Sports Books, Popular Culture, and Audiences

By Brett L. Abrams

Like many of you, I finished a book and quickly realized how much more work remained as one faced the challenges of marketing the work! Terry Bradshaw: From Super Bowl Champion to Television Personality emerged from Rowman & Littlefield which is a good press with a small publicity department. Since I wanted to sell books in the academic and larger worlds, I realized that I needed to expend a lot of energy seeking people who would be interested in the book’s topic. While looking among journals, websites, and social media locations I discovered that football would be a good place to focus because few sites and groups appeared focused on celebrity and television sportscasting.

51tLpvOklsL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Meanwhile, the R&L staff’s performed their major task of submitting review copies to four major library journals. Library Journal reviewed my book along with nine other books related to college and professional football that came out this summer and fall. The striking sentence came at the conclusion of the blurb: “VERDICT A unique take on Bradshaw’s life and career primarily of interest to students of pop culture rather than football fans.”

Wow. Never mind that five of the Bradshaw book’s ten chapters feature Bradshaw playing football and two more focus on his announcing and analyzing the game. The three other chapters cover Bradshaw as a musician, an actor, and as a pitchman for a wide-range of commercials. Does the inclusion of those three chapters push the book beyond the boundaries of football fans’ interests? Clearly, the reviewer believed that certain types of books “fit” the supposed interests of football fans. An examination of the starred books in the review indicated that the books of greater interest to football fans included biographies of football players and stories about single games or teams in a season.

I enjoy writing sports history because it serves as a lens through which to see cultural and social trends and historical moments. The Bradshaw book appears along with Adam Criblez’s Tall Tales and Short Shorts  in a series called Sports Icons and Issues in Popular Culture. The reviewer’s comment made me wonder about the audiences for these types of sports histories. First, are sports fans as limited in their interests as the reviewer indicated? Second, are the audiences of sports fans and popular culture readers as divided as he seemed to believe?  I figured this could be answered anecdotally while I went about this marketing process.

The R&L Publicity Department relies on authors to provide them with other journals, blogs, and writers with an interest in your book. I submitted the list in the late spring. Almost everyone of my locations focused on sports. If the reviewer’s point is accurate, how many of these sites would publish a review? I’m waiting to find out in the majority of the cases. However, I contacted three Steelers-focused blogs directly about having them review the book. One declined and one accepted a copy with an expectation of a review. I have not received any response from the site with the largest readership.

Meanwhile, I followed the publicity department’s suggestion to begin marketing through social media outlets. Here I would get the chance to see the interests of sports fans for a type of book like mine. I found Twitter to be limited because I had few contacts and could not find the groups of potential audience members there. Instagram features photographs and captions so I also devoted little effort toward it.

However, I have a moderate-sized network of friends on Facebook already and created a page for the book. After inviting the people I already knew to the page, I began looking for groups that might be interested in the book. Intriguingly, I found direct hits, such as groups interested in 1970s NFL and Pro Football Books. The former paid little attention to my announcement of the book on Bradshaw, while many members of the latter offered acknowledgement with at least a “like.” I noticed over the month that I have been in the group that members mostly read biographies and books about teams and games. When I mentioned the speed with which some members completed reading books, one said, they were not difficult reads. The Pro Football Books group proved to be the most responsive of all the book and old-time NFL groups. Three other groups greeted the book announcement with a smattering of responses.

Similar mixed responses emerged from the groups of Pittsburgh Steelers.  A small number of fans on the two team sites on Facebook acknowledged the book. Among Steelers Meetup fan groups, the positive reaction coming from one of every three continued. The leader of one of a fan group in the middle of Pennsylvania happily promoted the book to members on Facebook and looks forward to reading it. The leaders of other East Coast and Mid-Atlantic area fan groups proved less interested. It will be interesting to see if the popular interest continues at around this rate after the publicist that I have hired works for a few weeks on getting the book exposure in the written media. The limited interest by the Washington-D.C. area group led to me not holding a  book talk at a local book store.

During that time I  am attending the regional conferences of the Popular Culture Association and giving papers. This provides the opportunity to receive insight into academic audiences for sports and popular culture. At the South regional conference, there were 97 panels and over 750 participants for the three days. Sports comprised a small portion of the panels. The three panels featured seven papers. The most active subject areas included literature (six panels), film and television (each with five). This corresponds with the last two years of book reviews in the regional journal, which emphasized books in these latter two areas.

At approximately seven, the turnout for the sports panels seemed slightly below the average for the other panels I attended at conference. Among those present, the number of questions and engagement in the conversation seemed similar to what happened during the other panels I attended. However, I can say that my book generated little discussion or interest when I sat in the book fair.

For the upcoming Mid-Atlantic region conference there are 42 areas of study. Sports has three panels slated which ranks it among the lower third of the group. Arts and Visual Culture, Architecture, Decorative Arts, Detective and Fan Fiction, and Latino Culture were among the areas with fewer panels. It will be interesting to see the attendance for the sports panels and experience the discussions.

The following week I leave for Louisiana where I arranged two presentations. The first will be before the Louisiana Historical Society in New Orleans. Two days later, I’ll speak at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches, LA. The sole downside is that I’ll be a bit like the proverbial salesperson and carrying copies of the book down there myself. These talks will enable me to see the interest among people interested in history and interested in sports.

While I am hesitant to draw conclusions, my experiences do seem to provide small insights that perhaps confirm “common sense.” It does seem that football fans, especially those with an interest in reading books, explore their enjoyment of the game’s history through reading traditional biographies, and books that provide team and game summaries. Does this preclude them from reading football histories with a helping of “popular culture?” Certainly not, but it appears not to rank among their audiences’ first set of choices. Of course, sports are but one area within popular culture studies. The number of panels and presenters can be a result of any number of factors. However, it is interesting to discover sports among the lower third of participants in two regional conferences among popular culture studies.

Brett L. Abrams is a historian who has written four books on sports and popular culture. In his day job he preserves federal government electronic records for legal and historical purposes.

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