Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000

Sport, Culture and the Media

David Rowe
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335202020 (pb); 0335202039 (hb)
13.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)

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Sport has played an important part in the globalization process, providing some of the largest-scale and most regularly repeated global spectacles. The Olympic Games and the football World Cup have huge worldwide television audiences, whilst the export of US sports has created some of the most highly paid superstars in the world. As the importance of this contribution has been more widely recognized, research work has increased on media sport, global media spectacle and the intensifying connection between top-level sport and the national and international media. David Rowe's book brings together a lot of this material, from studies in the UK, the US and Australia. The book is pitched somewhere between an introduction to the topic, for students specialising in degree options, and a research monograph, featuring Rowe's own pioneering work on sports journalistic practices, and some sophisticated theorising on the political economy of sport and its associated semiology.

The first part of the book , "Making Media Sport", comprises a socio-historical overview, the author's research on sports journalism and journalists, and the political economy of the sports media. The second part, "Unmaking the Media Sports Text", covers changes in modes of commentating and writing, sports photography, screened sports coverage, and an afterword on cybersport (new technologies and consumers). I particularly liked the first section of the introduction (Chapter 1), which constructs "a day in the life of the media sports consumer". It takes the conceit of the inter-planetary visitor and shows how "for earthlings", sport "is an omnipresent part of their lives whether they like it or not" (p.2). This is a really useful opening exercise, and should engage students and draw them in to the book and its themes.

The socio-historical background is fairly straightforward and conventional. What Rowe brings to the field is a scholarly immersion in cross-cultural study, so strengthening the overall case concerning the place of sport in globalized consumer culture. But the book comes really, and distinctively, alive in the third chapter on the discipline of sports journalism. Why is sports journalism so highly acclaimed in the US, compared with the UK and elsewhere? In both Australia and the UK, print-based sports journalists lack status within the profession of journalism, "guilty of sins of truth denial, dubious ethics and misplaced apostrophes" (p.40). Many journalists simply "stumbled" into sports journalism (p.45). Print journalists of sport are also said to be too cosily complicit with their sources, clubbish, hugely male-dominated, and in search of an elusive clear role, given that the broadcast media dominate event coverage, and the associated transmission and dissemination of results. Rowe provides in this chapter a sober and balanced account of the men (and some women) who make the sport stories. It is valuable for professional courses in journalism, as well as sport studies, media studies and sociology students.

Rowe concludes that "visual broadcast sport" echoes "across society and culture in a continuous feedback loop", and that sport has a formidable "amoeba-like cultural capacity to divide and re-form" (p.165), captured in the range of forms of sports media texts. Sport, culture and the media constitute for Rowe an "unruly trinity ... a dynamic metaphor of contested power and protean forms" (p.171). In theorizing all this, Rowe employs an integrated political economy and semiology, so that the contribution of sport to the "consciousness trade" and the "culturalization of economics" (pp.66-71) can be fully grasped. He also makes convincing comparisons with other popular cultural forms such as pop and soap opera, and gives a lot of space to illustrating the dramatic elements of media sport. There is some interesting discussion of sport movies, though the still image included from the film of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch may well display, for an English football fan of Rowe's generation, a nostalgic irony. Actor Colin Frith gesticulating with frustration over the Subbuteo table football pitch (p.164) is a far from globally resonant image. But it captures beautifully the stark contrast in the sport/culture/media dynamic between an earlier phase of more innocent consumption, and the knowing net-surfing, channel-zapping consumer choices now on offer.

The book is written with passion and conviction, as the author demonstrates in the veiled reference to his own support for Plymouth Argyle Football Club (p.170), and hypothetical references to the "cold, wet masochists" who might watch fallen English football giants Burnley (p.106). It is accessibly written, but not needlessly simplistic. It reviews a critical field for media studies, sport studies and the sociology of consumption. Rowe's book should become a core text for years to come.

Alan Tomlinson
University of Brighton

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000