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How media separates the San Antonio Spurs from the Miami Heat

The Spurs don't have players that revel in controversy or over-commercialize themselves, seeking every endorsement and sponsorship available. The team just plays basketball, and over the course of the last 15 years they've played better than nearly every other sports franchise has played their sport.

Mark Wilson

[Editor's note: Allow me to introduce a new writer to Pounding the Rock, Andrea Duke. She's a fellow Spurs fan and sports media researcher who teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, where she is an Adjunct Professor in the Sport Management program. She possesses a view of the game and media that I find both unique and refreshing, and her blog constantly pushes me to reconsider the way I see things. This is the first story she has written specifically for PtR, and I look forward to many more. - J.R. Wilco ]

Our world revolves around media. We are spending so much time on electronic devices and in front of brightly lit screens that our expectations for the delivery of news and information have become immediate and insatiable. We want highlights, snippets of statistics and immediate updates condensed into 140 characters or less and accessible at the flick of a digit.

And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the world of sports, where the media presents events and commentary in highlight reels; turning a 2 ½ hour game into 2 ½ minutes of the portions of plays and results. But who is it that is choosing those plays, and on what basis are they choosing them?

The 2012 Year in Sports report by Nielsen Research stated that:
· 60% of people access sports content (sport scores and highlights) on a smart-phone or tablet device daily
· 60,000 programming hours were dedicated to sports
· 41% of all tweets were about sports or sports programming
· 99% of sport events were consumed either live or on the same day

Additionally, sports are now being experienced via multi-screen viewing - our world is adding elements to its media experience, rather than to replacing them. In other words, more people are watching sports while texting or Tweeting or listening to radio commentary. We are decreasingly a society that consumes a single media at a time, but rather we live in a true real-time multimedia world.

This means we give the media our full attention from eyes open to eyes shut, forcing our society to be over-informed about issues and topics that happen in every facet of our culture. However, because the media has our attention, their power to influence our way of thinking profoundly shapes the the way we see our world and ourselves in it.

Without getting too involved, this can be explained by a popular media ideology called Agenda-Setting Theory, which says that media both filters and shapes reality, forcing the public to perceive some issues as more important than others. Said another way: media prioritizes ideas, and then gives us information in a way that causes us to think those ideas are important.

Which brings us to the NBA.

ESPN loves to show dunks and incredible shots. ESPN highlights players who are flashy and fun to watch. ESPN focuses on these shots and players in its game coverage and commentary of the league. Thus, teams and players who follow along these "guidelines of exciting basketball" are seen as important and covered more often. And those teams and players who are not are exiled to the cultural sidelines where they wait on the bench for their chance to play.

Enter the San Antonio Spurs.

To the average fan, the Spurs are old, slow and boring. In an article I wrote last week, I tackled this perception of the Spurs, arguing that media portrays them in this light because they play decidedly non-flashy, team-oriented basketball: a style that does not lead to flamboyant highlights or sensational dunks. And, as suggested by the Agenda-Setting Theory, that perception is what everyone believes the Spurs embody.

The Spurs are not the Miami Heat. Tim Duncan is not LeBron James.

The team doesn't have players that fight during games or cause controversy off the court. The Spurs don't have players that over-commercialize themselves, seeking every endorsements and clothing deals available. The team just plays basketball, and over the course of the last 15 years they've played better than nearly every other sports franchise has played their sport.

You can rest assured that the management team in San Antonio has a very strong opinion about media attention: they don't need it and they don't want it. Anyone who is a fan knows that the Spurs strive to be quiet and intelligent, speaking with the media when necessary and always keeping the discussions positive and focused.

Ari Temkin, radio host of "The Hardline" on ESPN Radio, said to my sport management class last week that Tim Duncan has more control over his message than any other NBA star today. Since Duncan rarely speaks with the media, he can control the narrative of his image when he does give interviews.

The Spurs don't do flash. They don't trash-talk teammates. They arrive on the court, do their job (which is to win) and then move on to the next game.

But that's not enough excitement for our hype-fed media and society. Many sport fans watch games just to see the flash and flare of certain teams. The voyeuristic nature of our media-crazed society wants to focus on the personalities of players both on and off the court, and if the personality isn't in your face (i.e., San Antonio Spurs), then they don't matter to media coverage. So is this a bad thing, or a good one?

I'd say it's both.

The good: Media forces teams/players/leagues to be "always-on," giving the expectation that services, promotions and communications will be quick, personal and immediate thru several mediums.

The bad: Media squeezes teams/players/leagues into creating a culture of fast and flashy plays made by media savvy players to the over-simplification of a beautifully complex product. Sure, basketball is just basketball: ten players running on a court, trying to make baskets with a ball. But over time, the sport has been perfected, opening up opportunities for the incredible skill-based athleticism for us to enjoy. But sport media has projected the sport into a spectacle populated by nothing more than rim-shattering dunks, falling away three-pointers, and dominant drives, focusing on the entertainment of basketball over the achievement of teams. And as long as the media focuses the spotlight in that way, a team like the San Antonio Spurs will remain in the shadows.

But for Spurs fans around the globe, they know the team and its image. They know the talent and the intelligence. They know that championships and wins are what define the team. The Spurs are the quiet, understated giants in the basketball world, they are the most successful franchise in sports, having creating a dynastic history that other teams dream of eventually achieving.

Each franchise has its own flare, its own identity. Players are known for their specific abilities, raising their game during key moments to shine in the spotlight. The variety in the NBA right now is incredible - young teams, multi-national teams, all-star teams. All of which are worthy of attention and coverage. There's no cookie cutter image for a team; however, the team with the most flash, the most highlight-reel plays, is the team that is on the forefront of our television screens.

As someone who studies sports and sport media, I know that media won't change. There's no external outside society which would alter their program of hyping up games and marketing players. They won't suddenly focus on beautiful ball movement and the subtle nuances of an offense designed to fluidly take advantage of a defense's weaknesses in order to generate an endless string of smooth layups and wide open three-pointers. Our culture would benefit from an education of the game, but settles for being entertained. Yet, Spurs fans understand the need for the strength of San Antonio's system, and stability of its leadership. The team is a well-oiled machine that works, day in and day out. The media coverage is secondary and will come when it matters the most: when they win.