Big money sports: a rant

In our changing media world, we’re learning that we have to accept the good with the bad, and nowhere is this truer than in the world of big time sports. We can find what we want when we want it, but where will we find it in the future?

When the NFL, for example, launched its own television network, it was just a matter of time before affiliate television took a back seat. The NFL owns the games, and they’re going to make the most of what they own. Oh, they still need the networks, but how long will that last?

So when the NFL made two new rules this year, nobody should’ve been shocked. It hurts local affiliates not to have their own cameras on the sidelines of NFL games, not the NFL. It hurts local affiliates not to be able to stream game highlights or interviews or anything shot at a stadium on the day of the game, not the NFL. These are inevitable means to an end that carves local television neatly out of the “business” of professional football.

Trust me, every league in every sport is paying attention, because the game — like so many other things in our modernist culture — is second to the money.

And it’s not just professional sports either. Witness the University of Tennessee suspending the privileges of a Knoxville newspaper reporter for not going through the sports information office to get an interview with an injured player. Now, a case can be made that the university should be able to “manage” information about its teams, but there’s no way the reporter in this case would’ve been granted the interview had he followed the rules. And the hoot of this particular episode is that the story was very positive.

“Student athletes” is business-speak for big dollars, and those dollars are what really needs protecting.

I’m a sports fan and a business fan. I enjoy games, mostly because they’re live and generally unpredictable. It’s that “participating in history” aspect of broadcasts that provides the appeal for me. I’m happy, for example, that I’m alive to watch Tiger Woods rewrite the record books in golf. In that sense, sports broadcasts are the original reality shows. I know they cost money and that teams and leagues ought to be able to profit from them, but, as with everything else in our society, there is a line that separates profit from greed, and that line is defined, not by business, but by customers.

And I think the business of sports is making a dangerous assumption about fans in its worship of the bottom line. Backlash is inevitable, although I’ve no idea in what form that will be.

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