Fans may watch televised sports for many of these reasons, but this involvement is not without its costs. Here the difference between sports and television’s other forms of programming becomes clearer.
That is, unlike soap operas and situation comedies, sports exist apart from television. Major league baseball, for example, was born before radio ‘was invented and developed its rules, traditions, nature and character apart from television.
Moreover, sports are played in front of and for paying customers. This produces two important tensions. First, what have sports lost and gained from their wedding to television? Second, what have fans lost and gained?
The gains might be obvious. The leagues and athletes have prospered. More and more teams and tournaments are played in more and more cities and fill more and more television screens.
Television has helped create tremendous interest and excitement for the public, turning the Super Bowl, for example, into something akin to a national celebration.
The losses, however, might be less obvious. Trying to explain dips in television ratings and attendance at games in the 1993 NFL season, for example, sports reporter Bud Geracie of the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “Terry Bradshaw (former NFL quarterback and Hall of Fame inductee) says that although Dallas is ‘as good as any team that’s ever played, the league as a whole isn’t fun to watch.’
Is this a temporary lull in the action, or a permanent condition? Is this (1993) NFL season the product of fluky misfortunes, or is it the beast born of parity.
The NFL wanted parity and took measures to achieve it and you can’t argue with the logic or the success of the concept.
The NFL wished to maximize the number of teams in play-off contention late in the season, thereby maximizing fan interest, TV ratings, revenues and the rest. This is what the NFL bosses sought, and this is what they got.
What they seem to have lost in the process is the big game. ‘There are no big games between 5-4 teams vying for wildcard spots,’ said Bob Costas of NBC.”
Television has also been instrumental in changing sports in other not-so-obvious ways, for example in the alteration, even the destruction, of traditional college sports conferences.
In February 1994 four schools, The University of Texas, Texas A and M, Texas Tech and Baylor, left the 80 year old Southwest Conference to join another regional conference, the Big Eight.
One goal was to cash in on ABC’s promise to pay the newly expanded league between $85 million and $90 million for the next five years, with the promise of an additional $10 million if this new football “super-conference” developed a play-off.
Other schools in the former Southwestern Conference were left behind. Bubba Thornton, alumnus and track coach of one of the jilted schools, Texas Christian University, lamented in a Sports Illustrated interview.
“What the Southwest Conference was about was Sartell towns and big cities, Texans against Texans, wives and girlfriends dressing up, bragging rights, the Methodist preacher talks talking Sunday morning about beating the Christians [Church of Christ], all the things that keep you going.
We were about tradition all these years instead of instant gratification and egos. This decision will come back to haunt us.”
The 1994 World Series fell victim to baseball’s labor problems, but at the root of the dispute that also killed the last half of that season was the inability of the sports’ owners to resolve “revenue disparities” between the small and large television market teams.
The 1994-95 National Hockey League season lost nearly half its contests as well as its All Star Game to precisely the same dispute among its franchise owners.
Still, the future of sports on television is certainly one that promises more contests on the screen and more transformation of both the games and the medium.
It’s widely accepted, for example, that one reason the networks paid such large rights fees to the professional sports leagues throughout the 1980s was to keep them out of the hands of pay-per-view television programmers.
In the short term the strategy was successful. But virtually every cable system in America offers at least boxing on a pay basis and the Sports Channel is, for all intents and purposes, pay television. What will happen to competitiveness, franchise stability, and scheduling as individual teams become star attractions?
What will happen to the look of the broadcasts and the nature of the games if television “tickets” rather than advertising become the basis of program support? What will changes in the economics of the sports-television marriage mean to the teams, the medium and to the fans?
What technological innovations (in covering the games and in distributing them) will we see and what might be their impact?
Answers to these questions are neither immediate nor obvious. But as a sports reporter might put it, “one thing is certain” sports will continue to be closely intertwined with developments in television. Major events will continue to serve as national rituals.
And audiences will continue to follow favorite teams and celebrity players, watching from a distance as the skills, the strength, the speed, and the tactics of athletes, coaches, and owners are pitted against one another on the screen in the home.