Professional sport has always tried to entertain an audience to make money. Since the advent of the electronic mass media, the focus of the entertainment has shifted from the live audience to the remote. This has forced changes to the rules and structure of the more popular sports to increase their compatibility with the media. Although the driving force behind the alterations is ultimately economic profit, the nature of the changes is determined by the technological needs of the media. Many fans and devotees of particular sports see these changes as breaks with tradition which will have a detrimental effect on the future of their game. However, it could also be argued that "the technology is the message" (Potts 1) because sport has a long history of being changed by new technologies.
To gain a true understanding of why the focus of professional sport has shifted to the remote audience all you have to do is attend a match on a rainy day. Early this year I went to watch Essendon play the Sydney Swans at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The game was close until the last five minutes and was an extremely exciting spectacle, which would have had me on the edge of my seat if it weren't pouring. I didn't have an umbrella and I was trying to make sure no water got down between my jacket and the bottom of my seat. I was faced with an interesting emotional situation of enjoying a highly skilled game and wanting the whole pointless exercise to finish so I could get dry. I wished I'd stayed home and caught the game on TV.
Being wet and suddenly not knowing whether it was worth the effort annoyed me. The thought of TV made my mood worse because it was then that I noticed something for the first time. In Australian Rules, every time a goal is kicked the ball is returned to the centre of the field and bounced again to restart the game. I have memories of playing in many games where a goal was kicked and the ball raced back to the centre by an over-zealous umpire who then bounced the ball, smugly re-beginning the game before any of the actual players made it back. This was not happening at the SCG.
When the ball returned to the centre the umpire waited. Once he saw a light flashed from the Channel 7 box, he bounced the ball. I knew immediately what was going on from the number of times I'd watched a game on TV and it had restarted before the ad finished. The ad light was holding up the excitement of the game and prolonging my stay in the rain.
The umpire had to wait for the light to flash so the drama for the TV audience was heightened. Sport is perfectly suited to the medium of TV because "the intrinsic properties of TV will favour expression, spectacle and emotion over reason and argument" (Potts 8). Professional sport is almost entirely spectacle. The skills, the costumes and the physiques of the players all appeal to the public. The skills, the costumes, the physiques of the players all appeal to the public. The expressions on the faces of the players in close-up provoke emotion in the audience. The score has a narrative movement that creates a dramatic tension for the audience. Watching a delayed telecast, people go out of their way to not know the score in advance so that the tension and entertainment will be higher.
The relationship between sport, television and, to a lesser extent, other forms of media, "is commonly described as the happiest of marriages" (Rowe 32). The media offers exposure (which generates sponsorship) as well as rights fees. Sport offers the media an almost perfect composition. Viewers are drawn to watch because "it presents a spectacle of content, drama, excitement and eventual resolution" (Wilson 37).
The rate at which goals are kicked in Australian Rules allows the TV broadcaster regular opportunities to get on with its primary work: advertising. Before the flashing light was introduced, an advertisement would often finish after the game had restarted. The TV audience would be bought back to attention by the return of the program only to find the narrative already in progress.
With the light this is no longer the case. A goal is scored, the narrative moves, and an ad allows the viewer freedom to move around or change the channel (a vital requirement of the ease necessary in the medium). The viewer returns to see the tension mount again.
But what does this gain for the TV broadcaster? It is unlikely that this single change would determine a significant shift in audience size. A viewer may be momentarily put off by coming back to an already moving game but not to the point where they change channels. It doesn't affect the advertiser because their ad is played in full whatever happens. The light doesn't actually do anything to boost the broadcaster's income or ratings.
It does, however, signify a change in the public consumption of professional sport. The focus of sport as entertainment has shifted from the live audience to the remote audience. The flashing light is not the first example. It simply stood out to me because of my background and the situation I was in. Most US sports have undergone tremendous change, affecting everything from the length of the game to the basic structure of the rules. Changes have occurred in these sports to suit the remote audience, via the media. This audience would rather stay at home and view a more detailed coverage in the comfort of their own home where the benefits far outweigh the losses. They have instant replays, commentary, statistics, no foul weather or uncomfortable seats and, most importantly, if the game turns out to be boring, they can watch something else. It is "a more satisfying and pleasant way of experiencing sport" (Rowe 147) and can attract new fans.
Professional sport is trying to appeal to a larger audience as a whole, trying to get its share of the ratings. Audience shares have become a medium of exchange: the larger the audience the greater the revenue. This audience needs to be constantly entertained to stop it from pressing another button on the remote.
But this is not the first example of technology changing the nature of sport. Every sport has been integrally linked with technology from its very beginning. As technologically induced change occurs in society it is reflected by changes in the nature of sport. Cricket is bound by the technology involved in the manufacture of the bat and the ball. As rubber developed and wood machining advanced, the bat advanced and batting became easier; as leather working advanced, the ball advanced and the bounce off the pitch became truer; as mechanical engines advanced, the lawn mower advanced and the ground became smoother and easier to play on. All these technological advances make changes to the way the game is played. The scientific study of physiology advanced the technology of the shoe and thereby athletics. The medically derived technology of the performance-enhancing drug changes almost all professional sports. The list goes on. Advances that affect society are reflected by professional sport. This encompasses more than just advances in materials and engineering processes. It includes the way culture follows economic systems and divides itself up into markets and work forces. Hence, the development of the professional sportsperson.
Sport must capture its market in order to survive and must be compatible with changes in culture. Information technology is becoming a force in most areas of our lives and is changing the way our culture operates. Sport will change along with this and will be modified by the introduction of digital technology and the Internet. Technology creates an excess of information which changes the consumption of sport which introduces an ad light at the SCG which makes (me) the viewer want to go home and watch the TV. The technology is the message.