“Thoughts on Naomi Osaka, Motor Racing and Sport’s Relationship with the Media Machine”

There is a living in hell in press conferences. It is probably that a great many people don’t really want to be in them at all.

It is the pointlessly repetitive nature of it all. The empty lame duck questions that question nothing and answer even less.

The open-ended queries that are so vague, so directionless as to leave the interviewee floundering for any useless banalities that will serve as useful entries on paper and screen.

Then there are those who ask questions that are only a few words shy of dissertations. Questions that are so long and so descriptive that the best an interview can do is say “yes”, “no”, or dabble in peerless waffle in order to feel like they have said something. Such questions that, rather than be an inquiry, are an interviewer’s version of “Don’t you know who I am..?!”

For a journalist and a researcher, this is quite a statement to make, but it comes with good reason. I fucking hate generic press conferences. They are often dreary expositions looking for a point and a purpose, but never looking in the right place. Often, I wonder how many other writers feel the same way.

The generic press conferences – the one’s that fell foul to Naomi Osaka – may be contractually obligatory for competitors, but they are not so for journalists; however, the fact that they are obligatory for competitors ensure that they are obligatory for journalists. No one wants to be the poor fool who missed out on a cheap headline, because something far more interesting was happening somewhere else.

Not all press conferences are bad of course. My ire and – by my understanding – that of Osaka’s is aimed toward the pre-ordained, pre-determined ones where lots of words are said and nothing of use is learned and sometimes answers are dragged out through clenched teeth.
In the motor racing world, post-race press conferences occasionally come with nuggets of useful information, but rarely anything that will make one rethink what has just been witnessed on screen in the media centre. In any event, interesting information can be gleamed shortly thereafter in the various roundtables that take place. In saying that, I cannot confirm whether the tennis world has such sessions as well.
Truth be told, the set press conferences are soundbite sessions presented for the eyes of round-the-clock news broadcasts and social media channels. Press conferences are rarely the place for intricate or detailed questions that require thoughtful answers – generally, I leave those to group interviews or one-on-one sessions.

Facing the media is not the easiest task for any competitor, particularly those who are deeply shy and struggle with direct attention, let alone the crying glare of cameras and lights. It can be difficult to translate what has happened on court, in the car or on the pitch to journalists who may or may not (mostly the former) reached any level of competency in any given sport.
But that is what we attempt to do – translate. We just don’t always do it very well. And yet, one can’t help but wonder if the constant pressing is really all that necessary, and is it possible to justify the profane incessancy of it all?

Recently on a day off, I watched coverage of a Formula One Grand Prix on Sky Sports F1. The race had been won by Lewis Hamilton (either Portugal or Spain, I really don’t remember which) and almost immediately from getting out of the car, Hamilton and his fellow podium finishers were subjected to an immediate interview by *ex-driver who happened to be hanging around* to capture the all-important “instant reaction” for the international television feed.
Shortly thereafter, the top three head to the press conference that generally lasts about 30 minutes, mainly for additional television media, but also for the written press for stories that are about to go or have already gone live and are waiting for updates. This generally won’t make the Sky feed, unless a driver says something newsworthy that wasn’t captured in the post-race driver chat.

From there, the leading three – along with every driver in the race – moves to TV pen, where they conduct more interviews for international broadcasters, only this time drivers are passed from TV crew to TV crew one after the other where they answer the same question on repeat for a period. Sky will show this. That is generally followed by another chat with the race winner on the makeshift stage that goes live not long before wrap-up. There have been several times where Sky have interviewed/had interview clips of the race winner four times in the post-race show.
In more regular times, there often longer press debriefs with drivers and teams in the team’s various hospitality units after the TV crews final complete for the day. It goes without saying, that is a whole lot of coverage – and that’s only English language. For those dual-language competitors, the days can be very long.

The Osaka scenario that developed around the Australian Open and at Roland Garros was handled this very, very badly by Grand Slam Tennis/ITF. The moment mental health was brought into the equation, a complete rethink of how the media-competitor relationship should be handled should have been considered – and not just for the individual. Instead, Grand Slam dug their heels in, issued fines and a possible expulsion, only to revise their bullish attitude when Osaka pulled the plug on her participation.

On the other hand, sometimes competitors need to consider difficult questions and one cannot shy away from that. Finding the balance is, as always, the difficult job.

There is a bigger story than Osaka versus the media and Grand Slam Tennis. One must ask, how much of the issue is a problem that the media need to address or is this story is a symptom, or a representation of how skewered and twisted the relationship between competitors, the viewing public, the media, governing bodies, and corporate entities has become?

Last month, Sky, the BBC, BT and Amazon agreed to a three-year extension to their deal to broadcast England’s football Premier League, with a total value to be worth approximately GBP £5.1 billion {note 1}. Billion. In addition, Sky Sports’ current deal with Formula One, which runs from 2019-to-2024, is valued at approximately GBP £600 million for six years {note 2}.
The broadcasters want their money’s worth and that often includes the “instant reaction” and time sensitive press conferences as mentioned above. Broadcasters often partner with corporate entities to soften the financial blow and the partners want value, access and a piece of the action in return.
There is a drive behind the concept of instant gratification news and much of it is driven by the manner of which news and event coverage is changing. Instant reaction press conferences or interviews are the sporting equivalent of “being first.”

Whether one considers it evolution or de-evolution is entirely down to the individual, but soundbites are the clips upon which constant rolling news is pinned, particularly when deep analysis takes a backseat to drivel posing as news, or even worse… content.
Soundbites require little thought or consideration and have just barely enough meat on them to generate headlines that are quickly digested and even more quickly forgotten. As consumers, diets have changed and now we live for soundbites and the shots of instant gratification and fast reaction that backers demand. Or at least, that’s what people think other people want.

Acting as a foundation is a belief that short attention spans dominate the savage, youthful mind, but there is precious little evidence – quantitative or qualitative – to back this up, despite what Ross Brawn may believe {note 3}.
Much of the argument regarding short attention spans can be found in the spread of anecdotal evidence, wherein emotionally conceived testimony, delivered by amateurs or novices in-a-given field, passes for truth and when that anecdotal evidence spreads, it embeds itself as fact – rarely challenged and never proven.

Younger audiences are often challenged and viewed unfairly by other generations. Their attention spans are not long enough; they don’t work hard enough; their schooling and exams are too easy; their music isn’t good enough. It is the same patronising dialogue that passes from generation-to-generation. Always told, never proved.
But these unproven facts are changing the way media is produced and consumed. There is a media going forward with generic press conferences on behalf of broadcasters and partners whose understanding of the audience is at odds with any proven evidence. It is what the audience expects and what the media prepares believing it is what the audience expects, and it is what the audience receives.

The cycle of life, media, economy are often at odds. Nothing changes, until everything changes, and it all needs to happen at once, or it will never change at all.

{note 1}
“Premier League extends £5.1bn TV broadcast rights deal to 2025”
Accessed June 5th
Story May 13th

{note 2}
“Television deal is pie in the Sky, says F1 boss”
Accessed June 5th
Story May 25th 2019

{note 3}
“Brawn: Young people don’t want to watch two hour races”
Accessed June 5th
Story May 14th

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