Reading Sport Critically in the Networked Digital Media Landscape (Part 1)

This post represents a thought experiment (with more questions than answers) about some of the challenges that scholars researching sport and sport media face regarding the ways in which we conceptualize and theorize our topics. Of course, concepts and theories inform methods, so this is a reflection on our choices about methods as well. I do not present original research in what follows, but instead attempt to open up an admittedly focused and limited discussion drawing from what I perceive to be only some of the myriad texts that might offer key insights on the subject. The works I engage with have been useful and inspiring to the extent that they have forced me to consider how one should approach sport media products as sources and evidence, including the questions asked of them and the answers one assumes they can provide. Specifically, I begin to interrogate the implications of the changes and continuities of sport media in the digital age for the highly influential reading sport method developed by Susan Birrell and Mary G. McDonald.

Two intellectual-political positions and commitments shape this discussion as well. First is my interest in dismantling the structural and systemic gender inequalities of the sport-media-commercial-cultural complex; and second, a presumption that sport as a political, social, economic, and cultural institution will not be a fully humane, egalitarian, progressive and positive space without transformation of the monopolistic political economy of the Internet and digital media.[1]

Cultural Studies and Reading Sport

Clearly, any analysis of the broader social meanings of contemporary sport must take into account the fact that for millions of people, their dominant experience of sport is not as athletes, but as spectators of a mediated public spectacle.[2]                           

Cultural studies and feminist perspectives provide crucial theoretical orientations for the ways in which I conceptualize sport, the body, and mediated (re)presentations of both. Moreover, these theoretical perspectives inform my thinking on power, identities, social formations and arrangements, as well as the wider political economy and forces characteristic of late global capitalism and the social, cultural, and economic formations that undergird the production, distribution, and consumption of sport practices in our contemporary historical moment.

A particularly fruitful way to go about exploring these ideas is through a cultural studies framework. Cultural studies projects privilege a radically contextualized search for the workings, influences, and relations of power and meaning between social structures and human agents.[3] A cultural studies scholar should always be looking for where power is embedded, contested, and struggled over across a broad range of identities, social formations and institutions. The goal is not simply to identify sites of hegemonic functioning, but to open up possibilities for ways to understand, resist, question, critique, reverse, transgress and/or transform social arrangements based in exclusionary politics of domination and subordination. While there are “no necessary correspondences” between social formations, determinate relations do exist that tend to replicate inequalities rooted in capitalist systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, sexism, heteronormativity, and homophobia.[4]

As McDonald and Birrell argue, these multiple axes of power lines are always already woven together at various social conjunctures and moments, but not in equal or consistent ways.[5] Therefore, within the webs of producer-consumer-text, assessing who has the ability to produce dominant meanings and narratives, and how, is a crucial component of the work of cultural studies scholars of sport. To build off this, presumably, requires an understanding that meanings and interpretations are neither fixed nor determined, but negotiated through interactions and the dialectical relations between structure and culture. Moreover, in a sport context, this means getting beyond the superficial and surface-level infatuations with an event, athlete, scandal, or moment of ostensible national unification or even international harmony. It requires unearthing what is special or different about it as a site to illuminate something about the workings of culture, power, knowledge, discourse, politics, and so on.

The Question of Power

Power is amorphous and shifts depending on social, historical, cultural, political, and economic factors.[6] Therefore, it is the burden of the researcher to determine the specificities of power’s articulations, or the form of a connection that makes a unity of different ideological, embodied, or intellectual elements, under particular conditions. The key is the linkage which is not necessary, determined, essential or absolute, but forged and remade anew in particular settings.[7] In other words, in what ways is power made manifest in certain social actors, systems, and collectives, in order to highlight particular categories while obfuscating others? While the power lines are always woven together, some are generally seen as more prominent than others, which remain hidden or invisible based upon contextual factors. Adding to the difficulty of identifying the simultaneously productive and constraining capabilities of power is locating its structural and ideological components within constantly contested and relational formations. According to Foucault, power is a productive network dispersed throughout the whole social body that produces and traverses, induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, and establishes discourses.[8] In short, oftentimes power works paradoxically through situations, spaces, places and spectacles that provide pleasure, such as sport, with the support of those who do not benefit from it.

Reading (Networked Media) Sport

David Rowe offers an important insight for our understanding of the sport/media/commercial/cultural complex for the present and future. He suggests,

“The existence of a sport-media complex, and the interdependencies that it creates between parties including athletes, associations, clubs, fans, media corporations, telecommunications companies, sponsors, advertisers, suprastate bodies, and national governments, does not usher in an inevitable stability but creates the conditions for a series of alignments, alliances, and conflicts around the mutating culture of media sport.”[9]

While Rowe considers the current structures of the sport media complex in terms of the rights and powers of nations and corporations to set the terms of production, circulation, consumption and use, his analysis implies the need for media sport scholars to understand the rapid, vast changes of the industry while retaining the “sociohistorical sensibility that contextualizes (changes) in terms of how they occurred, who benefited from and resisted them, and their implications beyond the limited preoccupations and well-rehearsed sentiments of interested parties.”[10]

The complex array of forces in the above-mentioned series of interdependencies and interested parties form the crux of the power issues at stake in the meanings and representations that circulate around, among, and through sport media. For those who utilize sport media in their research, it is imperative to keep pushing conceptual and theoretical understandings of the media in concert with the transformations and mutations of the sport/media complex. This terrain has shifted in depth and complexity in a “networked digital media sport landscape”, that Rowe argues, no longer allows for the self-evident separation of the constituent elements of “sport,” “media,” “commercial,” and “cultural,” to which I might add “academic.”

One of my central goals as a graduate student has been to develop the perspicacity of cultural studies sensibilities that allow for the “reading” of sport and other social, political and mediated formations critically. That way, I might help engender salient interventions in complex, contradictory, and damaging power relations that disproportionately suppress and oppress racial/ethnic minorities, women, lesbians, gays, trans* and queer-identifying people, as well as the poor and differently abled. On that note, it is critical as an aspiring cultural sport media studies scholar to understand how mediated forms have changed radically in recent years. Hutchins and Rowe argue that the last decade of “digital plenitude” via computers, the Internet, mobile and other digital media does represent an important shift in the history of sport and media, one similar to the 1950s and 1960s with the proliferation of television. In short, the issue of the production, distribution, and consumption of mediated sport texts has exploded. The new “media sport content economy” is marked by the intensification of content, acceleration of information flows, and expansion of network capacities.[11]

While television has been re-positioned and redefined, but not replaced by web/digital media, print accounts are no longer the dominant way sports fans follow athletes and events.[12] Fans, consumers, or “prosumers” help to co-create/challenge/reinforce/edit sport media narratives on sports blogs, websites, and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and doubtless hundreds if not thousands of other “apps” with which I have limited familiarity. Given the fragmenting, wide-ranging accessibility and availability of popular sports media sources in digital communications environments, sports organizations and media juggernauts are responding quickly, if confusingly and unevenly, to find ways to retain their massive revenue flows.

Such restructuring of networked media is not simply displacing various “older” media, rather there are continuities with sports coverage on these multiple platforms. The forms of professional sport and economics in the administration of the sport-media-commercial-cultural complex are also experiencing the tensions of change and continuity. As we continue to access, interpret, and analyze sport media articles, videos, podcasts and blogs for our research projects, are we aware of the concomitant shifts in federal communications policies, the nature of online media markets, advertising and promotional strategies and revenue streams, the state of journalism (see here and here) and fan motivations and practices?

Therefore, how does the method of reading sport translate under these dynamics and interactions? How do these changes in technologies, media and communications open up questions for how “texts” are being consumed and read? As scholars, (or activists, coaches, athletes, students, teachers, and so forth) once we have crafted our counter-narratives, how do we intervene into the resistant sphere of political possibilities? Where should we publish? For what audiences? Where do our commitments lie? (How) are we using our cultural critiques to enact social change? In this seemingly infinite environment, how do we reflexively come to understand counter-narratives that “matter,” ones that uncover and foreground alternative accounts that have been “decentered, obscured, and dismissed by hegemonic forces”?[13]

Old/New Media and Sport History

There is a moment, before the material means and the conceptual modes of new media have become fixed, when such media are not yet accepted as natural, when their own meanings are in flux. At such a moment, we might say that new media briefly acknowledge and question the mythic character and ritualized conventions of existing media, while they are themselves defined within a perceptual and semiotic economy that they help to transform.[14]

I do not have any provisional answers to these questions yet. But it is imperative to avoid the hyperbole of both utopian and dystopian responses to the readjustment of media (sport) industries and cultures. All media were once considered “new media” and therefore studying new media entails a wider historical lens.[15] We have a lot to learn from situating today’s new media and “old” media within their historical contexts and scholarly discourse that seeks to unearth the seemingly naturalized relationships between professional sport and the political economy of commercial media. Supplanting this old/new media truism with either wholly celebratory visions or pessimistic polemics deflects attention away from those individuals and groups actively negotiating these circumstances, including media industry corporations and professionals, sports organizations, clubs and teams, telecommunications conglomerates, the news media, industry regulators, legal representatives, athletes, bloggers, and fans.[16]

As sport is an absolutely central, but curiously under-examined component to the structure and functioning of global media markets and cultures, how much do we really grasp of how globalized capitalist sport got to this point, where it is now, and conjectures of where it might be heading? Hutchins and Rowe claim it is “increasingly hard or pointless to separate the techno-social materiality of sport from representation and experience.”[17] In short, as we might have used to think of living with media, some (many?) assert we now live in media. This insight corresponds to a transition with complex and kaleidoscopic epistemological, ontological, and ethical implications, from studying sport (alongside) media to studying sport as media. But how much do we also understand of the digital divide, and differing experiences based on entrenched and unequal categories of social identities?

In a future post, my response to the question “So what” for Sport (and Media) History? will form “Part 2” of this consideration of the implications of the networked sport media landscape for reading sport critically.

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate specializing in Sport Studies within the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is currently serving as a graduate student representative for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @daintepoel


[1] This statement builds off of Michael A. Messner’s assertion of two requisites for the humanization of sport: boys and girls who are brought up and nurtured in an equal manner, with work shared equally by men and women, and secondly that all social institutions (e.g. schools, workplaces, families, the state) must be reorganized in ways that maximize equality for all people. Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 171-172. See also Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New York: The New Press, 2013.

[2] Messner, Power at Play, 164.

[3] David L. Andrews, “Coming to Terms with Cultural Studies,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 26, 1 (2002): 111-112.

[4] Ibid., 113.

[5] Mary G. McDonald and Susan Birrell, “Reading Sport Critically: A Methodology for Interrogating Power,” Sociology of Sport Journal 16 (1999): 284.

[6] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 119.

[7] Stuart Hall, as cited in Andrews, “Coming to Terms,” 114; McDonald and Birrell, “Reading Sport Critically,” 294.

[8] Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 119.

[9] David Rowe, “The Sport/Media Complex: Formation, Flowering, and Future,” in A Companion to Sport ed. David L. Andrews and Ben Carrington (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 2013), 71.

[10] Ibid., 73.

[11] Brett Hutchins and David Rowe, Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport (New York: Routledge, 2012), 4-17.

[12] Hutchins and Rowe, Sport Beyond Television, 9-11.

[13] McDonald and Birrell, “Reading Sport Critically,” 295.

[14] Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (eds.), New Media, 1740-1915 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), xii.

[15] Gitelman and Pingree, New Media, xi.

[16] Hutchins and Rowe, Sporty Beyond Television, 11.

[17] Ibid.

One thought on “Reading Sport Critically in the Networked Digital Media Landscape (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: “So What” for Sport (and Media) History? | Sport in American History

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