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Star system

In all the discussions I've seen about the mass extinction of newspapers and worries about where people, particularly elderly people, will get their news, I've seen little about the impact of the death of newspapers on the ecology of industries that have traditionally depended on them. At Roger Ebert's film festival there was some discussion about this with regard to movies. Reading critics is an important way people decide whether they can afford two hours of scarce leisure time and $20 to $50 of hard-earned money (tickets, babysitters, travel costs) to see a particular movie. As newspapers shrink, die, and fire their movie critics, the result, a panel concluded, is death to the chances of arthouse and independent movies.

Away from the glamor event that is Wimbledon, which starts Monday, the same concerns can be applied to the future of the two professional tennis tours, run by the WTA (women) and the ATP (men). This week's Eastbourne tournament - this year known as the AEGON International - began the week with seven of the world's top ten female players, plus the 2006 Wimbledon champion (Amelie Mauresmo) and the 2007 Wimbledon finalist (Marion Bartoli). By the semifinals, all of those but Bartoli were gone (and she retired, limping, from her semi against Virginie Razzano), and the survivors, while fine and accomplished players and diligent hard workers, are not the kinds of names whose exploits can be easily sold to editors. The national interest is in British players, who had all lost by the second round; the international interest is limited to Wimbledon contenders. You know it's a bad situation when journalists start going home before the quarterfinals.

To some extent, it's arguable that professional tennis writers are not as essential as they were. In 1989, say, if you wanted to follow the tour year-round you had to scour the sports pages for box scores and terse match write-ups. Today the Net is awash in tennis reporting: player sites, fan sites, official and unofficial blogs, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter, news wires, and official releases from the tours, the national federations, individual tournaments, and the overall governing body, the International Tennis Federation. It's a rare match whose report you can't find online within half an hour, and even if you don't sleep you probably couldn't read all of it.

In addition, the matches themselves are far more accessible than ever before: Europe has Eurosport; the US has The Tennis Channel. And if you can wait a day, more and more tennis matches are being posted online for download, legally or otherwise.

A couple of decades ago, the famed American sportscaster Howard Cosell wrote a book complaining that sports journalism was failing the public, that to cover sports properly journalists should have a working knowledge of economics, labor law, business, and medical science. You could see his point, especially over the last decade in baseball, where a bitter players' strike was followed by steroid scandals. Go back to the beginning of the Open Era of tennis, which began in 1968, and you'll find long-serving commentators like Richard Evans writing books about the considerable complexities of tennis politics. But that kind of coverage has largely shrunk: this week what you can sell a newspaper is either 1) local players or 2) Wimbledon contenders - that is, the stars. You hear many complaints among the tennis press about how little access they now have to the players, but they have even less access to the game's controllers.

Tennis is not alone in this: stars in every area from technology to movies would rather sequester themselves than answer too many unpleasant questions. And I can't always blame them. Explaining a bad loss to the media while the disappointment is still raw must be one of the most unpleasant moments for a player, almost up there with having your physique closely inspected and criticized. That sort of thing was something stars put up with when their industry was young and struggling to establish itself; the early pioneers of the women's tour did 5am talk radio, appeared in shopping malls - whatever it took.

We are not in those times any more. But as newspapers fail and lay off staff and reduce their expenditure on coverage of minority interests - which include tennis - both tours, and the movie industry, and many other industries that rely on sponsorship for fuel should be asking themselves how they're going to keep their public profile high enough to stay funded. The Slams - Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open - will most likely survive (although the Australian has already announced the loss of several important sponsors). But creating the field of high-quality players for these events requires a healthy ecosystem of feed-up events that keep coaches, juniors, and amateurs engaged and involved. New media may sometime fill the gap, but not yet; no single outlet has a big enough megaphone. (And Wimbledon, apparently living in the past, does not accredit online-only writers.)

You may not feel that losing tennis as a spectacle would be much of a loss, and I'm sure you're right that the world would continue to turn. But the principle that the loss of traditional media disrupts many more industries than just its own applies to many more industries than just the one that will dominate the BBC for the coming fortnight.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


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