In recent years, professional athletes have joined musicians and actors at the top of the entertainment talent pyramid, and now earn salaries in the millions, as any casual fan of pro sport is wont to know. The media-entertainment complex of western culture is based upon the star system, which results in star athletes becoming extremely marketable commodities for the sportocracy. Consumers — particularly young ones — want to identify with the star and thus will purchase the products that these athletes endorse, or so the theory goes. The theory has merit: global sport sponsorship revenues in 2001 totaled in the billions.
As we move into an era of interactive media entertainment, however, the consumer-star relationship takes on new meaning, since the consumer can truly identify with the star for a period of time by assuming their identity. Have a look at kids today: are they watching more television or playing more videogames? I would bet on the latter. The participatory nature of videogames is ideal for a generation of multi-sensory children that is almost completely divorced from the print-oriented culture of their forebears only scant decades earlier.
Marshall McLuhan (1964) caused a stir in the sixties when he suggested that we are once again becoming a tribal culture. The notion that modern civilization communicated in much the same fashion as "primitive" tribes seemed radical, to say the least. He theorized that societies are the products of the media technologies they use, and that every technology requires a certain balance of the consumer's five senses. While pre-literate cultures communicated in a highly multi-sensory fashion, the advent of the phonetic alphabet and the Gutenberg printing press led to a communication style dominated by eye-oriented individualism, as books circulated to disseminate important knowledge.
McLuhan argued that the rise of electric media technologies, from the telegraph, through radio and television, to the Internet, have caused us to become highly multi-sensory once again, "retribalizing" us in the process. With the sportocracy's heavy dependence on the media, the nature of the sport-media relationship vis-a-vis the nature of the technology is of grave importance to those involved. What does it mean for sport media to become "retribalized"? What does it mean for sport, in general?
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: New American Library.