Osaka Saga Shows Social Media Not Ready to Replace Traditional Press

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One week ago, Naomi Osaka issued a statement on Twitter explaining she would not be doing any press while at the French Open. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote. The No. 2 seed ended up withdrawing from the tournament on Monday, one day after she was fined $15,000 for failing to fulfill mandatory media obligations following her round of 128 win.

While much of the media conversation since has understandably focused on athletes’ mental health, there is an undercurrent to Osaka’s statement that gets at another significant problem facing professional sports. With the rise of social media platforms, star athletes no longer feel the need to engage traditional media (see: LeBron James). Former ATP president and founder of the Tim Mayotte Tennis Academy, Tim Mayotte, compared the mentality to that of former President Donald Trump: “Just feeling like I don’t need the press. I am my own brand and I can get my message out and control it.”

But while some players may be disillusioned about the media’s role, the teams, leagues, tours and events in which they play continue to unanimously value the coverage and rely on the visibility gained to sell tickets, draw television viewers and promote sponsors (which explains why the Grand Slam Committee issued such a strong statement in response to Osaka’s boycott). As a result, traditional media engagements (think: press conferences, interviews) “will absolutely continue to be central to how we understand sports”—even as more and more athletes are capable of delivering the message directly to fans, Mayotte said.

Our Take: Many people believe Osaka, who has been facing bouts of depression since 2018, shouldn’t have to do media if she doesn’t want to. But as Rick Burton (David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management, Syracuse University) said: “You have to back up enough to understand there is a symbiotic relationship between media and sport. Sport helps to sell newspapers and drive eyeballs. In return, the media talks about the sporting event [or the team, league or tour] and how exciting the product is.” If event organizers want the media to cover their events, they need to make their biggest stars available and those individuals need to talk. “There is only so much you can write about a match if you don’t have quotes from the player,” Randy Walker (managing partner, New Chapter Media) said.

The Grand Slam organizers felt they had no choice but to make an example of Osaka (their statement threatened default from the tournament and a “major offense investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions”). “They didn’t want to open up Pandora’s Box,” Walker said. “If one person can get away [with not speaking to the media], then everybody else is going to say ‘Naomi didn’t do press at the French [Open], I don’t want to do it either.’”

It’s reasonable to wonder why the players should have to bear the responsibility of driving interest in and around an event. Burton said media obligations are simply part of the binding agreement a player signs when they agree to enter a tournament.

There are also arguments that suggest it is in the players’ best interests to serve in a promotional capacity. “When stadiums are full, [the team/league/tour] can charge more for our sponsorships and broadcast rights. And when [the team/league/tour] makes more money, [they] can give more to the players,” Burton said. Of course, for a star like Osaka who earned 10x more money in endorsements ($50 million) than she did on-court earnings ($5 million) last year, that premise likely holds less weight.

Mayotte said doing media can help players control the narrative, too. “Players need the traditional media more than they would like to think, because they’re going to get written about regardless. The press is more likely to be sympathetic to folks they have a relationship with.”

While the teams, leagues, tours and events rely heavily on athlete-media participation, event sponsors are less concerned with the athletes fulfilling their media obligations. “They’re not really close to it,” Ricardo Fort (Sport By Fort Consulting) said. The exception would be if the star player were to be kicked out of the tournament for failing to meet their obligations. “If [the star] does not play, the tournament is not as attractive, and if the tournament is not as attractive, the sponsors may not get the value that they bought when they signed up,” the former head of global sponsorships at The Coca-Cola Company explained.

The same could be said on the player sponsorship side. Unless the athlete stops playing for an extended period of time or has missed several critical tournaments as result of not wanting to do media, interactions with the press (or a lack thereof) are unlikely to cause an issue. “I’ve never had in my contracts anything about talking to the media,” Fort said. “Since most communication happens now through [their] own platforms, it has a much bigger impact on sponsors if [the athlete] stops Instagramming or Tweeting,” he added.

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