Today, many athletes use social media to market themselves, while sports associations are increasingly streaming events online. This is raising questions about the future of traditional sports journalism.
Kristina Vogel is an exceptional athlete. In Apeldorn earlier this year, the German cyclist added two more world titles to her long list of awards. However, fans of her sport rarely get the opportunity to follow her achievements live on television. Regular World Cup season events simply aren’t broadcast by free-to-air television channels in Germany. However, the World Cycling Association (UCI) does stream the events on YouTube. The associations that organize less popular sports are increasingly turning to streaming to try to give their events exposure. Vogel, though, doesn't see it as a completely positive development.
"I don’t think that the sport should be shown exclusively online," she said. "It’s better to have some real television channels there telling a bit more of the story."
As far as Vogel is concerned, sports aren't just about the actual competition, they're just as much about the athletes as people, and the journies they've taken to get to where they are.
Professor Thomas Schierl of the Institute for Communications and Media Research at the German Sport University Cologne stresses the importance of the development of deeper relationships between the media and athletes. He believes that for many fans, it's the personalities of the stars that attracts them to any given sport in the first place. Nonetheless, Schierl believes promotion through streaming platforms is the future for many sports associations.
"Less popular sports have no other way of generating publicity," he said. "That's the basic requirement for generating the income required to fund their activities."
By contrast, more popular sports have always been driven by ratings and the goal of generating revenue.
"Traditional forms of media mostly select the most lucrative sports," Schierl said.
Streaming as an attractive model for sponsors and organisations
Increasingly, streaming is also helping connect sports events with sponsors, and the 2017 World Handball Championship was the perfect example of this. With no television or broadcast companies interested in securing the rights to the tournament, at first, it looked like fans would have no chance of watching the games.
"One of the sponsors, the Deutsche Kreditbank (DKB) stepped in and helped handball fans by becoming the platform for the event," said Robert Zitzmann of the Hamburg-based marketing agency Jund von Matt (JvM).
The DKB streamed the tournament live via its YouTube channel, creating a lot of good will with handball fans. However, that’s not to say all fans would be pleased to see their sport streamed online by private sponsors.
Many sports are finding new ways to create content for digital distrubition channels. Cycling fans, for example, will have the opportunity to watch this year's "Hammer Series." This is a professional racing series that has come up with a new twist on traditional racing events, which are decided over several stages. Instead it has developed new forms of classification. Velon, an association of professional teams and sponsors, is behind the series. The goal is to increase publicity and attract new sources of revenue to the sport.
"Social media played a major role in the creation of the series," Velon’s Mark Coyle said. "We wanted to create something for these platforms."
Coyle considers live streaming a cost-effective method of engaging with new audiences. He does, however, believe that the attention of traditional forms of media are also crucial to sports.
'The demand for high-quality research is growing'
"People need orientation and a sense of perspective," Zitzmann said. Schierl agrees.
"Consumers want to have sporting events properly categorized," he said. This, he believes, is the future of sports journalism, even though the industry "needs to come up with something new."
The key is background information and personal stories, according to German Olympic javelin champion Thomas Röhler.
"The demand for high-quality research and comment is growing, in my opinion. That's the feedback that we are getting as athletes," he said.
Röhler also believes that the traditional media can still reach people that he can't reach via his social media posts.
"Our job is to use our sporting achievements to generate lasting visibility," he said of his activities on Instagram and Snapchat. He believes that providing his fans with an inside look at how he trains, for example, helps make his accounts as authentic as possible.
For Vogel, it's also about showing her fans something a little bit "crazy" – things that demonstrate just how intense sports and training can be.
"We try to tell new stories every day and really push our brand," she said, adding that this can also help attract new corporate sponsors.
Sports journalism has to offer something different
For sports federations, breaking into the mainstream tends to bring the promise of higher revenue and a degree of legitimization. Take eSports, for example, which are currently high on the agenda of the German government. The very fact that politicians have become aware of the growing gaming scene is partly a result of traditional media reporting.
Athletes and experts agree on one thing: Journalists can offer something of added value if they deliver in-depth background stories and unique insights into sports. Sports journalists are also in a position to ask critical questions about developments and issues such as doping, while at the same time putting them into context for their readers or viewers.
Whether a sport manages to gain wide acceptance among the general public also depends on the attention it gets in the traditional media. Indeed, Both Vogel and Röhler agree that using social media alone is not the way of the future.