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CGN Roundtable: On Mainstream Sports Coverage

We talk a lot about covering gymnastics like its mainstream counterparts. But what exactly does that mean? What do we envision when it comes to gymnastics being covered like basketball or football? That’s the topic of this week’s roundtable.

We’ll start with some background. What’s your experience with “mainstream” sports?

Elizabeth: I grew up a huge baseball fan, reading the agate from the previous day’s games in the newspaper every day before school. In college I started watching football simply because I attended the University of Georgia, and that’s just what you do. In the past few years I’ve gotten really into hockey, something my parents, who grew up in the Atlanta area having experienced losing not one but two teams to relocation, don’t fully understand.

Savanna: Sundays in the fall were dedicated to New Orleans Saints football when I was a child, and that hasn’t changed now that I’m older.  We also spent a fair amount of time rooting for the Chicago Cubs (not as much now that they’re impossible to find live), but those two teams were my first exposure into “mainstream” sports.

Tara: My dad is a huge sports fan, so I grew up watching a lot of sports. I ended up becoming attached to baseball, whether it be because it was on everyday in the summer, attending my older siblings’ baseball/softball games or both. Growing up around Denver meant Broncos football was THE thing, whether I liked it or not (spoiler alert, I’m not a huge fan). I got into hockey in college because it was THE sport at Denver since the school doesn’t have a football team, and I haven’t looked back. 

Brandis: Even with the negative connotation the word “junkie” carries, I can’t but help call myself a sports junkie as I’m truly addicted to sports. I plan my fall weekends around college football, spend my summer evenings on the south side of Chicago cheering on the White Sox, and physically cannot peel my eyes away from the TV during March Madness. Needing to always beat my younger brothers at whatever sports they played growing up to satiate my older-brother complex, my love for sports was developed early and hasn’t dwindled since.

Emily M: I grew up in the ’90s in Chicagoland, which is to say I was raised on the hopes of the Bears returning to the highs of 1986 and the Jordan Bulls years. It was a northern suburban thing to drive past MJ’s house for fun. Everybody was obsessed with Space Jam. My mom saw William “The Fridge” Perry at Jewel once. My entire family paused a vacation to watch a 1993 Bulls NBA Finals game (2-year-old me wanted in on the fun, so I yelled “He shooted it, Grandma!” when Pip launched a shot. That story has become the stuff of family legend.) My grandfather was a huge Cubs fan. He watched or listened to every game he could and died wrapped in a Cubs blanket. To say I was raised on mainstream sports isn’t quite right; they were just the fabric of my childhood. As an adult, I’m a huge NBA and WNBA fan (Go Bulls, go Sky!). I still watch the NFL, but it’s a hard league to get behind what with all the racism, misogyny and general disregard for athlete brain health.

Peri: I was born into a line of Montreal Canadiens fans, and with that came watching any hockey game with a former or future Habs player. To be a Canadiens fan has always been to put your faith in the world on a goalie’s shoulders—no matter the era—so being able to relate the current franchise players to those that my parents’ generation watched is very special to me. Also, being from the same city and decade as the Toronto Raptors, that team has always been special to my age group. Their coming-of-age story in the NBA culminating with a championship title in 2019 was celebrated across the country, but for lots of 20-somethings in the Toronto area that playoff run was also our sports-related entry into adulthood. 

Emily L: I was born into being a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and I’ve been living up to that expectation since I was 14. Football is my favorite sport other than gymnastics, but I can pretty much watch any sport and be entertained by it. The main aspect of sports in general that I love is the energy. I can watch a sport that I know nothing about and still enjoy it because of the teams’ excitement. 

Katherine: Having never played any sports, I literally did not care one iota about them until I got to college at Temple. Philadelphia is a die-hard sports city, and with so many of my fellow students being from the area, it was impossible not to know all about what was going on with the Eagles and Sixers (especially the former, since I was there during the Super Bowl season). By means of diffusion, that’s how I started paying attention.

What elements of mainstream sports do you appreciate or think are positives that could be brought to gymnastics?

Elizabeth: I love the true rivalries we have in other sports. Sure, there are gymnastics rivalries, but it’s not a no-holds-barred, I-hate-them type of thing. At the end of the day, all the gymnasts are friends, which takes the edge off it a bit. There’s a quote in this E60 trailer that I think sums it up well: “A rivalry starts on the ice, but if it stays there, there’s not much to it.” I also enjoy when student sections get into the “fun” jeering side of competition, with Utah’s newspaper gag or Auburn’s Gymnasties. Some gymnastics purists hate it, but I think that’s what elevates the sport to another level.

Savanna: I think the fan experience for those that can attend in person is something that gymnastics could use. A lot of teams already give their fans an awesome in-person experience with fan giveaways and in-arena hosts, but I would love for all teams to provide that experience for their fans. I also thoroughly appreciate a good presence on social media. Teams that are easier to access are more likely to get the additional support.

Tara: Transparency. Most of the time you’ll know what’s going on or what happened when a certain athlete got injured. A lot of gymnastics teams tend to be very secretive about things like that, whereas in just about any other mainstream sport you’ll get answers on the daily. I’m also going to expand on Savanna’s point about social media presence—developing relationships with other teams (and fans) and showing brand personality. The Colorado Avalanche and Rockies frequently have a great banter going between them, and it reflects positively on both of them. Maybe that rubbed off on Denver, because Denver’s hockey and gymnastics teams have done it, too. 

Brandis: While all my fellow editors’ ideas warrant being echoed, I identify with Elizabeth most in wanting a greater emphasis on rivalries. Like with recruit ratings, it’s a great way to engage a greater audience that may not specifically care about the gymnastics taking place but want to support their team and see them win. A casual fan of Iowa or Iowa State might not necessarily care about their yearly dual meet in gymnastics, but if there’s more of an emphasis on its all-sport CyHawk Series implications, the importance of watching and needing a win over a heated rival intensifies. In gymnastics I’d love to see the Auburn-Alabama dual only referred to as the Iron Bowl, the Arizona-Arizona State meet known as the Duel in the Desert and all the “M”s on Ohio State’s campus crossed out prior to the gymnastics meet—just like they are in football.

Emily M: I’ll branch off of what Elizabeth and Brandis said a little bit. I think part of the hesitancy around really embracing rivalries in gymnastics is this weird obsession with being non-partisan? Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to hate on athletes, but I see gymnastics fans tending to act as though they need to love all teams equally, or at least all athletes equally, if they dislike a school for whatever reason, and fans online who are partisan get treated poorly for…rooting for their team too hard? It irks me because it almost seems coddling. It happens in the WNBA, too, like there’s this attitude that basketball fans should just be glad the W exists. It’s a weird double standard around women athletes that really gets under my skin. No, don’t be hostile, but choose your team! Defend it fiercely! At the very least, don’t get mad when Auburn fans treat gymnastics like other sports and snark away in the replies on Twitter. That’s all part of the fun!

Emily L: I have to agree with Elizabeth and Emily M. Rivalries are something that I’d love to see more of in college gymnastics. They play such a big role in mainstream sports for both the athletes and the fans. As a Steelers fan, I look forward to games against the Ravens more than any other game because of the intense rivalry between the teams. It’s become apparent that fans of Auburn and Alabama have that same excitement when their teams get to compete. If Auburn fans are going to boo the opposing team and mock their floor routines, we shouldn’t stop them. That kind of behavior is encouraged at mainstream sporting events, so why not at a gymnastics meet? Rivalries have the potential to bring more attention to gymnastics, and that’s what we all want. 

Peri: While normally I’d consider myself spoiled to look at new leotards every week, I love the consistency of having home, away and event-themed uniforms. Simple structure around home wearing darks and away wearing lights may help casual fans in athlete identification, and at the same time it would help to level out spending on leotards between programs.

Katherine: Trash talking on all levels. Coaches, athletes, fans; get everyone in on it. Professional sports are larger than life, and there’s nothing like a funny exchange between power players to get people talking. Can you imagine Jay Clark trading barbs with another SEC coach a la Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher?

What are some elements you think those mainstream sports would be better off keeping to themselves?

Elizabeth: Some of the extremes of the fan side can get dark, just a couple weeks ago Nazem Kadri, a member of the Colorado Avalanche who is Muslim, received death threats and Islamaphobic and racist taunts on social media because of a legal hockey play during a game that happened to injure the opposing team’s goalie. I’m glad for the most part gymnastics doesn’t get that bad.

Savanna: One word: accessibility. Some mainstream sports make their content impossible to access unless you live in a certain area or have access to certain channels. Think Oklahoma gymnastics on Fox Sports Southwest. We shouldn’t have to spin around in circles, click our heels three times and say the magic word to get access to our favorite teams. Mainstream sports do it solely to capitalize on the money, but it is not necessary, and I’m thankful that for the most part gymnastics content is relatively easy to access.

Tara: I definitely agree with my fellow editors here. As much as I enjoy a little rivalry and well-intentioned criticism, flat out hate isn’t ok—it’s a fine line. In the Kadri situation Elizabeth mentioned, there’s also a matter of “would we be talking about this if it wasn’t him?”, and the answer is no. Those aspects shouldn’t have a place in sports, period, but we definitely don’t need it in gymnastics. Savanna also makes a good point about regional sports networks; as much as we complain about paid streams, those are still easier to access than something like Fox Sports Southwest—and at least those still exist in those areas, whereas in the Denver area the majority of fans can’t even watch Nuggets and Avalanche games due to contract negotiations with several major TV providers. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has made a lot of bold changes in the hopes of speeding up baseball—some good, some absolutely terrible. Those things can stay away from gymnastics. 

Brandis: This might be very niche, but there’s nothing I hate more in football and basketball than “media timeouts.” I understand networks need to make money to broadcast the sports we want to watch and that they do give athletes a bit of rest, but so many breaks solely to run advertisements that disrupt the flow of the competition are a bit egregious. There are also other ways to make sure competitors can get the appropriate amount of rest, too. If we ever start getting mid-rotation pauses for commercials during broadcasts of college gymnastics meets, I will riot.

Emily M: Everyone made really good points here, and I agree with all of them. I’ll add nuance to my above point. While I support partisanship, I do not support the death threats, violent language and actual physical violence that comes up in some other fanbases. It can’t be that hard to walk the line between the two. Let’s avoid a gymnastics version of the Malice in the Palace, mmkay?

Peri: Win-loss-tie points to determine rankings doesn’t give an accurate read in gymnastics, so I’m glad it doesn’t have much weight outside of regular season conference standings and championships.

Katherine: Like I said, I went to college in Philadelphia, so I’ve seen a lot of elements of mainstream sports I’d like to keep out of gymnastics; specifically, damaging property when your team wins. Love the enthusiasm, but that always feels unnecessary.

What does gymnastics do already that you think is similar to its mainstream counterparts?

Elizabeth: Complain about judging. I mostly say this in jest because a lot of gymnastics fans think they’re unique to this phenomenon, but I do think it’s a healthy way to hold officials accountable–as long as it stays rational and doesn’t go overboard. As for other things, I think gymnastics coverage is really great, especially the meets produced by ESPN. While there’s always room for improvement, it definitely rivals some big four sport coverage.

Savanna: I’ll echo Elizabeth and say that gymnastics coverage is similar to mainstream sports programming. Friday Night Heights has given other networks a lesson on how to promote gymnastics programming. While rewatching other meets, I can see elements from Friday Night Heights slowly making their way into gymnastics-related programming on Big Ten and Pac-12 Networks. You can see the results when reviewing how many people watched nationals live the last two years.

Tara: Seconding Elizabeth, complaining about judging. Look at the social media surrounding just about any sport, and you’ll see people complaining about the officials for the sport—it’s not unique to gymnastics. ESPN’s produced meets definitely have a mainstream sports feel to them, and Friday Night Heights reminds me of other sports as well. Finally, I think there’s certain schools that are great at treating and covering gymnastics like a mainstream sport—Utah and LSU specifically come to mind.

Brandis: Within the gymternet community, I think gymnastics does a great job of promoting and honoring the superstars of the sport. When a gymnast deserves praise, she gets it. Just like you can’t mention the Golden State Warriors without bringing up Steph Curry, you can’t mention Florida without noting Trinity Thomas or Auburn without Sunisa Lee. Now, as a collective, it’s about making the rest of the sports world celebrate them, too.

Emily M: Gymnastics on the whole is so good at social media. The fans, many of the teams—it’s really high-level. The way Florida nabs views on TikTok and then promotes those viral TikToks on Instagram stories? Brilliant. The hype UCLA and Clemson produced around their coaching hires (simply from a marketing standpoint)? Top-tier. Embracing stick items and promoting them, doing “get to know” and “day in the life” features, having alumnae take over social during a meet—it’s all so smart. More and more teams have been really creative in this space lately, and I think it’s brilliant and sets gymnastics apart. 

Emily L: Sports fans love to speculate about what could’ve happened if a different call had been made. What would’ve happened if the refs hadn’t called pass interference? What would’ve happened if the line judge thought that Amari Celestine’s foot did go out of bounds? When fans are upset about their team losing, they like to blame the referees or the judges. Even when athletes had plenty of chances to win, the conversation tends to go back to that one call. 

Peri: Gymnastics’ viewer base from within the United States tends to align with their closest Power Five team, similar to how pro sports have an extended region around the city/state they draw fans from. What’s been great to see in gymnastics is how teams with international athletes have brought fans from their respective home countries into their collegiate teams’ fan bases. 

Katherine: Similar to Brandis’ point, I think gymnastics has a lot of narratives centered around characters; the powerhouses, the scrappy underdogs and the up-and-comers, whether those are teams or individual gymnasts. They’re not always portrayed in the same ways as their mainstream counterparts, but the tropes exist and fans tend to recognize them.

What do you think mainstream sports could take from gymnastics to improve?

Elizabeth: Showing personality is a big cliche in gymnastics, but there’s something to be said about the root meaning behind it. We often support gymnasts or teams because of reasons not related to the sport at all. A lot of times all you know about a big four athlete is their playing stats, but I think there’s something to be said about showing a bit of “personality” to help draw more fans in and grow the sport to a wider variety of people.

Savanna: As weird as this might sound, I would like to see some of the mainstream sports focus on technical content. Every gymnastics meet we hear an explanation of scoring, and depending on who you’re watching, you hear an explanation of why routines are constructed the way that they are. Hearing more about the rationale behind a coach’s choice of play could alleviate questions that casual viewers of mainstream sports have.

Tara: I think gymnastics does a great job at giving fans a reason to invest in certain athletes and teams beyond the sport. As much as we’d rather see gymnastics than “fluff” during NBC coverage, it’s those kinds of things that bring in casual fans. Featuring more personal touches could be beneficial in other sports as well—even something as small as the short features SEC Network does in between rotations could be interesting during breaks in mainstream sports action.

Brandis: Like Savanna said, I would love more explanation and analysis of technique and strategy amongst mainstream sports. The notion for gymnastics is that the casual viewer needs those explanations to understand the sport, which is fine, but that same notion doesn’t exist the other way when it should. It’s assumed the casual football or basketball fan understands the strategies and intricacies that define the sport, but even after forcing making my mom watch hundreds of games, I can guarantee she can’t explain the difference between zone and man defenses because no commentator has explained it on-air.

Emily M: The pizazz. We see so much content around leotards and meet day hair and makeup. You’ll see arrival photos in a lot of other sports, and of course uniform-watching has been a thing for a long time (there’s a Twitter account that tracks when the Celtics wear which uniform and their win-loss record in each, for example, and people lose their minds overanalyzing the NBA city edition jerseys every year), but it doesn’t have quite the same luster we get in gymnastics.  

Katherine: The emphasis on the details. Most sports aren’t scored as subjectively as gymnastics, but little details definitely make a big difference (like the difference a couple of inches make in determining whether a touchdown was actually a touchdown). I think if coverage of mainstream sports highlighted these tiny discrepancies more in their coverage, it would emphasize even more the incredible feats the athletes are accomplishing by playing the sport on such a high level. 

Anything else you want to add about elevating gymnastics coverage?

Elizabeth: In our CGN Slack channel we sometimes share journalism articles from the “big four” sports and quip that we would never be able to do a similar article for college gymnastics, at least right now, because it would ruffle too many feathers. I also appreciate many of the aspects of those sports’ coverage–the attention to always showing scores, crafting storylines throughout a game, talking strategy and numbers. I think gymnastics coverage would benefit from being able to tell a wider range of stories, not always being 100% positive all the time.

Savanna: I think we’ve already seen that gymnastics rivals other mainstream sports with how ABC’s plan to move the airtime of nationals earlier for a regular season hockey game completely backfired. Even six years after discovering college gymnastics, I’ve been impressed with the momentum it’s gained in recent years and would encourage fans to keep it up! Without fans, no sport can be successful.

Tara: I’m also in the “critical analysis is OK” camp. It’s understanding that saying “she had a poor performance,” “she fell on her series” or “she missed that handstand” is OK and not an attack on the gymnast herself. Sports aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, and we shouldn’t act like they are. I also want to take this space to mention star ratings—those are the types of things present in other sports that only do good in gaining recognition and growing the sport beyond the gymnastics community. 

Brandis: Adding to what Elizabeth mentioned, being able to be more critical in analysis would serve this sport well. Issues, mistakes and losing are key components of gymnastics (and all sports), but speaking about them publicly amongst the gymnastics community is often viewed as taboo. We absolutely do not need to vilify and bash athletes when they have a bad day, but being able to at least mention and examine those aspects of the sport is critical in telling a full story.

Emily M: Elizabeth and Brandis’ points mirror my feelings around partisanship. The notion that talking about a mistake or a score is “mean” takes away from our ability to truly discuss the sport. Having to always qualify “I know the athlete didn’t score herself!” or “She’s still so so great, but that handstand was a bit short” is just clunky. It has the same undercurrent of coddling as the notion that we need to love all teams. Again, I’m not encouraging meanness, but real analysis that starts from the assumption that we really are just discussing a judge’s score or a missed leap would be great.

Emily L: We need more commentators that are knowledgeable about gymnastics. Broadcast teams will have a female commentator (usually a former gymnast) and a man who has no idea what he’s talking about. Obviously there are good male commentators out there, and I have no frustration with them, but why do we need a male commentator just for the sake of having one man and one woman? If a two-woman duo is more knowledgeable than a man and woman, the two-woman duo should have the job. You would never hear someone that’s never watched football commentating an NFL game, so why do we allow it in gymnastics? 

Peri: It’s been 16 years since “Stick It” was released, and that movie was responsible for introducing gymnastics content into the sports movie genre post-2000. We’ve seen more attempts in the decade and a half that have followed, but none that do the genre justice the way it did. Perhaps if we get more movies that can be appreciated from inside and outside the gymnastics community, more people will want to watch or try the sport.

Katherine: As amazing as the sport is, and as much as I can tell people literally every day that it’s the most impressive sport in the world, gymnastics will not be a mainstream sport until it’s treated like one. It’s hard because of the harmful narratives that have been woven about the sport for years, but fans need to take initiative and change their way of thinking and how they view the sport themselves. It’s an uphill battle, but as more and more eyeballs are getting on gymnastics, I think it’s something we can accomplish. 

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Article by the editors of College Gym News

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