Sport and the Media

Garry Whannel. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

Mapping the Field

The growth of television as a significant cultural form during the 1960s put the relationship between sport and the media on the public agenda. In late 1969, the US magazine Sports Illustrated drew attention to the ways in which television was transforming sport (Johnson, 1969/70). In effect, sport in the television age was a ‘whole new game’ (Johnson, 1973). The growing economic and cultural significance of television for sport gradually became a pertinent issue in countries around the world (see for example, Andreff and Nys, 1987; Guiront, 1978; Ivent, 1979; Scholz, 1993; Sportsworld, 1974; Tatz, 1987; Telecine, 1978). Clearly sport and television had developed a degree of interdependence (Parente, 1977). They belonged together ‘like ham and eggs’ (Claeys and Van Pelt, 1986). In the view of some, television had ‘made’ sport (McChesney, 1989).

Newsweek expressed concern, in 1967, over the extent to which television was the powerful partner in the relationship. Debates developed from the 1970s as to whether the effects of television were beneficial or harmful (Glasser, 1985; McIntosh, 1974). Rader (1984) and Whannel (1992) both argued that television had transformed sport. By the 1980s, academic research had mapped out the field and proposed research agendas (Critcher, 1987, 1992; Wenner, 1989a) and book-length studies had appeared (Chandler, 1988; Goldlust, 1987; Rader, 1984). It is noteworthy that, to date, far more critical attention has been paid to television sport than to sport coverage in the print media.

The study of the media has been informed by sociological and semiological traditions. I will outline work in these areas and then discuss some key themes and topics before concluding by outlining current research trajectories. Typically, media sociology distinguishes three main aspects of the communicative chain: production, message and reception.


Sociological study of the first part of the communicative chain, the production of media messages, involves the study of the structures and finances of cultural institutions and the sets of economic relations and legal constraints that underpin them; the production practices that develop within them; the producers, and the professional ideologies that frame their practices.

Media organizations exist within legal frameworks that determine their scope. In the United Kingdom, the BBC is a public corporation, and the ITV system is overseen by a public body, the Independent Television Commission. Both are charged with a statutory responsibility to provide a broad range of material, which includes sport coverage (Whannel, 1992). The introduction of Channel 4 in 1982, with its statutory obligation to be alternative and innovative, had an impact on the range of sports covered (Sport and Leisure, 1986) In the USA free market forces are not subject to as much restriction, but there are still laws, rules and regulations that impact upon sport coverage (see Horowitz, 1974, 1977; Siegfried et al., 1977).

The press in both countries is subject to less restriction from government. Sport coverage in the British tabloid press is dominated by a very small range of sports, with football typically providing more than half of the content. While some sport events, such as the Olympic Games and the soccer World Cup, win huge audiences, the audience for much television sport is not, by television’s standards, large. Part of the appeal of sport for television producers is its cheapness. It can fill hours of the schedule at relatively low cost. A substantial amount of television sport, lacking major audience appeal, is outside peak time television, in the afternoon, or late at night.

Media institutions enter into dealings with the institutions of sport, and television is typically the dominant partner in the relationship, providing revenue and dictating the terms of the exchange (Bellamy, 1989). Media institutions also have to compete with each other, which BBC did very effectively during the establishment of ITV in the 1950s, reinforcing its claim of ‘BBC for Sport’ by signing up key sports, producers and commentators on long-term contracts. During the 1960s and 1970s BBC sustained its service with coverage of major events and a wide range of sports (BBC, 1974; Dimmock, 1964). However, more aggressive competition from ITV during the 1970s became a greater challenge (Milne, 1977). Weathering this, the BBC preserved its dominance until the end of the 1980s, when the satellite channel Sky Sport, with a growing power to outbid anyone else for the rights to major events, began to emerge as a much more serious competitor to terrestrial television. From the 1980s, the rise of satellite and cable began to restructure the television audience, launching dedicated sports channels, and producing a shift from large, fairly heterogenous audiences, to smaller, more homogenous ones (Eastman and Meyer, 1989). Developments in video recording, slow-motion, satellite transmission and digital technology over the years have had a major impact on enhancing the ability of television sport to produce spectacular entertainment (Hersh, 1993; Ward, 1976).

Much early media research centred on political messages and on the measurement of attitude or voting intention. However, attempts to ‘prove’ this variant of the stimulus-response model, typically found that media messages were more likely to produce reinforcement than change in attitude (Klapper, 1960). While the media did not appear to have fabulous powers to determine what people thought, it did, however, appear to have a power to determine what people thought about. Consequently, research began to focus on the role of cultural producers as gatekeepers (Breed, 1955; White, 1964) and agenda-setters (Cohen, 1963). Chalip and Chalip (1992) examined the ways in which information is controlled by press and public relations departments, and Theberge and Cronk (1986) investigated the ways in which production practices and professional ideologies can serve to marginalize press coverage of women’s sport.

The production of media messages typically involves hierarchization, personalization, narrativizing (posing the question ‘Who will win?’) and framing; establishing key events, key stars and framing the event for an audience (Cantelon and Gruneau, 1988). Gruneau’s 1989 case study of television skiing describes the need of producers to make the event look more dramatic and ‘make the course look faster.’ Whannel (1992) takes a historical approach in identifying the formative moments of the conventions of commentary, visual coverage and programme construction. The changing shape of conventions and practices of structuring sporting events for television can on occasion be traced through the writing of practitioners, and cricket is well served here (see Johnston, 1956, 1966, 1975).

Jeremy Tunstall’s (1977) study of specialist journalists outlines the ways that they function both as competitors and colleagues. Sports reporters tend to have far more contact with their competitors on other papers than they do with their colleagues on the same journal. A group solidarity and shared interests conflict with loyalty to a particular paper. In an under-resourced medium such as radio, the media professional often occupies a more isolated position (Gilmore, 1993). Journalists are often well aware of the gap between ‘reality’ and the media rendition of it (Koppett, 1994). Accounts by media sport professionals provide useful evidence for the professional ideologies that frame production practices (see for examples Blofeld, 1990; Bough, 1980; Martin-Jenkins, 1990; Maskell, 1988; Robertson, 1987; and Cosell, 1973, 1974).

Production practices can become taken for granted by media practitioners, and are naturalized very readily; tracing such practices in their formative moments can be instructive, revealing the choices that were later to solidify as professional commonsense. The conventions of commentary at the BBC, involving personalization, building audience interest and heightening drama were laid out by de Lotbiniere (1949) in a highly influential document that became the bible of commentary during the 1950s. Camera positions and cutting styles were established by processes of trial and error (see Wolstenholme, 1958) and only later, in the 1960s, became conventionalized. Sports journalism as a profession was, in large measure, a product of the late nineteenth century, as sports magazines appeared in significant numbers, and newspapers began including dedicated sports sections (see Gillmeister, 1993; Kelly, 1988; Mason, 1993). Accounts of the careers of journalists and commentators reveal much about the attitudes underlying the formations of these professional practices. The focus on stars, the construction of dramatic interest and the relative marginalization of expertise, are all common features of media sport journalism (see, for example, Andrews, 1993; Barber, 1970; Dalby, 1961; Fountain, 1993; Gibson, 1976; Glendenning, 1953; Talbot, 1973, 1976; West, 1986; Williams, 1985; Wynne-Jones, 1951).


The second part of the communicative chain concerns the content as opposed to its production. In 1977 the Journal of Communication devoted an issue to media sport, with papers analysing the strategies used in commentary to build audience interest and heighten drama (Bryant et al. 1977). Some suggested that the excitement generated in commentary can serve to mask the relative lack of excitement in the match itself (Comiskey et al. 1977). Visual styles also served to heighten the excitement and spectacle (Williams, 1977).

Birrell and Loy (1979) analysed television sport partly in McLuhan’s terms, but the more influential part of the paper argues that television sport can be understood in terms of a set of manipulations of time and space; a framework later adopted by Whannel (1992) to analyse the ways in which sport was transformed by television (see also Hesling, 1986). This transformation, involving spectacle, drama, personalization and immediacy, was, as Clarke and Clarke (1982) have argued, also a form of ideological reproduction in which competitive individualism, local regional and national identities and male superiority were all made to appear natural, rather than the consequence of specific cultural selections and presentations. The world of sport was one in which any explicit politics of race, gender or national identity were evacuated, whilst the representations were none the less permeated with particular ideologies (see also Daney, 1978).

In the television age sport has been turned into mass spectacle, a process that arguably began at the start of the 1960s (Crawford, 1992) and is epitomized in major sport events like the Olympic Games (Brennan, 1995; McPhail and Jackson, 1989), the World Cup (Geraghty et al., 1986; Nowell-Smith, 1978; Wren-Lewis and Clarke, 1983) and the Superbowl (Real, 1989). The English FA (Football Association) cup final has been analysed (in two Open University television programmes) as a site on which representations of tradition, ritual and royalty are joined to the tension and drama of ‘the people’s game’ (see also Colley and Davies, 1982). There are now extensive case studies that investigate the media portrayal of sport. Berg and Trujillo (1989) examine the cen-trality of winning in American sporting ideology and the ways in which the Dallas Cowboys were represented as a symbol of success. Young (1986) examines media coverage of the Heysel Stadium disaster, charting the various ways in which blame was attributed.

Other media have received rather less attention. Rowe (1990) examines different styles of sports writing. Brewster (1993) and Shaw (1989) chart the growth of football fanzines, which have also been analysed as a case in which the dominant values of a sporting world have been contested (Jary et al. 1991). Press coverage of a celebrated drugs case was examined by Donohew et al. (1989). Sports photography has received inadequate attention, although there is an excellent collection of examples (Smith, 1987). Bergan (1982) has catalogued comprehensively films featuring sport, and Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial film of the 1936 Olympics has been analysed by Downing (1992). Pendred (1987) has produced an extensive catalogue of British sporting art, and Goldman (1983) has charted the history of British sporting prints. To date, though, the study of European media sport coverage by Blain et al. (1993), which examines the construction of national identities, is the most elaborate consideration of the print media; and while there has been much discussion of individual films there is no scholarly overview of sport in the cinema.


The third part of the communicative chain concerns reception and the audience. Information about audience size and demographic profile can be garnered from industry sources and from periodic publications by organizations like the BBC (see BBC, 1976, 1977; Marles, 1984). Barnett (1990) has argued that the audience for television sport is a soft one—heavily affected by the weather, the choice of viewing, the presence and absence of star figures and other factors. Terrestrial television has generally depended on the assembly of large heterogenous audiences, and even though sport has more appeal to men, most sport audiences consist of around 40 per cent women viewers. The rise of dedicated sport channels on satellite and cable has begun to disrupt long established viewing patterns and the imminent introduction in Britain of pay-per-view football is likely to trigger a dramatic shift in viewing habits, and in television industry economics. The press has a rather different pattern of consumption, in that different parts of the paper attract very different types of reader, a fact reflected in the separation of sport coverage from the rest of the paper, and in the growth of multiple-segment papers. Historically, the readership of sports pages has been predominantly male, and the mode of address to readers makes fewer attempts than television to pull in marginal consumers.

To win and to hold audiences and readers, it is necessary to establish points of identification, and to speak or write in modes that connect with the audience. The audience has to be cajoled into viewing (McVicar, 1982), and the values underpinning the presentation have to be capable of connecting with the audience (see Bailey and Sage, 1988). Strategies for media production must have some relation to the range of gratifications that viewers seek (Wenner and Gantz, 1989).

A major theme in media sociology concerns the impact of media messages, and much debate has gone on within sport institutions around two questions—the impact of television sport coverage on attendances, and on participation. Evidence on the impact of television sport on attendances at sporting events is mixed and inconclusive. In certain circumstances live television of an event does seem to reduce the crowd, while at others it has little or no effect. The growing amount of live football on British television has parallelled a steady growth for ten years in match attendances. This is a complex area with many variables. Football crowds may be affected by the history and traditions of a club, its current league position, its style of play, the opposition, the weather, presence or absence of star players, the level of unemployment in the area, the time of year, and availability of other alternatives, of which television is just one. On participation, many sport governing bodies have nurtured the hopes of a television-inspired boom in participation, often citing the gymnastics boom in the wake of Olga Korbut’s Olympic success. There is indeed circumstantial evidence of a growth in participation, in such diverse sports as gymnastics, snooker and American football (in the United Kingdom), with a link to television coverage. Yet such effects may often be, as was the case with American football, somewhat transitory (see Olympia Seminar Working Papers, 1975). Decades of research into the effects of the media has tended to suggest that the media are more likely to produce reinforcement than change of attitude, and evidence that constructive attitudinal change can be produced by media messages is as yet unconvincing (see Wenner, 1994).

According to some, far from producing positive effects, the media can, consciously or unconsciously serve to reproduce negative attitudes such as an attachment to violence (Bryant and Zillman, 1983). A controlled experiment found that ice hockey commentaries that stressed violence were regarded as providing more entertainment than commentaries that de-emphasized the violence (Comiskey et al. 1977). Bryant carried out research in which groups of people watched tapes of sport events, with commentaries that either emphasized or de-emphasized the violence. He found that commentaries significantly affected audiences’ interpretation of events, and found that viewers’ enjoyment of the tapes with violent commentary was enhanced (see Bryant, 1989). Commentary style appeared to significantly influence viewers’ perceptions of the degree of aggressiveness, and men enjoyed the aggressive play more than did women (Sullivan, 1987). Other research suggested that commentary contributed most to the enjoyment of a televised sports event where opponents were presented as hated foes rather than as friends (see Comiskey et al., 1977).

This research raises broader questions to do with cultural portrayals of and attitudes towards violence. Messages about violence must be distinguished from actual violence. It cannot be assumed that because people find pleasure in viewing a regulated physical combativeness in sport their tolerance of violence in other contexts is diminished. While investigation has suggested that the strongest motivations for sport viewing were the desire to thrill in victory, and a desire to let loose (Gantz, 1981), we still need to understand more about the reasons people consume media sport (see Zillman et al., 1979). It has long been clear, for example, that sport viewing is heavily subjective, and it could be argued that there is no such thing as a preexisting event that people merely observe—the event is always a product of the activity of the onlooker (see Hastorf and Cantril, 1954). Identification with one participant is an important element of the sport-viewing experience, and Sapolsky and Zillman (1978) found that informal social controls exerted by fellow viewers influenced perception. In a USA v. Yugoslavia basketball game watched by groups of friends, the social control of the group ensured that Yugoslav baskets were not enjoyed, whereas in a larger group, with friends in the minority, Yugoslav baskets got more appreciation.

The pleasures involved in sport viewing are complex and not readily analysed (see Duncan and Brammett, 1989). The experience of viewing is often ritualized and communal, as compared to the more solitary and casualized manner in which much television is consumed (see Eastman and Riggs, 1994). The conditions of viewing themselves inevitably have an impact on the ways in which pleasures are experienced (Sapolsky and Zillman, 1978). The distinctiveness of sport as a cultural form lies partly in its uncertainty. In its live form, it is a process, not a product and part of the pleasure lies in that elusive moment of free expression before the modes of media presentation transform it into a product (see Whannel, 1994a).

Semiological Analysis

When study of the media began to emerge as a distinct academic subject it developed in an interdisciplinary fashion, drawing upon history, sociology, literary theory and semiology. Semiology, literally the science of signs, but more precisely the study of meaning production, examines the process whereby language, whether visual, verbal or a combination of the two, produces meanings (Barthes, 1967). Early semiological analysis focused upon the message, or text, as the product of the system of language that makes meaning possible. It was the underlying system of a language—its codes and conventions—that were seen as enabling and governing the production of meaning. However, as this system only exists in the form of utterances—speech acts, written language, visual representation—in short, texts, texts became the object of analysis. The main aim of analysis, however, was to uncover or reveal the underlying systems of language that made the production of meaning possible.

There were two significant developments from this base. First, the text was seen as involving a process of encoding. In order to be intelligible, a message has to be composed according to sets of codes or conventions that the audience can decode (for example, the ways in which hats—cloth cap/bowler/top hat—act as signifiers of social class). The text is part of the communicative chain linking the production and consumption of a message—production-text-consumption. This concept was the basis of the encoding-decoding model (Hall et al., 1980).

Secondly, developments of early semiology explored the ways in which language acts to position, or interpellate, the reader or audience. The text carries within it subject-positions that readers come to occupy. An example is the patriotic identification that commentaries upon international football construct, positioning us as, for example, patriotic subjects who want England to win. Within this tradition there are complex and competing areas of the-orization that cannot be explored in this chapter. However, an understanding of the influence of semiology can provide a useful context for reading the analyses of media sport coverage that this present review outlines.

A key starting point for media analysis in this tradition was the notion that television and the other media do not simply reflect the world, but rather construct versions, or accounts, of it. Buscombe’s (1975) football monograph analyses in detail the way in which camera positions, cutting patterns, modes of editing, commentary, title sequences and presentation material, all serve to construct a particular image of football. Similarly, Peters (1976) analyses the ways that television’s visual and verbal conventions served to relay a particular picture of the 1976 Olympic Games. Birrell and Loy (1979) analyse the ways in which television rearranges time and space in order to produce sport in televisual form. Buscombe (1975) and Peters (1976) argued that while television sport claimed to be merely presenting reality, it was in fact constructing a version of it, viewed from the position of an imaginary ‘ideal’ spectator. Television sport, then, has to be understood as involving a process of construction, in which choices as to camera position and angle, lens type and cutting patterns all have their impact on the appearance of the event.

The contributors to the Buscombe collection attempted to analyse television sport as a form of realism. However, there are many different forms, styles, and aesthetic conventions for representing the real. The combination of direct and indirect address in television sport, the use of visual devices like slow-motion, and action replay, and the use of graphics, cannot simply be seen as a variant of the realist conventions of narrative fiction. To dissect the complex combination of title montages, presentation, contributors, clips, action replays and actuality, it is more useful to think in terms of conflicting tensions between attempts to achieve transparency, rendering television’s own mediations invisible, and a desire to build in entertainment values.

Analysis in this tradition tried to establish the codes, conventions and modes of organizing discourse that characterized media representations of sport (Goldlust, 1987; Whannel, 1992). Such analyses focused on the visual and verbal strategies that personalized and narrativized sport, and the ways in which ideological elements, such as national identification, the work ethic and masculinity were linked together (see also Fiske, 1983; O’Donnell and Boyle, 1996). The construction of media texts was seen as involving a selective juxtaposition in which events were relayed in the form of stories (see Pearson, 1988; Whannel, 1982) and golden moments and magic memories were assembled and re-arranged for the viewer (Whannel, 1989).

Work in this tradition is also concerned with the ways in which discourses are organized and the audience positioned by them. Nowell-Smith (1978) examines ‘Television,’ ‘football’ and ‘world’ as terms, analysing the distinctiveness of the ‘world’ as constructed by television football, and contrasting the dominance of the Olympics by the symbolic politics of East v. West, with the ‘world’ of football, which is structured around the difference between ‘North European’ and ‘Latin.’ Morse (1983) argues that the object of sport discourse is the male body, but cultural inhibitions about gazing at male bodies mean that sport transforms voyeurism into scientific enquiry, emphasizing technical performance over aesthetic beauty. Sport on television, especially in slow motion, portrays the fantasy of the body as perfect machine. Television sport primarily addresses men, with female viewers relatively marginalized (see O’Connor and Boyle, 1991).

Topics and Debates


The commercialization and commodification of sport since the Second World War has been a central theme of the sociology of sport, and the development of media sport has played a key role. Charles Critcher (1979) argued that there has been a transformative trend that commenced in the 1950s, at least in football, in which the major factors were the growth of professionalization, spectacularization, internationalization and commercialization. Some writers have noted the tensions between the emancipatory potential of sport and its function as a commodity. Sewart (1987) derided the consequent degradation of athletic activity, subsumed to the logic of the marketplace, and argued that sport was being standardized and commodified.

Goldlust (1987) argued that from the 1960s onwards, television increasingly colonized sporting cultures and undermined communal control of sporting institutions. Whannel (1986) argued that in the United Kingdom, the crucial moment came in the mid-1960s when the launch of BBC2 in 1964 and the banning of television tobacco advertising in 1965 served to trigger a sponsorship revolution. This forced sport governing bodies to regard television coverage as crucial to financial survival, partly because of rights payments from television but also because of the money to be gained from sponsorship. Barnett (1990) has drawn attention to the rising power of satellite television, and to the shift from broadcasting as a public service towards broadcasting as a commodity to be chosen and purchased.

Much of the impetus for the transformation of sport came not from the traditional governing bodies but from maverick entrepreneurs who established themselves as sports agents, and who constituted the crucial mediation point between sport organizations, sport stars, television, sponsors and advertisers (see Aris, 1990; Stoddart, 1990; Wilson, 1988). The process of commodification involved the construction of calculated commercial packages that endeavoured to maximize the various opportunities inherent in sponsorship, advertising and merchandising. Snooker capitalized on its television success of the 1980s with new tournaments, new sponsors and expansion into new markets (see Burn, 1986). Television was the shop window that allowed for the promotion of sporting spectacle to new markets (see Maguire, 1990). The global reach of television and the economic power of the United States combined to foster a marked Americanization of the form, content and styles of sport television around the world (McKay and Miller, 1991). However, the process of bringing together an audience for new, imported or Americanized sporting spectacle was a complex one. Long-established sporting cultures are embedded in lived experiences with their own histories, rooted in national cultures, and transplanted cultural experiences cannot always succeed in establishing themselves (see Maguire, 1988).

The central role of television lies partly in its economic power. The major American networks were prepared to spend huge sums out-bidding each other for rights to major events (see Klatell and Marcus, 1988). The willingness of governing bodies to respond to the needs of television was heightened by the activities of sport entrepreneurs from outside the traditionally rooted world of the governing bodies. Jack Kramer, Kerry Packer, Mark McCormack, Horst Dassler of Adidas and Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation have been key figures in this process. Packer had the economic power to challenge the previously cosy relationship between cricket and television, and his own World Series Cricket ushered in floodlit cricket, coloured clothing, hard-sell advertising, more cameras, more close-ups and more replays (see Bonney, 1980; Haigh, 1993). Lawrence and Rowe (1987) argued that television cricket promoted capitalist ideology by legitimizing the capitalist social relations of production; socializing viewers to accept the values of capitalism; limiting the acceptance of what is fair, normal and desirable; promoting the myth of upward mobility; and diverting people’s attention from the problems of life under capitalism.

Sport organizations were sometimes slow to respond to the process of commercialization. In the United Kingdom, the Sports Council commissioned a report on sponsorship that expressed concern at the power of sports agents, whilst being somewhat cautious about the revenue potential for sport that sponsorship offered (Howell, 1983). A report set up by the Sports Council to examine the potential impact of cable and satellite showed British sport relatively unprepared for the revolution to come (Jones, 1985). Satellite sport in the United Kingdom grew slowly at first, hampered by slow dish sales and competition between two providers, BSB and Sky (see Chippendale and Franks, 1991). However, once Sky Television, into which BSB was ‘merged,’ had the field to itself, the rapidly growing revenue from the pay-per-channel services began to give satellite television enhanced scope to obtain the rights to major events. The imminent spread of pay-per-view transmission of major football matches and other big events is about to provide a significant new impetus to the commodification of sport.

The spectacularization of top-level sport on television, enabled by the growing technological command of image production and distribution, is a key part of the commodification process (Morris and Nydahl, 1985). Major sporting events win and hold enormous audiences—and have become global events. They serve to condense complex symbolic systems—of politics, nationalism, gender, race and aspiration (see Real, 1975; Wenner, 1989b). The ceremonies and rituals surrounding the Olympic Games are in themselves a rich and complex field, juggling the needs of television from a comprehensible spectacle, the desire of Olympics organizers to demonstrate their munificence, the pressure to advertise a national culture, and the need to draw on aspects of the history, heritage and traditions of the host country, not necessarily easily read by the TV audience. The production of spectacle on this scale is necessarily laden with ideology (see Gruneau, 1989b; Tomlinson, 1989; Wren-Lewis and Clarke, 1983). Television sporting spectacle is a significant component of the media imperialism in which the cultural products of the developed West, with their elaborate spectacle and high production values, reach global audiences, at the expense of indigenous cultures (Whannel, 1985).

As it is unquestionably the major global sporting event, the Olympic Games offers an invaluable case study of these processes. The costs of staging the Games are huge (Zarnowski, 1992). Television rights payments grew rapidly from the 1970s and have become massive (Alaszkiewicz and McPhail, 1986). Although the International Olympic Committee and the organizing committees are not set up to make profits, there are, connected with the Olympics, extensive opportunities for profit-making and sales promotion (Lawrence, 1987). Excessive commercialization has been identified as a problem both from within and without the movement (Min, 1987). Sponsorship of the Games has been seen as compromising the ideals of Olympism (Whannel, 1994b). There have been widely circulated allegations of corruption at the heart of the movement (Simson and Jennings, 1992). Relationships between the Olympic Games and the media are the subject of a collection of conference papers (McPhail and Jackson, 1989) and, more recently an elaborate international research project has published its survey of the Olympic Games and television (Moragas et al., 1996).

The development of television sport in the United States offers another example of the dramatic speed and scope of the processes of commercialization and commodification. In the less regulated and more competitive television environment of America, there was, from the early days of broadcasting, a need for television to bring together sport and sponsor (Powers, 1984). ABC Television made a significant breakthrough for television sport in the 1960s with an emphasis on personalization, dramatization and spectacularization, epitomized in its slogan ‘The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat’ (Sugar, 1980). They launched the long-running Wide World of Sports (Leitner, 1975) and transformed American social habits with live Monday night football, taking sport into the heart of prime time (Neal-Lunsford, 1992). The focus was one of intense individualization—in their own terms, ‘up close and personal’ (Spence, 1988). Their success heightened competition between the networks and prompted a massive escalation in rights payments (O’Neil, 1989). Without doubt, in America the transformation of sport by television can be seen at its most dramatic (Rader, 1984).

Women and Media Sport

Sport as a social practice serves to demarcate gender distinctions. Extensive research demonstrates the different treatment of boys and girls, men and women and male and female athletes. Dunne (1982) found that while magazines aimed at pre-pubescent girls feature positive images of sport, by the teen years, in magazines, sport is something that boys do and girls have little interest in. Margaret Duncan (1990) argued that sport functions as one of the last male strongholds. The sports photographs examined in her research highlighted female difference, emphasizing women as in a position of relative weakness. She argues that such photographs emphasized the otherness of women, enabling patriarchal ends, and concludes that it ‘remains to be seen whether the potentiality for representations of strong women becomes an actuality’ (see also Hilliard, 1984).

Shifflett and Revelle (1994) conducted a content analysis of NCAA news and found that 73 per cent of space was devoted to male athletes and only 27 per cent to female, and more than three times as much space was devoted to photos of male athletes. Malec (1994) disputed their conclusions, pointing out that as there were more male athletes than female, NCAA was merely reflecting this. He pointed out that, in terms of prominence, 9 per cent of the paragraphs about women were on the front page compared to 5 per cent of the paragraphs about men.

Typically, images of women in sport involve constant reworkings of the variants of dominant femininity. Leath and Lumpkin (1992) examined Women’s Sport and Fitness and found that as the magazine switched emphasis towards fitness it featured more non-athletes overall and fewer athletes on the cover. Females were more likely to be posed rather than performing, black women athletes were rarely pictured, aggressive sports were covered less than traditional female-appropriate sports, and female athletes were liable to be described in terms devaluing their sporting achievements. The portrayals of sport and fitness in magazines represented a re-working of femininity that tried to reconcile active women with femininity (see Bolla, 1990; Horne and Bentley, 1989).

These gender constructions are not simply a matter of the production of difference—the gender differences involved are structured by power relations: by the subordination of women within patriarchy (see Duncan and Hasbrook, 1988). Higgs and Weiler (1994) found that

although women were given greater coverage in individual sports, that coverage was divided into shorter and more heavily edited segments. In addition, commentators relied on gender marking, biased and ambivalent reporting, and a focus on personalities as opposed to athletic abilities when covering women’s sports.

Williams, Lawrence and Rowe (1987) argued that, despite any gains that women have made in the struggle to obtain equality in Olympic competition, their participation was limited and their image, as defined by the media, is structured according to prevailing gender stereotypes (see also Yeates, 1992).

Feminist scholarship is concerned not merely with charting and documenting the construction of gender difference, nor with demonstrating the power relations underpinning difference but also with exploring ways of changing and combating such image production. Halbert and Latimer (1994) have argued that, although women have made great strides in sport, their achievements will continue to be meaningless as long as sports broadcasters undermine, trivialize and minimize women’s performances through biased commentaries.

MacNeil (1988) has argued that leisure is a site of contestation in which women’s participation presents new ideas of physicality, but residual patriarchal notions that sport is for men are difficult to alter. She describes the commodification of the feminine style through aerobic classes, sports clothes and videos; and argues that patriarchy is reproduced in a newly negotiated form that attracts women to buy a range of narcissistic commodities. She concludes that this exploits women by creating ‘needs’ that are in reality only ‘wants’—female sexuality and glamour help to sell physical activity to women; and that advertising is a major impetus in the acceptance of the aerobic ritual and its style as ‘feminine.’ Media representations of active women, in activities such as aerobics and bodybuilding, are aligned with dominant hegemonic relations. They reproduce male dominance by continuing to associate women more with appearance than performance, objects for the gaze rather than acting subjects.

Masculinities and Media Sport

Research into images of men in sport has identified a systematic pattern of difference (Messner et al., 1993). There are close links between the cultures of sport and dominant constructions of masculinity (Miller, 1989). Television sport offers men a distraction, a private world apart from the pressure and constraints of life (Rose and Friedman, 1994). It is a world of toughness, competence and heroism which celebrates traditional ‘masculine’ qualities (Sabo and Jansen, 1992).

Just as there is no single monolithic femininity, nor is there a single simple homogenous masculinity. There are a range of images of masculinities available within images of sport, but these are typically delimited by the parameters of ‘masculinity.’ The world of American football is viewed, critically, in the film North Dallas Forty as a tough, brutal world in which there is no room for doubt or uncertainty (Whannel, 1993). The terrace subcultures of English soccer celebrate a tough, aggressive, self-asserting localism (Williams and Taylor, 1994). The rise of men’s style magazines in the late 1980s marks a distinct commodification of masculine appearance, in which sport iconography plays a significant role.

Yet while male vanities are nurtured in media representations of sport, these still characteristically offer a vision in which emotions are only readily expressed in specific contexts like sporting victory, and in which relationships, feelings and desires are frequently rendered marginal. Neale (1982) analyses Chariots of Fire in terms of male gazes at each other, implying a sexuality the film cannot acknowledge. Scorsese’s Raging Bull, an antidote to the rather more glorified version of violence in boxing in Rocky, is seen by Cook (1982) as portraying a masculinity in crisis—only able to express emotion through violence.

The rise of feminist scholarship, the growth of an interest in the study of masculinity, and a growing body of work on sexualities, has brought the body centre stage as an object of study. Workouts, weight-training, bodybuilding have foregrounded a new masculine muscularity (see Klein, 1990). Gymnasia have become the site of cultural contestation, as the rituals of gay, straight and female users struggle to establish subcultural space (Miller and Penz, 1991).

Sport stars are frequently written about as role models, although what precisely this means is rarely clearly specified (Hrycaiko et al., 1978). They certainly do function as stars, and top-level sport has developed an elaborate and marketable star system. Hill (1994) discusses the problems associated with understanding heroes, stars and what they represent (see also Nocker and Klein, 1980). While pundits constantly assert that sport stars can be moral exemplars or bad influences, the relation between these images, morality and the youth market is undoubtedly more complex (Whannel, 1995b). There is reason to hypothesize that young people are very well able to distinguish between Gazza the football genius, Gazza the fat clown and Paul Gascoigne the man who allegedly beats up his wife. Sport stars are somehow being asked to follow in the footsteps of the Victorian heroes of Empire (see Howarth, 1973), and yet we live in different times when heroes are frequently knocked from their pedestals and the very concept of male heroism is fragile (see Hall, 1996; Harris, 1994; Izod, 1996).

Race and Media Sport

There are two major issues in this area. First, do the media provide stereotypical images of black athletes; and secondly, do apparently positive images of black achievement reinforce the stereotype of black athleticism, and so limit the perceptions of teachers and coaches about other accomplishments.

Sabo et al. (1996), in a study of American televising of international sport, found that producers appeared to make efforts to provide fair treatment of athletes, but that the treatment of race and ethnicity varied across productions. There was little evidence of negative representations of black athletes, but representations of Asian athletes drew on cultural stereotypes, and representations of Latino-Hispanic athletes were mixed, with some stereotyping.

Wonsek (1992) found that the majority of black college athletes were exploited by their institutions. She argued that within a historical and contemporary racist culture, some black athletes are elevated to superstardom while other black athletes do not receive an adequate education. The image of black success in athletics tends to support the stereotypical view that black students’ abilities lie with sport rather than academic work. She concluded that the media perpetuates the image of the young black male as athlete only, with advertisements playing a significant role in this process.

Wenner (1995) identified a good guy/bad guy frame of reference that served to mark differences between sporting stars like Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson. Crawford (1991) examined the limited range of stereotypes of black athleticism in American movies. Majors (1990) argued that the cool pose adopted by black athletes provided a means of countering social oppression and racism and of expressing creativity, but the emphasis on athletics and cool pose among black males was often self-defeating, and came at the expense of educational advancement. Perversely, the very success of black athletes, generating a fund of ‘positive’ images, at the same time reproduces a negative stereotype, because of the lack of positive images of black achievement in other areas.

National Identities

Media representations of sport inevitably involve the production of images of national identities. There has always been a shortage, in media analysis, of strong cross-cultural research, in part because of the obvious logistical problems involved in researching a range of different linguistic communities. Blain, Boyle and O’Donnell (1993), in their analysis of the 1990 Soccer World Cup, were able to work with over 3,000 press reports from ten countries. Their book contains a rich range of empirical material, examining images of sporting events in different countries, images of British-ness in the foreign media, and of Europe in the British media, taking as their key examples the 1990 World Cup staged in Italy, the Wimbledon tennis championship of 1991 and the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. In a brief example, to illustrate the narrative frame through which the European media interpret the relation of the ‘small’ sporting nations like Cameroon and Costa Rica to Europe, they string together quotes from eight sources to demonstrate a hyper-narrative in which the ‘insolent, impudent upstarts’ are ‘put in their place,’ ‘taught a lesson,’ and given a harsh lesson in realism’ by the European powers. At stake here, of course, is not just national identities but the construction of a ‘European’ identity (see also Boyle, 1992; O’Donnell, 1994).

Chandler (1988) examines the question of national identities through an analysis of the relation between the sport of a nation and its television system, contrasting the deregulated environment of the USA and the public service traditions of the United Kingdom. Whannel (1995a) suggests that the symbols of national identity have a degree of autonomy from national cultures, in examining the hero status that Englishman Jack Charlton acquired as manager of the Republic of Ireland football team. In Ireland traditional Gaelic sports have benefited from the support of a media system geared to the construction of a national culture (see Boyle, 1992), whereas in Scotland, with a media system oriented towards urban Scotland and mainstream team games, traditional sports like shinty became progressively more marginal (Whitson, 1983). In many parts of the Third World, television audiences are more likely to see European football than their own indigenous league, and, again, traditional and local-based sports become marginalized (Whannel, 1985).

National cinemas play a significant part in the linking of sporting cultures with the symbols of national identity, with Chariots of Fire an obvious example (Johnston, 1985). True Blue, which tells the story of the 1987 Oxford—Cambridge Boat Race and the tensions and disagreements over training and selection that led to the American members of the Oxford crew refusing to row, offers a revealing picture of a clash of cultures, in which the English public school-Oxbridge traditions are triumphantly re-asserted. American cinema’s images of baseball are frequently also implicit statements about American identity (Crawford, 1988). They often allude to the pastoral romanticism that characterizes baseball’s mythology (McCarthy, 1990; Mosher, 1995).

Research Trends

The sociology of sport is an expanding field, and as far as media sport is concerned the areas of globalization and the body are currently the focus of much work.


There has been extensive recent debate on globalization and sport, and although by no means all the discussion centres on the media, many of the contributors see it as central (see Maguire, 1993a). There is general agreement that globalizing processes are at work. Some regard this as a new phenomenon, transcending the established structures of nation-states, seen as of declining relevance. Others see the process as a continuation of established patterns of cultural imperialism. For many analysts, globalizing processes in sport are closely linked to Americanization (Maguire, 1990). Whannel (1985) regards international television sport as a form of Western cultural imperialism.

Jean Harvey and Francois Houle (1994) consider whether Americanization or globalization is the most useful term to apply to sport, and argue that globalization is an alternative to Americanization and imperialism, not a form of it. They argue that the nation-state has been rendered much less important. Maguire (1990) examines the spread of American football to England. but points out with reference to soccer, that cultural exchange is not always a one-way process. Equally, the struggle for hegemony in this field is not confined to the UK—US dominance has been challenged by Europe and Japan. He points out that the commercialization of English sport has helped American commercialized sport to flourish in the United Kingdom.

Kidd (1991), writing in a Canadian context, talks of American capitalist hegemony, whilst Wagner (1990) suggests that the process is mundialization not Americanization and Americanization is just part of the homogenization of sport. Guttmann (1991) says globalization is just part of modernization, whilst McKay and Miller (1991) and McKay et al. (1993) say that the globalization of capital is a key part of the process. Rowe et al. (1994) also remind us of the complexities of international cultural exchange:

In order to comprehend the reach of international images and markets it is necessary to move beyond the simple logic of cultural domination and towards a more multidirectional concept of the flow of global traffic, in people, goods and services.

Maguire has shown how these factors interact in the case of American football and basketball, and Jarvie and Maguire (1994: 231-2 analyse the ways in which, through the globalized production and consumption of ice hockey, events, decisions and activities in one part of the world can come to have significant consequences for individuals and communities in distant parts of the globe. One aspect of the process involves the production of cultural diversities (Maguire, 1993b).

Bellamy (1993) argues that American television and American sports are seeking new TV markets in Europe. However, he sounds a note of caution, suggesting that in a period of rapid expansion in TV sport hours, audience demand for more sport is unknown; that it is not known whether European audiences will develop appetites for American sports; and that with rights payments for sports such as soccer growing rapidly, European broadcasters may not have the means to make high payments.

Sport and the Body

Over the past 20 years the images of sport have come to focus more on the body. The growth of aerobics, workouts and jogging promoted more active images of femininity, but images of Lycra-clad female bodies also produced a sexualization of the sporting female (Hargreaves, 1994). Nor was this process limited to women. The gym, weights and workout subcultures spawned a new male muscularity that promoted a narcissism that objectified the male body. Male bodies are now much more commonly on display for the gaze. White and Gillett (1994) argue that representation of the muscular body as natural and desirable is rooted in an ideology of gender difference, championing dominant meanings of masculinity through a literal embodiment of patriarchal power. The foregrounding of the muscular body as a cultural ideal offers conservative resistance to progressive change and alternative masculinities by valorizing a dominance-based notion of masculinity.

The sociological interest in the body is not, of course, new, and the work of Elias, Foucault, Turner and others has been influential. There is a growing field of research focusing on the body, as can be noted in the launch, in 1995, of the journal Body and Society, the staging of a conferences on Bodily Matters and Bodily Fictions, and the recent publishing of several book-length studies (Butler, 1995; Duncan, 1996; Dutton, 1995; Falk, 1994; Goldstein, 1994; Grosz and Probyn, 1995; Lowe, 1995; Synnott, 1993). Some sport-related studies of this topic have already appeared (see, for example, Blake, 1996; Brackenridge, 1993; Horne, 1994; Horrocks, 1995; Scott and Morgan, 1993), but given the ubiquitousness of images of sport in the media, and the prominent role images of the body have come to play, it will inevitably be a growth area of scholarship.