Sport is entrenched in the sociocultural foundations of New Zealand. It has a dominant place in society; belonging in the same category as family, economy, media, politics, education, and religion (Donnelly, 1996). Like many of the aforementioned spheres of our lives, sport is a social construction, providing a window into the sociocultural context of which we live (Allport, 1985). Being a “social construction” we must attempt to understand sport by approaching it as a social fact, therefore sociologically, as opposed to how we would with objects or events in the biophysical world – through science and numbers.
Understanding sociology as “the study of social relations undertaken from the point of view of people who operate within those social relations” (McLennan, Ryan, & Spoonley, 2003) allows us to use information provided to us through the media and theories to understand how a social construction such as sport is part of a society’s dominant cultural ideologies. These dominant cultural ideologies are seen as the everyday logic that people use to guide their ideas, behaviours, and relationships in regards to gender, race, ethnicity, and social class (Coakley, 2004).
Drawing from a critical theorist point of view, I will discuss how the sports media maintain a role in reinforcing dominant cultural ideology in New Zealand. This is the age of the digital revolution. In the last twenty years, the evolution of modern technology has rapidly increased in speed, with emerging innovations ready to make our lives richer, and everything more convenient than it already is. This includes the ability to access information from almost anywhere at any time in first world countries such as New Zealand.
In recent years, the emerging world of social media (websites of sports organisations and sponsors, national news websites, and informal discussions via social networking sites such as Facebook and twitter) has been found to account 81% of the world’s accessed sports media (Laird, 2012). The media in New Zealand has certain degrees of freedom to report, televise, air, or write almost anything that it wants to, with the World Press Freedom Index ranking it at thirteenth in the world regarding freedom of press (Borders, 2012).
To put this in perspective, the United States and Australia were ranked at 47 and 30, respectively, on the same scale (Borders, 2012). With the knowledge that New Zealand holds such a high ranking on World Press Freedom Index, and the emergent use of social media in the sport sector, it is apparent that the New Zealand mass media – highly circulated, commercial, easily accessible media that aim to speak for and to the majority of the people (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007) – has a prominent influence on the country’s society through exposure.
As an example, the London 2012 Olympic Games were heavily commercialised via mass media. Due to New Zealand’s relative freedom of press, much of its society was heavily exposed to adverts of the games on television, radio, newspapers, and in particular, in social media (Laird, 2012). Olympic sponsors spent untold millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to shape, mould and control one thing: consumer use of social media (Horovitz, 2012), reinforcing the statement that the media is a key institution of social production.
The sport and media relationship was initially conceptualised as symbiotic – that is the mutual reliance of one institution upon the other (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007). However, the critical theory sees sport as a social construction that systematically privileges some people over others (Sage, 1990), and many will argue that because media executive have more control over some sports than administrators, sports’ traditional values and ethos have been shattered and replaced with crass commercialism (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007).
As opposed to mutual reliance on each other, media and sport have reached a state of being vertically integrated – that is media or sport being hierarchical over the other (Falcous, 2005). The NBA is one of the best examples of vertical integration by media corporations as it is so easy to see (Gundersen, 2010). The Time-Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the home arena of the Charlotte Bobcats. Each of the Bobcats’ home games are broadcast on TNT, a Time-Warner subsidiary, and Time-Warner itself is Charlotte’s largest cable provider.
Whether you go to the game, or watch it on television, you have to go through Time-Warner (Gundersen, 2010). “Not only do you see the name of the corporation on the court during the game, but the announcer constantly reminds you where the game is being played. During commercial breaks, and during the game itself, there is a constant barrage of commercials for other Time Warner programs” (Gundersen, 2010). “Such patterns of ownership give the opportunity for cross promotion between the varying outlets and products of corporate empires” (Falcous, 2005).
Regardless of whether vertical integration is in action, much of how we interpret sport is filtered through the media anyway (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007). When it comes to gender relations in sport, in which sport has always been seen as a male right and a female privilege, the media have been slow to register the changes in the closing gap of gender equality in sport, perhaps because athletic women and girls symbolically threaten masculine hegemony (Duncan & Messner, 1998).
Because of this, the majority of coverage of female sport is aesthetically pleasing, such as figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics, which are “appropriate” and thought to be consistent with conventional femininity (Duncan & Messner, 1998). Stereotyping female athletes as attractive and feminine shifts attention from their physical prowess to their looks, and minimises the symbolic threat sportswomen pose on male hegemony (Duncan & Messner, 1998). The media, usually niche media – media that is commercialised by journalists, photographers, or film-makers aiming at members of a particular subgroup of sport or activity e. g.
Golf (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007) – still use gender marking, which is not reflective of most of society. This usually forces society to view women in a secondary light. NBA (National Basketball Association) and NWBA (National Women’s Basketball Association) are excellent examples of asymmetrical gender marking, where the organisations have “cast female athletes in a derivative secondary role” (Duncan & Messner, 1998), by announcing that they are not simply a national league, but one specific to women. This is seldom seen in cases of men’s sport. In saying this, men’s sport is not free from gender constructions in the media.
The media tend to force men’s sport into a masculine light, where they are objectified as tough, muscular warriors, “who use sport as an outlet to show off their competitive manner outside of war” (Sage, 1990). The machismo of sport limits men’s options as to how they are portrayed in society. Because it is so important ideologically for male athletes to maintain the image of strength, masculinity, and hegemonic power, media characterisations tend to play up images of strong men (Duncan & Messner, 1998). A classic example of this is the national rugby team, the All Blacks, who represent the country in the “nation’s game.
” These men are objectified as warriors, whose international status is heavily based around the symbol of the haka, with the media advertising them using pictures of traditional Maori warriors overseas. The critical theorist however, would explain this as a way for the media to control gender relations, and have male hegemonic power at the forefront of a national sport. This is highly relevant in the way that society are forced to view a particular aspect of sport. Using the previously mentioned statement: “much of how we interpret sport is filtered through the media anyway” (Bruce, Falcous, & Thorpe, 2007), reinforces this proclamation.
It is not uncommon to find many of the beliefs held in society, reflected in sport. Dominant cultural ideologies are contested and struggled over in everyday life (Falcous, 2005), sport included. Falcous’ Media-Sports Complex allows us to view sport in a light that we are not subject to as consumers. It is a key text in understanding what we buy in to, and why or how we have come to the decisions that we have regarding sport in society and culture. It is with things such as the Olympics and highly advertised games that we question: “why did I actually watch that?
” It is rarely because you are an avid fan, or active in the sport, but because the media filters the raw reality of the situation, to a point where the act of watching the sport is seen as desirable and rudimentary to your life. With examples of the NBA and NWBA, we are forced to view women in a secondary light to men when it comes to sport, and this is a global phenomenon. In conclusion, the media, be it mass media, niche media, or micro media, have a certain amount of control over sport; how it is viewed, and how it is perceived in society.
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