Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

Branden Buehler, Ph.D.Branden Buehler, Ph.D., assistant professor and media studies scholar within the College of Human Development, Culture, and Media at Seton Hall, has published Front Office Fantasies: The Rise of Managerial Sports Media (University of Illinois Press).

The book documents the rise of front office executives in the world of sports media
and argues that this cultural phenomenon within the world of sports is emblematic
of a larger shift in the world at large. 

The publisher’s description of the book summarizes:

Moving from Moneyball and Football Manager to coverage of analytics gurus like Daryl Morey, Buehler shows how a fixation on
managerial moves has taken hold across the entire sports media landscape. Buehler’s
chapter-by-chapter look at specific media forms illustrates different facets of the
managerial craze while analyzing the related effects on what fans see, hear and play.
Throughout, Buehler explores the unsettling implications of exalting the management
class and its logic, in the process arguing that sports media’s managerial lionization
serves as one of the clearest reflections of major material and ideological changes
taking place across culture and society.

Examining the confluence of factors that have led to this unprecedented rise to the
spotlight for sports team and league executives, Buehler cites explanations like the
advent of first ESPN and then a myriad of other sports media networks and programs
in need of content; changes in labor relations in professional sports, particularly
the introduction of free agency systems; and the ubiquity of fantasy sports – which
has its estimated 62.5 million participants (up from 12.6 million in 2005) drafting
and administering their very own “sports teams,” thereby laying the groundwork for
fantasy sports participants to relate to actual executives. 

Looking to underscore just how strongly sports media has embraced managerial figures
and approaches, Buehler opens the book by recounting his experiences at the Sloan
Sports Analytics Conference held by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
– an event that was once largely just of interest to diehard statheads and data-driven
front office executives but is now a regular subject of sports media discourse. Indeed,
Buehler notes that whereas the event once occupied but a few classrooms at MIT it
has subsequently transformed into “a major gathering for anyone – whether an academic,
media member, or fan – interested in the quantitative analysis of sports.” In fact,
the event has even become the site of live ESPN telecasts. Drawing on an observation
from Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Gay, Buehler references its now massive convention hall setting in
summarizing that the event has “become something like a comic book convention but
devoted to discussions of topics like statistical models of basketball lineup efficiency
rather than superhero movies.”

But even those who favor statistical modeling have superheroes, or at least role models.
Buehler recalls the hush that fell over a room when basketball executive Daryl Morey
walked through its doors. Morey has “worked his way up to become one of sport’s power
players,” running the front office of an NBA franchise and, notably, becoming a fixture
within media discussions of the league. “His day-to-day life” as an executive, Buehler
further observes, is what many Sloan attendees – and so many other sports fans these
days – now strive for: “negotiating trades, running models, scouting players; he [has]
it all.”

And, importantly to those in attendance, he did it without ever playing a sport at
a high level.

Morey was proof that fantasy sports did not have to be entirely fantasy, that [Sloan
attendees] could still — even if they never could throw a ball particularly well
or run especially fast — make it to the top of the sports world. No, finding a job
in professional sports would not be easy and, yes, such a job would still require
a certain background — the right school, the right connections, the right vocabulary,
and so forth — but Morey, as well as a growing number of other executives like him,
showed that there were routes to sports management that did not require any athletic
success. This sense lingered throughout the conference. As panelists and keynote speakers
repeatedly suggested, there were ways of mastering sport that did not require intimacy
with what it felt like to be on the court against a heated rival or to take to the
field with seconds remaining in a close game. Instead, sport could be properly understood
with analytic thinking and rigorous statistical models. Advancing to the highest levels
of sport, then, did not require any special physical talents; it just required the
right approach.

Front Office Fantasies

Cover of Front Office Fantasies: The Rise of Managerial Sports Media.

As Buehler goes on to argue across the book, that “approach” has become engrained
in much of sports media, with a wide range of content adopting the quantitative, financially
oriented worldview now predominant in so many front offices.

Cornell Professor Samantha N. Sheppard, author of Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen, writes in her review of Buehler’s book:

“In this sharply written and impressive book, Branden Buehler provides compelling
new insights into the social, cultural, and visual consequences of sports media’s
preoccupation with managerialism, financialization, and quantification. A vital and
necessary work, this sophisticated account of managerial sports media is a must-read
for all sports, film and media scholars.”

Professor Branden Buehler is a media studies scholar who received his Ph.D. in Cinema
and Media Studies from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
He teaches a wide variety of courses within the Visual and Sound Media program at
Seton Hall University, including “Introduction to Film History,” “Introduction to
Media Studies,” and “Sports, Media, and Culture.”

His research centers around sports media, with a particular focus on sports television
and sports media industries. In addition to Front Office Fantasies: The Rise of Managerial Sports Media (University of Illinois Press), his research has been published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, Television & New Media, and The Velvet Light Trap, among other academic journals and collections.

Athletics, Education, Research

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