Victoria E. Johnson, UCI professor of film and media studies and African American studies, grew up in the Midwest listening to Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck describe St. Louis Cardinals baseball pitch-by-pitch on the radio. Once the game ended, she’d slowly scan the dial in hopes of picking up the later innings of a game being played out west – an excellent opportunity for the young devotee to scout upcoming National League opponents. Those early seeds of sports fandom sprouted into a career of scholarly research and teaching courses related to broadcast media theory, the social and critical history of U.S. television and popular film, and the media, culture and built environment of sports.
As March Madness in college basketball begins this week, it’s a great time to talk with the author of the recently-published Sports TV, an introductory guide to the history of sports television in the U.S. What are some of the biggest transformations sports TV has experienced in the decades that it transitioned from the classic network era to the multichannel network era to its current state of streaming TV? How has the expansion of viewing opportunities affected sports coverage? Which production changes and new technologies worked well and what might fans expect to see in the future?
This episode of the UCI Podcast was recorded in the podcast studio in the ANTrepreneur Center. Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “Airborne,” provided by Quincas Moreira via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.
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From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to the UCI Podcast.
The month of March is known for “March Madness,” a branded nickname for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament – a time when college hoops fans spend tons of hours passionately cheering on their favorite teams while also toiling in anguish over their predictive tournament brackets. From Selection Sunday on March 12th until the NCAA championship game on April 3rd, televisions all over the nation will be tuned in to watch a field of 68 teams play for their “one shining moment.”
In advance of that upcoming basketball binge – and on the heels of a Super Bowl which saw over 113 million viewers tune in on February 12th to watch The Chiefs eke out a 38-35 win over the Eagles – it’s a terrific time to talk to Victoria E. Johnson, professor of film and media studies and African American studies about her latest book, which is titled Sports TV.
Professor Johnson, thank you for joining us today on the UCI podcast.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Let’s start with your decision to take a deep dive into the history of sports television. What’s your personal connection and what motivated this?
Well, you know, I think from the time I can first remember TV, I was a sports fan and I think all writing is essentially autobiographical in some way. And for me, when I was between the ages of three and seven, my dad was a law professor – and we lived in Norman, Oklahoma, in those years – and I became really interested in Oklahoma Sooner football, in particular, but it was also about the connection with my dad. He would take me to Autograph Day and this was a really dynastic era in OU football, with players like Greg Pruitt and the Selmon brothers and I kind of got to know them not just as what I perceived as heroic players on field, but also, you know, as people that off-field I really admired.
And I don’t think I had the language for it then, but looking back on it, I think a lot of that early formation really started questions in my mind about sports’ relationship to questions of race, gender, and community that then I carried through in terms of my other work on TV, which became really interested in the intersection between race, sports – race and community, in particular, on TV – but also questions of geography and why certain spaces get represented and others don’t, and so forth.
And as I moved through my career professionally, I was always very interested in the TV that people really, really watched and thinking about why things are popular and why often the popular things are less critically analyzed. And so, sports fell very well within that kind of focus in terms of sports always being also about questions of race, questions of community, and also the most popular TV across, not just the US, but across the world and one of the few realms of popular media that still attracts really diversified audiences.
It was certainly the most popular TV in my house and my relationship with my father and my connection to things like the Lakers – the “Showtime Lakers” of my youth and the World Series-winning Dodgers of my youth – led on my own career trajectory into sports broadcasting. So, I understand that connection.
We’ve seen many changes in sports television over time. As someone who has studied this history meticulously, what stands out to you as some of the biggest transformations – the major turning points in sports TV?
As a television historian whose object is sports media, I do tend to think in terms of the medium first. And I think that particularly we see in the broadcast era the ways in which television as an industry and sports as an industry come up together as historic analogs. So, during the broadcast era, there’s a real appeal to the ethic of broadcasting being a kind of shared address to a mass differentiated audience, which sports – as it becomes institutionalized – also has that same kind of appeal to community, a broad community of fans within a particular area being addressed at once in terms of the franchise, the team. And so, that kind of ethic of broadcasting – as sports becomes increasingly national – so does broadcast media. But you still have this kind of notion that sports is a public service in a way, serving a broad community of fans.
And as television transitions into a more niche era in terms of cable, where you can have a particular channel just dedicated completely to sports, you start to see increasingly some kinds of changes in terms of the sports industry itself, in terms of markets being much more focused. And now, we see the final extent of that in terms of – well, probably not the final – but the extension of that to things like app-based media which increasingly refine the audiences of sports into very focused interest groups and move increasingly the address of sports media away from a kind of shared market address to a much more specific kind of niche address.
Do you think then that that’s what’s next – continuing to move in that direction? Or might we see a change back the other way?
Yeah, I mean, I think you can see… this is the other reason sports media is always fascinating because it’s always defined through paradox. You think it’s going one way, but it’s also always retaining all of its past forms as it moves into newer and newer forms. So, you still have a very strong kind of ethos of broadcast media within sports – certainly we see this in March Madness, right? And the Super Bowl, you know, these giant, sports events which attract huge mass audiences – not just in the U.S., but around the globe. But at the same time, you have increasingly refined ability to sort of interact with sports in a very individualized way, through things like analytics-driven apps and gambling-driven apps – in the computer in your hand – helping you interact with what you see on screen.
It’s such a change from… I think we’re similarly aged… and I grew up in the classic network era as it’s defined in your book – the 1950s to the 1980s. And to your point, I never thought when I was watching a game that I would have a device in my hand, or even a computer in my lap, that would let me interact in that way. What has the experience been like for you?
Because my other critical interests in scholarship are critical race theory and cultural geography, I’ve always been really interested in the ways in which sports helps us to reconnect with community – or to connect with or imagine community. And one of the things I find interesting about the streaming era is that for me personally, it has allowed me to, for instance, watch local basketball broadcasts from the town where I grew up, right? So, I can actually – in my living room in southern California – watch my hometown arena in Carbondale, Illinois throughout basketball season, which is not something that, in the broadcast era, I could have been able to do, right?
So, on the one hand you have this sort of global mobility in this media era, but you also have the ability to sort of relocalize your sense of media. I think we sometimes overestimate the idea of how mobile we all really are in this era, but I also think that – as I talk about in one of the chapters in the book – there’s a way in which the sports team is what connects you back to your local sense of self often, regardless of where you are.
And this is something that streaming media actually do allow a reconnection. That and fan clubs for viewing teams from out of town, for instance.
March, known for March Madness, but it’s also Women’s History Month. Women specifically have fought pretty hard to carve out space in the landscape of sports television. How did that expansion of programming, such as the launch of ESPN in 1979, impact women trying to make a mark in sports broadcasting and then along the way also impact the increase of exposure to women’s sports on television?
So, this is an area of sport that I think has really benefited from this turn to streaming and the multi-channel outlets that digitalization offers in TV so that you have sort of mainstream now sports outlets like ESPN able to dedicate a kind of digital tier to women’s sports coverage, which in the past had been really only on their web platforms.
And I think also you see other streaming outlets, the startup outlets for instance, that are able to focus particularly on women’s sports. So here you have – back to the paradox, right? – which is, if you are already a fan of women’s sports and you’re really activist in seeking that coverage out, it’s available to you in multiple different platforms now. But what was potentially – I guess I’m potentially nostalgic for about the broadcast era – is that in, for instance, digest programs like “Wide World of Sports” or something, you would see women’s sports coverage and potentially audiences that might not think they were interested would be exposed to it and then be able to, you know, investigate more where they might see that programming.
There’s still a shocking lack of coverage of women’s sports. I feel like this season there’s been a slight shift to better conversation and coverage of women’s college basketball in mainstream – read: predominantly male – sports journalism. And I wonder if in fact that will help to lead to some shifts?
I think also fan cultures are a bit more enlightened. Younger generations coming up are used to thinking about sports not in terms of “men’s sports”/“women’s sports” – particularly around sports like soccer and MMA. And so, I think that will also help to open up more coverage and attention to women’s sports in mainstream media. But like I say, I think these women’s sports-dedicated channels are proliferating in ways that will also help that conversation.
Can we talk for a minute now about the money involved in sports? One of the folks that you quote in the book talks about how the “real value in US entertainment television has been in continues to be controlling sports rights.” These rights fees are astronomical. Meantime, it seems like the wealth of what’s out there to entertain folks is growing exponentially. There’s so much content taking eyes away from watching sports. What’s next? If sport was once considered the “modern cornerstone of US culture,” where is it now because of all of those increased opportunities?
Yeah, I always say to my students, you know, when we’re talking about sports, it’s never really about sticks and balls, right? Sports is always about something else, and it feels as if there’s been a broader – and this has been theorized by some scholars – as a “sportification of culture,” where sports touches every aspect of our culture in terms of questions of representation, social power, economics, fashion, celebrity.
I think social media has also really helped for athletes to become their own brands in ways that separate them from their teams – if they’re team-sport athletes – but also, you know, sort of position them as back in the film days – the studio system, you had stars who are sort of packaged by their studios to have certain kinds of persona. We see the athletes now with their own kind of vertically integrated media companies and you know, again, their social media presence, but this touches on you now have like basically fashion shows at the beginning of NFL games, right? They’re like posted all over.
So, the athletes themselves are core to that, but also the broader culture is really interested in the ways in which sports are always about these broader questions and also is inherently melodramatic and inherently about community.
For instance, one of the things I think Netflix and other streaming outlets have discovered is that even folks who aren’t sports fans are completely captivated by the sort of mashup of documentary-reality TV-melodrama that are these reality TV series about different sports and that, again, touches on also politics, but fashion and other all of these different elements.
It used to be, you know, the broadcast began… 30 seconds about what to look for – X’s and O’s in the game – and then boom, first pitch. It’s so different now. The productions that happen inside of the game that have nothing to do with the game are really extensive.
Yeah. And I think also one of the things we’re seeing – and I talk a bit about in in the book – is the ways in which you also have an intersection between television coverage of sports and game culture more broadly. So, this also of course appeals to a generation that has come up with gaming, but the ability for the visual overlay technology to look so much like video gaming and to engage viewers in terms of that feeling of a kind of control and interactivity is really important going forward.
And it’s also been a way that sports, which we may think of as dying in some ways – based on their demographics – are reinventing themselves as being significant for whole new generations of viewers. So, we see this happening with professional golf in particular is what I’ve been working on, but apparently other sports like polo for instance, are interested in doing this as well with reality TV series with deals with streamers and, you know, using this kind of video overlay technology to bring in new generations.
What is your favorite video overlay technology?
Oh, well, so yeah, this is interesting. I’m kind of interested in the ones that fail actually, like historically…
That was going to be my next question. I was going to start with success and finish with the duds.
I mean, one of the things I wanted to write about – at some I will, it wasn’t included in this book – but there was an experiment on I believe it was NBC coverage of an NFL football game, which did not include sound – or, I should say, didn’t include commentary.
The idea was to put you in the stands and not have any commentary to anchor the broadcast, and it was a complete disaster. So, that’s like the other direction.
But one of the most successful video overlay technologies ever, which now I think people feel they can’t do without, is the 1st-and-10 line in football coverage.
And now I think that you get these terrific video overlays of, for instance, during the All-Star baseball home run derby, the trajectory of where everybody’s runs are flying out. And you see similar technology in terms of the NBA and college basketball coverage in terms of the array of shots that are taken. And being able to visualize that without being on a coaching staff is a really appealing technology for folks.
I also like the golf shot tracker.
Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing and I do write about that technology in the book because it’s also part, I think, of a broader phenomenon, again, of bringing video game technology into the aesthetics of TV coverage. But this also extends to the built environment of sport, in terms of phenomena like Topgolf, where you can go and basically put yourself in the position of being a touring pro and see those same graphics overlaid on your experience, which is a really fascinating phenomenon to me.
Pretty fun, too.
And pretty fun.
Yeah. If you’re a golfer, top golf is the way.
We talked about a lot of the changes that we’ve seen so far just in how sports are produced. Another change is that constant stream of advertisements now during live game action. You see creatively placed billboards and signage – actual in-game promotions, like the ball is snapped and they go into a split screen and they’re selling you something in a side commercial box next to the live action. How are fans reacting to these modifications?
Oh, it’s a great question. I don’t know how people are reacting necessarily other than the kind of more purest – traditionalists, I guess I should say – in some sports I know are very upset about advertising patches on uniforms. The very overt large swoosh on baseball uniforms was also a big struggle a couple years back.
But in terms of in-game advertising, you know, sometimes that’s another area for tech fail. There was some early hockey coverage on ESPN where the advertising overlays on the ice would, you know, the guys would disappear when they skated over that section of the ice. So, I think there were things that definitely had to be worked out there where it makes the advertising visible in a really unwanted way, right? Because it interferes with the game itself.
I think a lot of times people are able to sort of ignore the green screen – the projected advertising, for instance, in baseball – often. But yeah, the split screen stuff, yeah, I wonder – I think we’ve become a bit inured to it, but I think more so when it’s on the uniforms and on the bodies of the players, that people notice it even more.
But it’s the economy of sports, right? We talked about the outrageous rights fees. They’ve got to pay for it somehow.
Is sports TV even profitable anymore?
No, it’s a loss leader. It’s a loss leader, but it’s still required that telecasters of all kinds have live content. And this is why sports continues to thrive in the sense of even those streaming can attract very, niche audiences, you still have to have the mass, relatively diversified audiences come to your telecast in order to be profitable. But, also in order for them to know, you know, what else they can watch, what new is coming out for advertisers to have eyeballs on a telecast to promote films, let’s say.
And of course, this is one of the reasons we see annually, the Super Bowl as being the most deeply invested in moment of the year for many advertisers. Back in the day, the – I don’t know, this could be apocryphal – but the story was that Master Lock, the padlock company, right? That they only put advertisements in the Super Bowl. That was it. They didn’t advertise otherwise because that was all they needed.
That… and lockers across American high schools. (laughs)
Yeah, I mean, who’s their competitor? But yeah, that was… (laughs)
Interesting. But I mean – and no judgment here – there are many non-sports fans who tune into the Super Bowl just to see the truly creative, incredible advertisements at the commercial breaks.
Yeah, the advertisements, the halftime spectacle. Yes.
What are you researching now? What is your next project on the horizon?
I have a book under contract with Rutgers University Press for a series called “Screening Sports.” And I am writing a volume about the football film – focused on U.S. film.
And then I have another book project in development about the sports built environment and the ways in which particularly the so-called Rust Belt in the U.S. has used sports complexes and urban sports districts to attempt to revive their economy.
But I put this in a larger history that also relates to media history in terms of the post-war U.S. and the development of sports stadiums and sports districts, and now travel team sports complexes and sports tourism such as the Field of Dreams Field in Dyersville, Iowa, as part of a broader shift within the U.S. culture and entertainment economy pegged to sports and the ways in which historically this has also been very much about so-called urban redevelopment in terms of racialized capitalism. Who gets displaced in the name of those developments, particularly as they appeal to notions of shared community at the same time?
Well, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate and a lot of exciting things that you’re going to be researching and new history that you’re going to share with us. And we look forward to those opportunities to read more from you. Thank you for joining us today for the UCI Podcast.
Thank you so much.
I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation and good luck with your brackets! The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.