The state of sports broadcasting

Sesha Subramanian discusses the past, present and future of sports broadcasting.

Sesha Subramanian
16th November 2018
Image- Flickr

When people followed the action between the ice hockey teams of Montreal and Winnipeg by reading the descriptions of each play sent by telegraph from the Victoria Rink in Montreal in 1896, little did they know that one day, that telegraph would balloon into the modern day multi-million dollar sports broadcasting industry that we know of today. As of 2018, the United States, for example has more than thirty channels dedicated to sports broadcasting.

And with the advent of live streaming services like Amazon and social media like Facebook, the industry only seems to be getting bigger and more competitive than ever before. So with seemingly endless channels and seemingly endless competitions to cover, as the year 2018 comes to a close, where do sports broadcasters stand in today’s world?

Traditional Media Versus Modern Day Media

Let me explain what I mean by that. For the most part of its existence, sports and sporting events have been publicised by three means – the radio, the newspaper and later on, the television. In the olden days, newspapers provided a man in New York with the news that the Yankees had won the World Series. Writing from journalists at the game was often the only way that most people were able to know exactly what happened and follow the game.

Then came the radio, which revolutionised the way that sports would reach the common masses. Players were no longer just names written in ink but cult icons and matches were no longer in distant lands but in the living room. And finally, there came the television. Television made people feel closer to the action than ever. But as the world evolved, so did sports broadcasting. In order to reach out to a larger audience and improve their ratings, television channels began to diversify in many different ways. The number of sports they covered, the types of sports they covered, and the audience that they catered to. Television networks started to have specialised channels just to cover certain sports and these channels started having a wide variety of programmes just to cater to audiences of different tastes.

These three have been the staple of sporting broadcasts throughout the globe for the better part of the last century. However, with the internet explosion and the sudden increase in social media presence from various entities, sporting broadcasts have taken on a new shape. Non-conventional sources like Facebook stream live sports for example – seeing it as an opportunity to expand their market and exploit consumer potential. Newspapers have begun to give live text commentary play by play as they try to keep up with a generation that wants information on the go while many radio stations have online websites where users can tune in to listen to games.

Sports broadcasting, while essentially retaining its core purpose of bringing live sporting action to the distant spectator has evolved to such a degree that it is unrecognisable as the great-grandchild of the telegraphic coverage of an ice hockey game.

The Broadcasters

Today, the people running the various sporting networks know that they are competing against many other networks wanting to do the same. So, in essence, the job to be a broadcaster on a sports network has become a tailor-made job suitable for certain people only. Consider this, would Monday Night Football on Sky Sports be as famous as it is today if it wasn’t for the fact that it featured Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville – two world class defenders in their day who played for the biggest rivals in English football throughout their careers? Probably not.

There is an optic element to the appointment of Carragher and Neville as much as there is an element of quality. Yes, having been professional footballers at the highest level for a long time, their analysis of the game is bound to be better than most laymen. But were it not for the fact that Sky was selling a hidden storyline of “They clashed for years on the field and now they clash in the studios”, Monday Night Football may not be one of the crown jewels of Sky Sports.

That is not to say optics and background storylines are everything. Going again with the example of Sky Sports, Liam Rosenior is not a footballer who enjoyed a glittering career but he remains one of the best hires by Sky Sports for the sheer quality of his analysis. So while the powers that be at these networks realise the need for having strong personalities, there is a recognition that the quality of analysis is more important because, while a name is important in getting people to view the show, the quality is what would keep them there.

Another major issue that has plagued sports broadcasting is how male-dominated the industry is. Granted, it can be viewed as a reflection of the higher level of interest that the male section of the population shows in sports as compared to women and over the years, various sports networks have tried to address it. ESPN has been at the forefront of it with respect to NBA basketball, for example. They boast some of the best news anchors and analysts of the game with the likes of Doris Burke, Rachel Nichols, Ramona Shelbourne and Molly Qerim on their payroll. Turner Sports has also followed suit by roping in WNBA star Candace Parker to sit with the analysis team during the WNBA off-season. Other sports like cricket and tennis have seen increasing presence of female commentators. Football has been a little slow to follow suit but former England women’s international Alex Scott joining the team at Sky Sports has been a major step forward. She also made headlines as the first woman to commentate in England during the World Cup.
The Money Involved

Sports broadcasting is now a multi-million dollar industry. Leagues like the Premier League, the NBA, NFL and even American College Football sign huge deals which sees the broadcaster pay big money to organisations to telecast their games. The fact that these networks sign such gigantic deals tells us two things – one, that they believe that they can easily recoup the money thanks to the number of people that view the games. The second and probably the more important thing is that these deals are the result of competition. The sports broadcasting industry has never had the kind of diversity and the sheer volume of broadcasters as it does at this moment. The problem is only compounded further by the fact that streaming services like Amazon enter the industry to try and bring whatever sport or tournament they are watching to a larger audience.

All in all, sports broadcasting today is an industry that is almost as glamorous and important as the sport itself. With millions of dollars, viewers to match and increasing diversity, the future is bright and has never been as glitzy as it is now and that can only be a good thing for sports fans.

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