Sports broadcasting: Need to go beyond the international

The drive from Jakarta to Sentul was taking longer than usual that Friday evening in July this year, no thanks to the traffic escaping Indonesian the capital. Contrarily, time seemed to fly as our cab driver engaged us in a gripping conversation about the ensuing English Premier League football season. EPL teams like Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers had all swung through the region and the cab driver waxed eloquent about these teams and their players with ease and the devotion of a passionate follower.

There cannot be a better example of how the evolution of media technology had brought English football – and many other world class sports events – home to millions of fans in Asia. The synergy and inter-dependence between broadcast media and sport, especially at the international level, has completely altered how we consume what has come to be called sports products from across the globe. All of us love watching a spectacle, irrespective of whether our athletes take part in it or not. And sport does provides great content for TV and earns stupendous revenue from the sale of rights.

Extending eminent cricket historian CLR James argument about cricket in his seminal work Beyond A Boundary to all sport, they reflect the society in which they are played. And today’s Asia aspires to achieve the evolution of the west – and its sport – without experiencing the pangs of development.  Clearly, the vast Asian market is a readymade and enticing target for such sports products from around the world. So what if we are becoming a consuming rather competing continent. And, there have been a number of Asian firms and individuals who have started investing in these sport and teams.

While it is a good wager that the media in the region has kept pace with its western counterparts in terms of technology, the same cannot be said of sport in the region, with the notable exceptions of China and Australia. It will not be wrong to say that sport that is played in Europe and the Americas dominate the sports media in the entire region – from the middle-east through the sub-continent to the far-east.

Sadly, one of the major fallouts of the evolution is the reduced time and space for national sport, let alone regional, collegiate and local sport, has got. In India, for example, archer Deepika Kumari has to win accolades at the international level before the media picks up her story and discovers that she is the daughter of an humble auto-rickshaw driver in Ranchi; Yuvraj Valmiki has to score a goal in the penalty tie-break against Pakistan in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy hockey in Ordos before the media realises that he has grown up in a shanty by Marine Lines in Mumbai. There is no greater pride and joy than in recognising talent and being the first to give it time or space.

Come to think of it, media development doesn’t have to be synonymous only with the financial bottomline. True development has to go deeper than that. It has to encompass evolution of sports media from being mere carriers of news and views to being catalysts which also enhance sports consciousness among the people. The use of sport as a tool than can build the character of the athletes – and therefore a country’s people – needs to be embraced and spread. It is only when it facilitates such wholesome growth of sport, can we say that sports media has indeed evolved.

It is undeniable sports development does not happen anymore without the active partnership of a variety of media. Be it the conventional products like the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup finals or ICC Cricket World Cup or even new ones like the Indian Premier League cricket, print, TV, radio, internet and mobile platforms are all used widely to showcase sport.  Nowhere can the impact of technology be felt than when watching world class sporting events from the comfort of our drawing rooms.

Increasingly, this has kept us away from local sport. Even a cursory look at the day’s newspapers in the region will show that a vast majority of the sports coverage is international, based on what is being telecast. It ranges from cricket to European football league, ATP and WTA tennis tournaments to the USPGA and European PGA golf tours, Formula One to NBA. When we were growing up, we would wait for four years to watch world class football on TV but now we get to watch it ever so often.

The spin-off – and a bad one at that – is that a lot of sports, especially at the regional and national levels, face the threat of fading away because there has been so little coverage in the media. And such lack of encouragement can lead to the drying of resources, eventually leading to a smaller pool of talent to draw from in the years ahead.

On its part, while radio can contribute to the development of sport, it will find incredibly good content, rich in the human element, when promoting sport and sportspeople. The road ahead is challenging and interesting, but not impossible. And it does look like it will be up to regional stations to find local heroes and promote them so much that representatives of print media are forced to take note. I believe that if that has not happened already, a large part of it is due to lethargy on the part of the programming and marketing staff.

For someone who has grown up listening to radio broadcasts — running commentary, as we knew it – of Test cricket, international hockey, several national championships and even local sport – I believe that the medium would soon have to reinvent its sports programming, based on a connect with their audience.

There are some significant things that can be corrected quickly but with changed mindset and a little effort. I am sure that TV channels can produce interesting features around sport in the hinterland rather than just use the old-fashioned copy-paste techniques to showcase clips from events that have been beamed live. Or, get busy when controversies like doping or match-fixing rear their heads.

Radio stations, including privately-owned FM stations need to tap the sports market that reaches beyond sport that is aired live on TV. They will find champions from yesteryear who can inspire their audiences and budding champions who can also make the hearts swell with pride in the same manner as celebrities paying tribute to Army personnel on the border on Jaimala Gold, a weekly programme aired by All India Radio.

National Sports Federations as well as organisers of school, college and club sport must galvanise themselves into finding ways to regain time and space in the media if they are to remain relevant in the years ahead.  And when that happens, you can be sure that the stories Deepika Kumaris and the Yuvraj Valmikis will be well known even as they are winning laurels for their country.

I am an optimist and believe that the day is not far when sports producers both on news TV channels and radio stations will look for out of the box solutions to the conundrum they now face. And if they are in denial about it being a conundrum, I am sure they will stop embracing a status quo approach to sports. It just needs a different mindset for the benefits of development to reach a variety of sports at all levels across the region that houses the largest market for sports products.

This article was written for Namaste, the souvenir that has been brought out by Prasar Bharati, to commemorate the 48th General Assembly of  ABU (Asian-Pacific Broadcasting  Union in New Delhi from November 2 to 8, 2011