“I don’t give a f**k about [my price tag]. We just won the f**king Champions League,” were Kai Havertz’s words in the post-match press conference after scoring the most decisive goal of his career so far. These words will no doubt become part of football’s cult, like “Football. Bloody Hell” by Sir Alex Ferguson after completing the treble in 1999.
However, it was a perplexing question that incited this answer. The journalist had asked Havertz whether he felt that he had repaid the 70 million GBP that Chelsea had spent on him which made him the most expensive player in the club’s history. Havertz did not decide the fee nor did he receive the money. To ask him such a question, at such a moment, was completely needless.
We won the f***ing CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/ga2eWPUivw
— Kai Havertz (@kaihavertz29) May 29, 2021
Less than 48 hours after that incident, Naomi Osaka announced her decision to withdraw from the French Open. The young tennis star had earlier announced not to do press conferences citing mental health reasons. Following outrage and threats of expulsion, not the ideal response to someone saying citing mental health reasons, she decided she was better off not playing the tournament. The outpouring of support amongst professional athletes begets the question – what role does the modern journalist have in sport?
WHERE DID IT ALL START
When competitive sport began at the turn of the 20th century, the role of journalists was to describe what had happened given that the large majority of the people could not attend matches apart from their local ones. The more descriptive the journalist, the better they were.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
As popularity grew, and the demand for more information came about, journalists started writing their own opinions on what had happened. Sometimes these opinions were harsh and often, they were taken to heart. Joao Saldanha was an outspoken Brazilian journalist who became coach of the Brazil national team with next to no experience just because people thought he made sense with his words on paper.
With the arrival of television in the mid-20th century, the role changed again. People could, to a large extent, see what had happened. Now they wanted to know how it happened. And so, journalists became a way for managers and clubs to show some insight. This was the era of dedicated reporting – journalists stayed with one club for decades building relationships and being a voice for both fans and the club, acting as an intermediary.
This is best captured perhaps by Duncan Hamilton in his book ‘Provided you don’t kiss me: 20 years with Brian Clough’. Hamilton spent years covering Nottingham Forest, where Clough was manager from 1975-1993 winning two European Cups, among other honours. The two built a good relationship which had its ups and downs but Clough always gave Hamilton valuable things to write about and yet, Hamilton did not become his mouthpiece to peddle a narrative.
TV KILLED THE PRINT STAR
Then came Rupert Murdoch and Sky. Everything became televised and access to managers and players increased greatly. Dedicated reporting continued but in its intense competition, the focus narrowed to the person who could get the tastiest soundbite amongst all, by whatever means necessary. Increased press attention became a decisive part of running a club.
23 years ago today, Kevin Keegan's classic rant! 😊 pic.twitter.com/Mfj7fpjpDA
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) April 29, 2019
Kevin Keegan’s breakdown when Newcastle fell behind Manchester United in the 1995-96 title race was televised over and over until it was all any football fan could talk about. This kind of reporting naturally has an impact on the players, regardless of how professional they may be. Keegan’s counterpart, Sir Alex, was a master at managing his press relations. He used the media to build an image, of not only himself but of his players too. Those journalists who did not toe the party line, so to say, were immediately banned.
And so the media became a part of the game. The 2000s era was dominated by managers playing mind games with their quotes, trying to get into the head of their opponent. The then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, and Sir Alex were considered masters of this craft. Their substantial on-field success says they must have been doing something right.
THE ERA OF OBSOLESCENCE
Until now, everyone needed media for some purpose – fans needed it in the formative years to know what was happening, to educate themselves. Then clubs needed it to build their image and have a conversation with supporters. Then it became an entertainment avenue and finally, a tool in the managers’ shed.
Well, that escalated quickly.
Jose Mourinho just ranted about respect and then walked out of his press conference. 😲 pic.twitter.com/F18t7dfn2T
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) August 27, 2018
Today though, the press conference reporting media is fast becoming obsolete. Each match is broadcast live across the world, and the issue of illegal streaming shows no signs of abating. People don’t need journalists to do analysis – they’ve got Twitter wherein the content is more, the quality is higher, and the visualisations cooler.
To stay relevant, it has all become about trying to incite a reaction and making things as exclusive as possible. Journalists largely fall into one of two categories these days – either you spend your days writing inflammatory content because “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” or you spend your time trying to build exclusivity akin to the one experienced in the 1960s-80s.
However, journalists are constantly facing a fight to secure exclusives, engaging content etc not just from their competitors, but their source of information as well. Clubs have their own media channels. So do the players and managers. Whatever they want to communicate can go down that route. Players have access to this content at their fingertips. And so, the post-match press conference becomes the last avenue for the media to generate their own clicks.
We have a special UTD Podcast for you this week…
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 7, 2020
It is why Sky keeps its geo-tagging and copyrights so tight. Therefore, it was interesting to Sky spread Gary Neville’s rant about the Super League to each corner of the world to generate outrage, clicks and to keep hold of that precious broadcasting money. The post-match press conference is one of the only things that the public does not have access to (yet) and so it becomes necessary to grill a player or manager for that elusive, exclusive soundbite.
And it does not matter if there is nothing to write home about. A simple statement like ‘we’re focused on the next match’ after a defeat becomes “Guardiola determined to turn things around”. The content is regurgitated and banal, but if it isn’t there then where do media houses go from here? Even an effective refusal to answer the question, like Havertz, is a soundbite to be sensationalised and plastered.
Anyone who threatens its sanctity, like Osaka or Havertz to a lower extent, is ostracised. Quite simply, the press has failed to reinvent itself in the 21st century and now it must rely on its “ability” to shape public opinion and hope that their livelihood isn’t threatened, no matter the cost. After all, what is an athlete’s mental and personal health’s value in front of a media house’s ad-revenue?