MEDIA’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ATHLETICS
The role that marketing plays in athletics, and visa versa, is a helpful way to represent the negative impact our media has on children. Our society puts a great level of importance on athletics and they are extremely popular in the media. Since the media is so active in structuring our society this means that athletics must play a significant role as well. To illustrate the issues that our media, and the advertising within it, are responsible for, I use examples of our country’s relationship between children and professional sports. The first issue that illustrates the immoral relationship that the media has with athletics is the idea of branding and selling a sport fan’s loyalty.
MARKETERS SHAPING THE STRUCTURE IN WHICH A SPORTS FAN SUPPORTS THEIR TEAM IN ORDER TO MAXIMIZE PROFIT:
Marketing strategies are quite obviously interested in reaching the large populations of people that follow certain sports teams. This is shown through the extensive advertising that is present in professional and college level sports: examples can be seen everywhere from the commercials to the logos printed on the field, uniforms and even sometimes tattooed on the athletes themselves. Even the televised broadcasts and sports stadiums are funded and named after corporate sponsors. This has become standard practice in athletics that has not been questioned by the masses, and without developing an alternative system the issues that come with this structure will continue to grow. To develop an alternative system that would minimize the negative effects that our media has on athletics and the youth it would have to start with funding because, like any message, the agenda of this media is created by those funding it. The problem with athletics is that the athletes, teams and competitions are not communicating the “message” to the fans. The “message” that is communicated through our media is that of the corporate sponsors responsible for funding the production of the coverage. This idea of the message being communicated by the wrong parties is seen throughout our system of media: music is mainstream and predictable in order to promise profit and minimize risk of being unpopular; women in advertisements are objectified and communicate a message of submissiveness because that’s what sells. The problem with an agenda/message being communicated by someone other than the person responsible for it is that the people who are used to communicate it (artists, models, athletes…etc) are subject to the consequences while the people responsible for it (corporate sponsors) don’t take any risks but get all the profits made at the expense of the person who communicated the message for them. Much like a middle school girl asking her friend to break up with her boyfriend for her, corporations have mastered the practice of having someone else do their dirty work, a practice that I will refer to as “voice throwing” from here on out. To identify the process of “voice throwing” there are three things that need to be identified: first, the ‘victim’ that is being used to communicate the message; second, the sponsor and the message they are trying to communicate; and third, the impact the process has on the ‘victim’. In the case of American sports the ‘victim’ is our sports industry and can be represented as a vast number of examples like professional athletes, sports teams, sports themselves…etc. The sponsor that can be identified is the corporate sponsor, product manufacturers…etc. The negative effects that the message being communicated through the ‘wrong’ medium has on athletics is what this paper will demonstrate. Now that we understand why the structure of our media creates problems in the world of sports we are closer to being able to imagine an alternative structure of professional athletics that would minimize the negative effects that they currently have on children. Before we develop an alternative system, first we will look closely into some of the current issues that are a result of our media’s relationship with athletics and the process of “voice throwing”.
[The following Illustration helps to explain the idea of ‘voice throwing’]
While there are still sports fans that love their team for the traditional reason that they truly have a passion for the sport and support their home squad, the loyalty people have to their sports team has become branded and sold as a tool to shape one’s identity. I believe this takes away from athletics because there are many examples of people only supporting a team because the media has created a structure in which it is the ‘cool’ thing to do. The example of a sports logo being sold as a fashion statement has become more and more prevalent in today’s culture. Every day there are more and more examples of clothing manufacturers altering team logos and colors in order for fans to wear their team’s logo as a fashion statement. This idea of changing a team’s logo so the colors or style can be worn for fashion instead of support of a team represents how athletics have become branded. This branding of teams and athletes takes away from the purity of sports and the sheer love for the game because now there are people wearing the logos of teams that they might not even know is a sports team. This idea of selling a sports team as a clothing brand is a very literal example of how our media brands sports teams in order to maximize profit with no regard for the negative effects it has on the sport. In this example of corporations “voice throwing” the communicator of the message is the sports team whose logo is being changed and the message they are being forced to communicate is “you don’t have to be a fan to spend money on me, you could just use me as a fashion statement.” The negative effects that the process of “voice throwing” has on sports in this case is that it takes away from the values and messages that made sports so popular and exciting today. The sale of their logo as a fashion statement takes away from the legitimacy of a team’s fan base because supporting a certain team becomes the “cool thing to do” and the strength, history and symbolism that the team’s uniform represents is stripped of its significance because now you can get the uniform in whatever color you want depending on what shoes you are wearing that day. I believe that the true fans of sports teams are a victim of this because the more and more these logos are worn as brands by people who don’t necessarily support that particular team, true sports fans find it necessary to prove their loyalty more than ever to distinguish themselves from the group of ‘posers’ that has been created. What’s interesting is that the same companies who sell the logo as a fashion brand still manufacture and sell products that will help the true sports fan communicate their identity, you can buy almost any household item with your team’s original logo on it; products like lamps, chairs, fat-heads, food branders, bed sheets…etc. These companies have created a structure that uses the sports industry as a paradoxical trap that plays sports fans against non-sports fans in order to maximize their own profit.
The following is a funny clip from “South Park” that symbolizes the clash between real sports fans and the sub-culture that clothing companies have created who wear a team’s logo as a fashion statement. This particular episode was about a new sub-culture in South Park that referred to themselves as ‘vampire kids’ who resembeled the ‘goth kids’ in school. This brought up a problem because people started mistaking the ‘goth kids’ as ‘vampire kids’ so throughout the episode the ‘goth kids’ had to work extra hard to be ‘goth’ in order to maintain their image and separate themselves from the ‘vampire kids’.
Much like the ‘goth kids’ in South Park, sports fans are finding it more important to communicate their identity as to not be mistaken for someone who is just ‘posing’ as a sports fan and companies are jumping on the opportunity to make a profit as a result.
The image below illustrates how a “fan” might wear their team’s logo as a fashion statement representing how athletics have become branded, taking away from the purity of sports and the sheer love for the game.
The following video is a very literal example of a company branding a sport fan’s loyalty in order to make a profit, this is a regular practice that our population has become subject to.
Why is it necessary in our society to illustrate your support of a team to the extent of literally branding the food you eat? Why have people become so obsessed with their image as a sports fan instead of just supporting their favorite team during competitions?
MARKETERS TAKING ADVANTAGE OF YOUNG ATHLETES:
This idea of creating a paradoxical trap for consumers in order to maximize profit is one we see every day and are gradually becoming more and more aware of it in advertising. My next example illustrates this idea of taking advantage of trapped consumers and it is important to recognize that it is again the relationship between our media and athletics that is the cause of the problem. The difference between ‘marketing athletics’ and ‘marketing to athletes’ is an important thing to identify. Marketing a product to a sports fan is what we see every day but marketing a product to a young athlete is a whole new problem in itself. A strong illustration of this marketing tactic is provided in early Nike commercials that used the term “it must be the shoes” to explain why athletes like Michael Jordan were able to do such miraculous things on the basketball court. While this is an effective way to sell Jordan’s shoes to the general public, it is the effect that the commercials has on young athletes that aspire to be like MJ. The problem with this practice is that children actually believed that it requires certain sporting equipment to reach the level of their favorite sports stars. Not only does this cause young athletes to create impossible goals for themselves that only set them up for failure, but the strive to be a better athlete by practicing and working hard loses its significance in youth athletics. Youth athletics have become based more on materialism and emulation instead of determination and children no longer learn the positive life lessons that athletics used to offer. In this case of “voice throwing” the message is created by Nike and the victim that is used to communicate it is Michael Jordan. The negative effect that this example of “voice throwing” is that MJ’s practice, hard work and determination is pushed aside and ignored and his success becomes a product of the products he claims to consume. While the importance of practice is ignored and the importance of consumption is increased young athletes follow suit and in turn the values that are responsible for building popularity and success in sports are again forgotten.
This gatorade commercial tells young athletes that in order to “be like Mike” you have to use the same products as him. The end of the commercial even says “Be Like Mike, Drink Gatorade.”
Does MJ have Gatorade to thank for his god-given natural abilities? If a child wants to “be like Mike” should he/she focus more on what products Jordan uses when he plays or his work ethic and practice regiment?
Marketing certain brands to young athletes poses a problem because the fact that young athletes play a certain sport serves as a paradoxical trap in a sense; advertisers don’t need to spend money trying to reach what would otherwise be considered ‘potential’ consumers. This group of consumers is no longer referred to as ‘potential’ consumers because the athletes need to purchase the proper equipment in order to play their sport, guaranteeing manufacturers a constant flow of consumers. The idea that young athlete consumers are trapped in their respective sport’s market allows the equipment manufacturing companies to focus all of their attention on developing marketing schemes. The marketing schemes are different from traditional tactics that are used outside of athletics in the sense that instead of trying to get a young consumer to buy their product they instead try to get the consumer to spend the most money they can on the products their sport requires them to buy. The paradox this brings up is that many young athletes can’t afford the newest equipment that is being used in higher levels and therefore don’t think they are as good as the athletes who can, the stratification of equipment quality becomes a large factor in youth athletics. The hockey stick is a good example of this: in pro shops a top of the line stick sells for just under 200 dollars and because it is so light and delicate it needs to be replaced often. What young hockey players don’t understand is that the pro athletes endorsing the equipment get an unlimited supply for free from corporate sponsors as long as they continue to get kids to desire the equipment they are using. I have never seen a commercial or other advertisement for a Sher-Wood stick because they only run for about 20 dollars and companies don’t want kids spending money on a cheap stick that will last long when they can buy an expensive stick that they will have to replace often. This idea reminds me of the cell phone industry how every year phones get more and more expensive while also get more delicate, smaller and easier to lose.
The following video is an example of manufacturers marketing the idea of a newer technology giving an athlete the sense of an advantage, creating an insecurity in young athletes that in order to compete to their maximum potential they need to purchase the most expensive equipment.
Here is another example of Bauer (a hockey equipment manufacturer) using professional athletes and the idea of “advanced technology” to inject insecurities in young hockey players creating a desire for their product in order to stay ahead of the competition. If and athlete want to be as good as the player in the commercial, they need to buy the stick he uses.
The problem that was illustrated by the example of hockey sticks is present at every level of athletics and it becomes more prevalent in sports that cost more to play to begin with. An early example of this strategy was when Nike commercials used the slogan “its all in the shoes” to give the viewer the idea that they can jump higher by wearing certain shoes. The success that marketers experienced with this strategy gave them reason to develop it but to play basketball all you need is a pair of shoes and a ball that as a whole doesn’t cost very much. The strategy has since been used to its fullest profitable potential because it has moved to target white-collar sports that cost more to play. The idea that you can get a young athlete to spend money on the newest equipment came first and then was mixed with the idea that the sports that require the most equipment have the most potential for profit. What started with basketball soon moved over to sports like hockey, lacrosse and football because the required equipment in those sports is the highest. When the two certain facts about young athletes were realized, marketers jumped on the opportunity to trap another group of consumers. These two facts I am speaking of are: they play a sport and need the proper equipment to play that sport, and they are going to be competitive in that sport which means they will do whatever they can to get a leg up on the competition. The negative effect that the media replaces a young athlete’s personal strive to be a better with products that can do that for you if you are willing to spend enough money.
Who wouldn’t want the shoes that MJ and LeBron wear after seeing these commercials?
The attempt of marketers to target the sports that cost more money is also reflected through the fact that the aspects of individual sports are used by the media to structure marketing depending on what will result in the highest profit. What I mean by this is that basketball equipment sales only has a certain level of profitability so the media markets other aspects of the sport that will maximize profitability, we see this in the relationship that has been constructed between basketball and hip-hop. Basketball equipment is now being sold as a fashion statement and there is an entire sub-culture that comes with it, there are basketball shoes being manufactured and sold that you couldn’t even play basketball in because they will be purchased by people who want to personify the image of hip-hop that the media has blended with the sport of basketball. You don’t see this sub-culture that was created for basketball in the ‘expensive’ sports that were mentioned earlier because the profit made off of the equipment sales for contact sports is high by itself. I think that the creation of sub cultures to sell sporting equipment to non-athletes is dangerous because the athletes themselves now represent that sub-culture whether they want to or not. I do believe that soon enough the mixing of a culture and a sport will become more noticeable in other sports and this is not a good thing. This not only hurts the athletes that become representatives of an image that they may not want but it also takes away from the young athletes that are the professionals of the future. For example, will it be harder for a young athlete to be successful in their sport and develop into a pro athlete if they don’t represent the sub-culture that surrounds their sport? What if a child whose image is that of a short, white country music singer from the south… can he be taken seriously in the world of basketball, or would he not be taken seriously enough to grow into the potential basketball star that he may some day be? The relationship between Adidas and Run DMC was the first, and maybe most significant example of this notion.
Why is it necessary to put together a celebrity basketball game that is made up of hip-hop all stars and pop-artists?
Who created the relationship between hip-hop and basketball? Why? Who is making a profit because of it?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In order to minimize the negative effects that our media has on children in relation to sports we must develop an alternative structure for the relationship between media and athletics. This transition from our current system to a new one is not a simple task and it requires a lot of work to be done before we can even dream of a change. First we need to gain a general consensus of the majority that the current system isn’t working, the easy way to do this would be to wait until the generation of young athletes that is being created in our current system grows up and replaces the current professional athletes and then point at how much less successful and morally just the system will be when that does happen. The problem is that by then it will be too late and the sports industry may be on the downfall, it is not the sports themselves that are the problem because we have had the presence of competition since the earliest humans. The passion and love for competition that provides our societies with important life lessons and morals needs to be restored before it is replaced by whatever system will make the most money for the people responsible for funding our current system. After the majority reaches an awareness of these issues the people who are being affected negatively need to understand that they have a right to be a part of their respective sport without these repressive practices being used by the media. Athletes, for example, need to understand that they have the right to participate in their sport at the level they are able to do so without being taken advantage of by the people who are responsible for funding them. Once athletes are aware that they are not required to be a tool for communicating someone else’s message they can participate in their sport without all the distractions and be driven by the purity of the sport. The third and most important step to constructing a new system for athletics is for the people who are victims of our current system to have a sense of agency. The first two steps are useless without organized groups that will provide alternative methods. There needs to be some sort of organized group that will provide incentive for people to participate in their respective sports, a group that doesn’t have their own agenda and whose sole priority is to provide our population with good competition, youth athletics and entertainment.
The largest contributing factor to our current issues in athletics is where the funding comes from because without funding a sport doesn’t have the ability to pay the athletes and provide coverage to the masses. The root of a new system would have to be an alternative funding program, I think that if the government would provide funding for sports at all levels from television and radio coverage to professional athletes’ salaries to developmental programs for young athletes it would change the structure for the better. There would be a sense of security for all athletes and the government would benefit by gaining public support, all while maintaining one of the most important aspects of our society: the love of the game.