The start of fall is the second best season in sports. Baseball playoff races are forming, college football upsets occur weekly, the NFL kicks off, and European soccer is building up to the World Cup this November. One can spend 36 straight hours watching sports from early Saturday morning to late Sunday nights. But leagues across the world are facing a collection of crises all stemming from greed. Nothing kills fun quite like capitalism.
The sports fan has been flanked on two fronts, with money from gambling and media corporations working hand in hand. On the field, rule changes and new video review technologies are leading to a serious over refereeing problem. Off the field, sports journalism has degraded to a state worse than DC’s beltway reporters. Each front worsens the experience for the fan and is setting up a vicious cycle that will see this regression continue while owners and sponsors continue to fill their pockets.
The First Front: On Field Changes
Before assuming that I am beating the drum of orthodoxy or tradition, please know I believe all sports should re-examine their rules every 10-20 years. Technology, medical knowledge, and even climate change will demand slight adjustments to rule books. Soccer moving to 5 substitutes and Football adding the targeting penalty are examples of rule changes made for player safety and necessity. I have no issue with such changes and understand it may take iterations to perfect them.
With that said, changes are being made without such prerequisites so often that referees aren’t able to keep up. College Football is seemingly adjusting the rule book every single offseason. The USGA made huge adjustments to Golf’s rulebook in 2019. The MLB recently announced 2023’s new rule changes in an attempt to greatly increase the action of the game, and players are pissed. Soccer has been engulfed in controversial calls over the past few years due to new definitions of rules requiring much more interpretation from the officials. The sporting world has become over-refereed.
It has gotten so bad that the Premier League is having to reassess its usage of video review just 4 weeks into its new season. The last few minutes of every Football half (be it college or pro) now takes ages to complete as every down requires a review and every play is challenged either officially or with the use of game delaying time outs. Who can blame a team for wanting such reviews to ensure the call was made right on the field? Who should fault the refs for accepting their capable of mistakes and double checking their work? I blame neither.
There is a lurking figure not yet obvious working to make these horrendous delays and litigations now part of our favorite pastimes. I’ve written before on sports washing and the dark money in professional sports. This issue is less individual evil billionaires, but the equally cruel gambling industry. The last five years have seen sports gambling take over sports advertising, stadium naming rights, and has even infiltrated college towns. Gambling is now one of the largest investors in sports.
It stands to reason that the one industry most impacted by getting every call right is the one which invests millions of dollars on every single play. It isn’t too hard to assume that an industry putting billions into stadiums and advertising should get some say in the direction of the league, albeit behind closed doors and via suggestion. Caesars, Fanduel, Betway, and others don’t just have the ear of team owners, they’re also rewarding sports journalism as it turns away from asking questions and toward a focus on fanfiction.
The Second Front: Off Field Changes
Now I’ll get a little less conspiratorial. You would be hard pressed to find a big sports fan that is satisfied with today’s sports media. In truth it has followed the path of most major media. It has been gutted from the middle down and is primarily a shill for advertising dollars. Sure, there are still some journalists doing great work individually. But for every investigative work there are thousands of puff pieces about players, coaches, or owners. Disney has pivoted ESPN into being a true servant of the ownership class. Adam Shefter hasn’t asked a question in years and has been rewarded greatly for it.
Most sports media has gotten away from discussing the games themselves and onto a new type of fanfiction. I mentioned earlier that this was the second best season in sports, the best is the NBA offseason solely for the onslaught of fanfiction and drama. As I write this piece, 4 of the top 8 headlines on ESPN are about roster moves. It is hope and drama that drive the sports world now. It is why only the final two minutes of a basketball game seem to matter and why sports radio spends more time discussing possible trades that will never happen instead of dissecting strategy.
I admit, I find it quite enjoyable too when sitting around with friends. I wish I could hold professional journalists to a higher esteem than some of my drinking buddies, but as went CNN so went ESPN. I do believe this sport fanfiction is also driven by the gambling industry to a large degree. Again, advertising dollars are influential and casinos are pumping it into every corner of sports media. Fantasy football gets more airtime than football highlights these days and as more folks join Fanduel over their social leagues that will continue to grow.
Producers absolutely push content that will keep advertisers happy and as long as casinos and betting apps are writing checks you can bet (heh) that it will continue to trend toward fanfiction over the actual game play. If I had a solution for this I could solve all of our media problems and The Colloquial would be the most important magazine in the world. Maybe I’ll come up with something. Until then, I just ask that the leagues put a time limit on video review. If it’s not obvious in 60 seconds then go with the call on the field and move on. Some of us just want to watch the game and ref-ball has been ruining our experience.