Naomi Osaka Boycotts The Press

Tennis pressers, sovereign athletes, and a changing power balance

Naomi Osaka yesterday:

“I am writing this to say that I am not going to do any press during Roland Garros. I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I am not going to subject myself to people who doubt me. I believe the whole situation is kicking a person while they are down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it. Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple journalists have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with them. However if the organizations think they can just keep saying, “do press or you’re gonna be fired”, and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh. Anyways, I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”

This statement was interesting for multiple reasons. I’m not going to focus on her justification about mental health as I have no interest in LARPing as a therapist. But this press boycott brings up all sorts of fascinating larger themes that are currently unfolding not just in sport, but in all media.

But first, tennis press

Press conferences have been a shambles for years. Questions that make little to no sense or indicate that the journalist has done no research (or even know who the player is or whether they won or lost), journalists who turn up to one tennis event a year and use up valuable question time that would have been served infinitely better by a keener member of the media from a smaller publication etc etc etc. Such media shitshows, along with the proliferation of out-of-context and twisted quotes, are contributing reasons why player trust in the merits of press conferences is likely at an all-time low. The quality of both the standard of questions and the standard of answers has suffered.

The current state of pressers mostly features a minority of journalists asking thoughtful questions and then the 99% of the rest feasting on those rare yet interesting morsels, republishing the answers and/or working them into other stories. As a result it would surely benefit both players and press to ensure a higher standard of questions overall. Less dumbassery, fewer insensitive and random questions, more substance for everyone in the ecosystem to create around.

The press room, press passes, and overall press conference structure likely need a rethink. Perhaps a slight de-prioritisation of some legacy media who probably still think Tim Henman is playing, and who tend to ask questions that make everyone’s head spin. And conversely a prioritisation of some extremely passionate, up-and-coming journalists and outlets, who know the sport inside out, and can ask interesting, thoughtful questions and then package or relay that information via newer, more millenial and gen-z friendly mediums like livestreams or short videos. If we zoom out further, there is also a chance that press conferences as we know them have little place in the future of tennis media at all. Perhaps a rethink of the entire format, and how media interacts with players during tournaments, is needed. (There will also probably need to be a rethinking of the fines and incentives associated with players attending pressers: Osaka can be fined up to $20k for missing press at Slams, a drop in the ocean for a star who earned $55 million last year).

This isn’t to say that the tennis press is unimportant however. As one of the best young members of the tennis media, Abigail Johnson, accurately notes:

For the most part in tennis, journalism is focused on telling the stories of player careers, results, and on court drama. There are rare sightings of more serious reporting, domestic abuse allegations or match fixing convictions for example. However the vast majority of tennis journalism, as with much of sports media, is light and generally complimentary to the growth of the game in one way or another. People watch sport partially to escape some of the more serious media of the world, a welcome departure from important yet distressing geopolitical conflicts or global economic trends for e.g. As a result, sporting press is, generally speaking, necessarily more trivial and regularly promotional in nature. But a changing media landscape puts tennis and all sports media in an interesting, existential predicament.

Individual > Press

The much larger theme at hand here, and the most interesting thing about Osaka’s statement above, is that the player-media relationship has very good reason to be strained in 2021. Up until relatively recently, players needed press and press needed players. A symbiotic mutualism of athlete and reporter. The players needed press for exposure, to have their story told which would help attract sponsors. And press needed players to fill their newspaper columns and get paid. But the power balance has shifted enormously over the past decade-plus with the rise of the internet, its culture and its platforms. One side of the relationship now relies far more heavily on the other. Naomi Osaka is now the best paid female athlete on the planet. Her endorsements, cultural relevancy and reach (via her own platforms on social media) rival or even outhit some of the larger press publications. Simply put, Osaka now holds the sort of megaphone that until recently only the press had the privilege to wield. For the most part, the press still needs Osaka, but Osaka does not need the press.

Symbiotic mutualism has become symbiotic commensalism.

So if the tennis press mostly serves a non-serious, promotional purpose, as is the case with much of sports media, then where are Osaka et al’s incentives in this relationship? She has the megaphone to speak directly to her fans and followers, in which she can shape whatever promotional or authentic narrative she likes. And if Osaka does want to speak to a journalist, there will never be a shortage of offers. She, and other star sportsmen and sportswomen, have all the power now. Even more so when public trust in the largest press institutions is at its lowest point in a decade.

These are not necessarily positive changes (some elements are and some aren’t). The idea of all-powerful players being above scrutiny thanks to entrenched, self-made media empires is far from ideal in the grand scheme of trying to humanise and report on these athletes in a balanced manner. Not to mention that press still plays a bigger role in reporting on lesser known players who have yet to build their own megaphone, weaving vital, emergent stories around the next generations of players for the greater growth of the sport. A role which may well be compromised if more top players decide to follow Osaka’s lead and boycott pressers, therefore decreasing the overall size of the pie for those covering tennis. If this evolution continues to compromise the livelihood of talented sports journalists, then those less common but important moments where serious reporting is still required, will suffer too.

But what are the media going to do about it?

This shifting power balance, away from the press into the hands of the individual, is not unique to sport. It’s happening, and has already happened, in many areas of media, from companies to journalists themselves realising they can harness the direct-to-audience power of modern, democratising social & publishing platforms. And this is not a trend that is slowing down. As a result, the press, and especially some of the less serious press like sports media, will have to confront all sorts of tough, existential questions in the months and years to come about their place in a world with increasing optionality for those looking to bypass them. A world in which their value to those they report on is suddenly significantly lower than it once was. The writing has been on the wall for years now, but this may be the first time that tennis journalists, an old fashioned bunch, are properly confronted by it. Watching the press try to adapt to this evolution, in the face of a continuing rise of sovereign, powerful athletes, will be fascinating.

— MW

See you on Sunday

Twitter @MattRacquet

If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.

The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) match analysis piece every Sunday for final’s.

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