local professional sporting event.

 

Granted, I can also glean from the same technology a volume of content about said teams that I could only obtain from my local footy club if I virtually lived in their clubrooms.  In that sense, I can be as devoted a fan as ever.  However, in forming long-distance allegiances with United, the Patriots or the Lakers, I may be able to see every game, live, complete with meticulously packaged statistics, analysis and interviews.  However, it is an essentially passive allegiance, influenced largely by the official, sanctioned information that the media choose to provide.  The outcome of the contest itself may be in doubt until the final whistle, buzzer or whatever, but all the other aspects of its presentation to me and countless other “virtual” spectators are as tightly scripted as any theatre production.

 

These constraints also affect the diversity of sport that we can access through technological media.  Whilst technology itself allows ever greater access to sports across the world, commercial forces tend to have the opposite effect.  In Australia, three, largely male, sports – AFL, NRL and Cricket – have current broadcasting rights deals with a combined worth of more than $4.6 billion, representing increases of between 60 and 150% over the previous rights deals.  Given the comparative market size, these deals stack up pretty impressively against some of the big international competitions (e.g. NFL – $38b over 9 years; NBA – $32b over 9 years; English Premier League – $11b over four years; Indian Premier League – $2.2b over 10 years).

 

Not surprisingly, such sums purchase an awful lot of coverage on TV and other electronic media platforms.  The success of big commercial sports significantly increases their financial strength, given the extra flow-on benefits on sponsorship and exposure to future fans and participants. By contrast, Olympic sports and other Australian ‘foundation’ sports receive very limited TV exposure outside the Olympic Games and major international championships, with the media coverage of women’s sport, for example, falling from 11% of total sports coverage to 8.7% over the past decade[1].

 

Effectively this is producing a two-speed trend in the commercialisation of sport arising primarily from this growing imbalance in broadcast rights, which is creating significant knock-on effects. Greater wealth by some sports allows them to attract a growing share of participants and future fans, adding further to their commercial attractiveness. Smaller sports – many of which have high female participation and contribute to our international sporting success – will be increasingly squeezed out, with potentially negative impacts on the diversity of Australian sports sector.

 

The effects of these broadcasting trends on the audience for spectator sport are also of concern.  Technology increasingly offers us the allure of being able to cherry-pick the best and brightest sports from around the globe and in volumes that ensure continuous supply rather than infrequent events to be anticipated and savoured.  Yet at the same time, strict and hugely lucrative broadcasting rights deals are limiting the variety (if not the quantity) of sport available to us.  As a consequence, our consumption patterns are being directed towards a regular diet of the top-levels of a narrow range of mainstream sports.  “Second best” (often local) is ignored, either because it is not broadcast or because of the audience’s reduced tolerance of anything less than the best, especially if it involves the effort and expense of actual attendance.   As spectator sport moves from the realm of watching sport for the love of the sport or through tribal loyalty to a generic form of entertainment, gambling is an increasingly enticing and dangerous addition to the entertainment package (access to which, incidentally, is also greatly facilitated by technology).

 

In this environment, the priority for all sports is to find ways to use technology to make themselves more enticing, entertaining, especially to younger, less invested audiences.  This typically means shorter, more action-packed versions of games (e.g. T20 and AFLX) and additional efforts to provide “entertainment” in any gaps or lulls.  An interesting analysis of the use of technology in the broadcasting of the Big Bash League to enhance the sense of action and excitement is summarised thus:

 

“An array of innovative technologies is deployed to aesthetically and effectively re-present the BBL. Cameras and microphones are embedded within the field of play, operate in highly mobile and fluid ways, and are framed in close proximity to the action – particularly when placed on the players themselves. The BBL provides intersecting effective layers for viewer engagement built upon tools for analysis, sites of commodification, visual renditions of pseudo-player perspectives and an emphasis on fast-paced entertainment. By constructing degrees of sensory invigoration and vicarious involvement for both casual and invested viewers, these innovative technologies mobilise ‘smash and bash’ cricket as an effective televisual spectacle.”[2]

 

A far cry from “Test Match Special” indeed!

 

Whilst much of my focus on technology in this piece relates to its role in broadcasting sport, it has also become a high priority in the design of and facilities at sports stadiums.  For example, key selling points at the new Optus Stadium in Perth include:

 

  • Full 4G coverage throughout the Stadium.
  • Two 340sqm super screens, among the largest in Australia.
  • Over 1,000 TV screens strategically located throughout the interior of the Stadium.

 

It’s obvious that even when sports fans are enticed to attend sporting events in person, technological accoutrements are considered necessary in enhancing their “match day experience” beyond merely witnessing the actual match!

 

The primary impact of technological innovation on the sports themselves is that they are becoming locked into an ever-greater global competition for market share.  This is particularly pertinent to indigenous sports such as Australian Rules.  With its recent $2.5 billion broadcast rights deal dwarfing any other in Australian sport, the AFL remains unquestionably the dominant player in the local competition.  However, its real rivals, more than ever, are the international giants such as soccer and basketball, which, thanks to technology, have far-greater air-time than they ever did before.  So whilst the AFL is, on one level, a clear winner in the race for broadcasting dollars, there is no guarantee that its wealth from broadcast rights will ensure the ongoing development of the game (as evidenced by the alarming decline of participation and local competitions in traditional heartland areas such as Tasmania).  Nor will it ensure that the sport itself will continue to flourish as it struggles with the voracious demands of a globally-connected audience.

 

What I’ve presented thus far might sound like a gloomily relentless march of the forces of big business and technology that have invaded the once simple, innocent realm of sport and refashioning it as a bland but highly profitable form of mass entertainment.  But if we consider this topic in strictly economic terms, we must consider these trends as changes to the supply side of the equation.  However, supply-side shifts inevitably occur in response to demand.  So, in this case, we now need to look at the demand-side trends that are contributing to these changes.  In plain English, this means “what the punters want and why they want it”.  This is the subject of my next installment.

 

[1] Australian Sports Commission/ CSIRO report, The Future of Australian Sport, 2013.  I wonder if this figure has improved over the last five years since this report was done?

[2] Sturm, Damion. Smash and bash cricket?: Affective technological innovations in the big bash [online]. Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy, No. 155, May 2015: 80-88.

 

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. david stiff says:

    Very insightful and engaging Stainless, thanks for sharing.

    I remember going to the first AFLW game at Ikon Park and feeling a connection with my younger self going to Princes Park to watch the mighty Blues (many years ago now sadly). Ikon is a great venue and the excitement and anticipation of squeezing into that game reminded me of how sanitised the experience of attending an AFL game can be (especially at that cold, soulless tomb in the lifeless Docklands precinct).
    I’m also yet to be convinced on the need to be entertained during breaks in play. Are we so fearful of thinking or interpersonal communication that we need constant filler to occupy the spaces?

  2. So much standardisation in how modern sport is done.

    Have a read of Adorno/Horkheimer.

    Glen!

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