Leading sport and media scholars unearth the mediatization of sport mega-events

Henk Erik Meier
Institut für Sportwissenschaft, Sozialwissenschaften des Sports
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster

Lawrence A. Wenner & Andrew C. Billings (eds.)
Sport, Media and Mega-Events
274 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017
ISBN 978-1-138-93039-1

Any new book published by Lawrence A. Wenner and Andrew C. Billings – two of the pioneers of media research in sport – will attract scholarly attention. Their recently edited volume on Sport, media and mega-events can correctly claim to have assembled an A-list of scholars with specific expertise in mega events. Thus, one of the biggest advantages of the volume from the perspective of a European audience is that it overcomes a narrow focus on the Olympics and world football. Instead, the contributions cover a broad range of mega-events involving rugby, cricket, tennis, cycling, the Super Bowl and the X Games. Thus, the book is highly instructive from a comparative perspective. In theoretical terms, the volume provides interesting insights as the authors examine mega-events from different theoretical angles. The contributions are inspiring and thought-provoking, which makes it difficult to do them justice within the briefness of a review.

In their highly instructive introductory chapter, Billings and Wenner remind the reader that the study of sport-based mega-events offers important opportunities to understand how sport interacts with the collective psyche of contemporary societies and cultures (p. 4). They define key characteristics of mega-events, that is, a pre-eminent competition, a predictable occurrence, opportunities for historical comparison and the transcendence of traditional meanings of sport. Moreover, they emphasize that the commodified, globalized and “supersized” spectacle that the sports mega-event has become would not be possible without media. Thus, Billings and Wenner aim to locate the volume’s contributions in the broader debate about mediatization in order to understand the larger political-economic forces overlain and at play in the communication process. However, although the editors asked the contributors to interrogate the dynamic particulars of a given event and consider how the forces of mediatization were mobilized in specific contexts, the contributions are characterized by some theoretical diversity. Several theoretical themes appear in the contributions: (1) the increasing complex politics surrounding mega-events; (2) continuity and transformation in the complex interaction between tradition and the forces of mediatization and (3) adverse audience effects of mediatization.

In the first of the two theoretical chapters, John Horne emphasizes disenchantment and increasing contestation of mega-events. Whereas event organizers try to perfect the positive presentation of mega-events, critical and active audiences have emerged and mega-events have become focal points for political protests. The consideration of the global south by event organizers partly reflects the contestation of mega-events in developed countries. Thus, Horne reminds scholars interested in understanding the politics of meaning surrounding mega-events to pay attention to these complexities.

Similar themes appear in the second theoretical chapter by Richard Gruneau and James Compton who theorize mega-events from the perspective of social theory. By contrasting Durkheim and Marx, they argue against a reductionist Marxist view on the production of ideology and the struggle for hegemony in the context of mega sport events. They stress that mega-events “are now among the world’s most prominent forums to protest and debate the irrationalities of neoliberal capitalist globalization with the accompanying modes of exclusion and marginalization”. While rejecting a reductionist Marxist view, the authors believe in “Marxism’s insistence on situating every practice in the ensemble of social relations that make up the production and reproduction of social life is absolutely fundamental in order to move beyond the media-centric character of earlier analyses” (p. 43). However, they detect a need for a renewed critical political economy perspective.

By contrasting Durkheim and Marx, they argue against a reductionist Marxist view on the production of ideology and the struggle for hegemony in the context of mega sport events.

In his chapter on the evolution of the Olympic into a mega-event, Alan Tomlinson presents a very useful periodization of the Olympics, which demonstrates the intensification of scale of media activities in relation to the Olympic event. The chapter by Pirkko Markula focuses on the mediatization of the Winter Olympics as the “second cousin” of the Olympic family. Markula insightfully demonstrates the long term process of the mediatization of the event and demonstrates that the second cousin serves as platform for media experiments. Moreover, Markula predicts that the public opposition to the estimated costs of the Games will increase the necessity of mediatization and commercialization.

In their chapter on the FIFA World Cup, Richard Haynes and Raymond Boyle argue that “if we take a long view on the media’s relationship with the World Cup, what becomes evident is the growing layers of complexity that characterize both its mediation and the mediated event’s engagement with supporters, fans and viewers” (p. 97). However, they also detect considerable continuity, nationalism and expressions of mediated collective identity that play a central role in shaping the popularity and appeal of the World Cup. In contrast, the damaged reputation of the governing body does not seem to affect the event’s popularity.

Toni Bruce examines how the mediatization and commercialization of rugby in New Zealand serves to alienate traditional fans and turns even some into rugby haters. The chapter strikes a common chord among observers of European football, where commodification has transformed patterns of identification and engagement. Dominic Malcolm and Thomas Fletcher report similar effects for international cricket. The authors illustrate how cricket’s popularization is complicated not only by its complex set of rules but by an obscure competition structure. Recent attempts to mediatize the game by, among others, making it faster, have resulted in a cultural shift and created a hybrid, which aims to satisfy purists and interlopers alike. However, the authors are skeptical about the future viability of cricket.

Eileen Kennedy, Laura Hills and Alistair John present an ethnographic analysis of Wimbledon’s mediatization. The authors claim that mediatization does not operate in the same way for all institutions and argue that Wimbledon has its own logic that is discernible in all aspects of its mediatiziation. Thus, while Wimbledon has adapted to a changed media environment, it seems also to have been successful in incorporating media into the existing rythms of the Championships, “preserving the old textures in the new” (p. 140).

Yet, baseball continues to represent a symbol of national pride and American mythic resilience in an era of globalization and mediatization.

A rather different perspective is adopted by Brad Millington and Brian Wilson whose study on the Golf Master tournament focuses on the Augusta National syndrome. The syndrome refers to the fact that due to mediatization the Augusta National – “set in the inimitable Fruitlands terrain, maintained through a perhaps-inimitable level of care” – became a standard-bearer for the golf industry, which proved unattainable and inspired practices detrimental to the environment.

Kirsten Frandsen demonstrate how almost every aspect of the Tour de France has been mediatized and how media, in particular the influx of TV money, have transformed a previously more modest event. She emphasizes that the media are a prerequisite for experiencing the Tour de France in full. In a highly instructive comparison of Formula One racing and the Indianapolis 500, Damion Sturm contrasts the European glamour represented by the Monaco Grand Prix with the insular and ethno-centric vision of “Americana” embodied in the Indianapolis 500. The latter myopic vision might hinder the popularization of the Indy 500. David Rowe examines with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup an event which is located in football’s periphery but in an emerging market. However, Rowe notes the limited appeal of the AFC Asian Cup beyond Asia and emphasizes that the broad concept of mega-event might obscure significant variations among those events.

Michael R. Real and Lawrence A. Wenner revisit the Super Bowl. They show that mediatization might provide a too narrow theoretical framework for analyzing the political economy of mediated sports. Referring to the Frankfurt school, they stress that the popular needs to be taken seriously and that “it’s all about power”. Thus, the Super Bowl represents an invocation of nation in the context of building identification through heroic archetypes. Michael L. Butterworth examines Baseball’s World Series from the perspective of American exceptionalism, that is, an expression of U.S. American superiority. Butterworth notes increasing doubts in the political culture of the United States about its exceptionality. Yet, baseball continues to represent a symbol of national pride and American mythic resilience in an era of globalization and mediatization. Bryan E. Denham describes how the NCAA Basketball Championships, the so-called March Madness, has gone global and plays an important role for recruiting foreign-born players to the U.S. American Basketball industry.

Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton examine the role of the X Games as similar and different to other sporting mega-events. On the one hand, Thorpe and Wheaton stress the particular close relationship between the X Games and corporate sponsors and the event’s key role in promoting consumer lifestyles on a global scale. Thus, action sport stars competing at the X Games have become global celebrities who promote consumer lifestyles. As Thorpe and Wheaton argue, the X Games has modernized the format and presentational styles of other events. On the other hand, despite its global ambitions and its apparent neglect for the national identity of participating athletes, the X Games has become a key cultural site in the production of whiteness.

To summarize: Lawrence Wenner and Andrew Billings have managed to assemble a team of first rate scholars whose expertise in the mega-events examined in the book is beyond doubt. By considering a broad range of sports, this volume illustrates the need for a comparative perspective that pays attention to the diversity of traditions, cultural contexts and politics. Moreover, the contributions make evident that the politics of meaning in the context of mega-events are in flux and that critical scholars might have to revise their theoretical frameworks. Finally, mediatization might fail and/or bring about adverse effects depending on complex interactions of social forces. Thus, any scholar interested in these issues should pay attention to the book. Last but not least, the chapters represent excellent introductions into the mega-events covered.

Copyright © Henk Erik Meier 2017

Table of Content

Part I: Framing Sport, Media and Mega-Events

  1. The Curious Case of the Megasporting Event: Media, Mediatization and Seminal Sports Events
    Andrew C. Billings and Lawrence A. Wenner
  2. Sports Mega-Events: Mass Media and Symbolic Contestation
    John Horne
  3. Media Events, Mega-Events and Social Theory: From Durkheim to Marx
    Richard Gruneau and James Compton

Part II: MegaMediaSport Event Studies

  1. 28 Olympic Summers: Historical and Methodological Reflections on Understanding the Olympic Mega-Event
    Alan Tomlinson
  2. 22 Olympic Winters: The Media and the (Non)Making of the Games
    Pirkko Markula
  3. The FIFA World Cup: Media, Football and the Evolution of a Global Event
    Richard Haynes and Raymond Boyle
  4. The Rugby World Cup Experience: Interrogating the Oscillating Poles of Love and Hate
    Toni Bruce
  5. The International Cricket Council World Cup: A “Second Class” MegaMediaSport Event?
    Dominic Malcolm and Thomas Fletcher
  6. Wimbledon: A MegaMediaSport Tradition
    Eileen Kennedy, Laura Hills, and Alistair John
  7. The Masters Golf Tournament: Media Mega-Event and the Environment Meet the Augusta National Syndrome
    Brad Millington and Brian Wilson
  8. Tour de France: Mediatization of Sport and Place
    Kirsten Frandsen
  9. The Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500: Projecting European Glamour and Global Americana
    Damion Sturm
  10. The AFC Asian Cup: Continental Competition, Global Disposition
    David Rowe
  11. Super Bowl: Mythic Spectacle Revisited
    Michael R. Real and Lawrence A. Wenner
  12. The World Series: Baseball, American Exceptionalism and Media Ritual
    Michael L. Butterworth
  13. The NCAA Basketball Championships: March Madness Goes Global
    Bryan E. Denham
  14. The X Games: Re-imagining Youth and Sport
    Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton 
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