The rhetoric of sports communication

In the field of sports communication, a wide variety of rhetoric techniques are used to sell, to entertain and to inform its audience. These techniques are present in visual, audio, and written platforms and each channel must appeal to a specific audience through differing uses of ethos, pathos, and logos.

The use of metaphors is very common in sports communication, especially during broadcasts of games. Commentators use them frequently, and one common metaphor used during basketball games is “garbage time.” This is usually the final minute or so when one team is so far ahead of the other that it could be considered meaningless to keep playing. The phrase “he’s on fire” or “hot hands” means that a player is scoring a lot or playing very well. A shot from “downtown” is a popular description by commentators. This is a shot from beyond the three point line and in my home team’s stadium, is accompanied by a flash of the Portland skyline on the jumbotron in addition to the replay. Commentators use these metaphors enough that they become second nature to both media personnel and fans alike when talking about the sport. Many times these metaphors are meant to create memorable depictions of basketball plays by attaching images to them. This creates a sort of basketball “jargon” that may be very understandable by fans of the sport, but confusing to outside audiences.

A form of visual rhetoric is the jumbotron-scoreboard combo in the center of a basketball arena. Many people are involved with the controls of the jumbotron which is especially useful in not only giving information about the game to fans via video replays, live feeds and scores, but also entertainment and marketing techniques. Todd Bosma, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Game Operations Director mentions that the sound effects their staff puts together for the game plays a crucial role in keeping the crowd’s attention. Many times fans look more towards the screen on the jumbotron than at the actual game, especially if they are in seats higher up. Certain keys signal effects that correspond to a specific player or play such as photo that pops up showing the Portland Skyline, as mentioned earlier with the use of metaphors. Fans look forward to hearing specific sounds or seeing specific images when their favorite player or a rival player checks in. The goal of the jumbotron is to keep the crowd both “engaged and energized” throughout the game, and is the prime source of focusing entertainment during timeouts and in between quarters through trivia games, player fun facts, and statistics from simultaneous games in the NBA (Greenwald 2014).

This image was on the website, Social Times, which has articles about games, apps, social media and other advertising and marketing topics. The purpose of the graphic was for informational and functional purposes. Since the two teams playing in this NBA playoffs were both in the southern part of the United States, it was obvious that the most tweets would be coming from people in nearby states. Since the two infographics are very similar, it would have been helpful if the article gave more of a description discussing the differences in the maps. Also the title of the article was “26.7 Million Tweets Sent During NBA Finals, 150,000 Tweets Per Minute Game 7 Peak” which could not be gathered from these tweet maps. The legend for the maps stated that the different colors represented the number of tweets per million population, so if the audience is not familiar with the population of each states, then it would be impossible to infer how many tweets actually were coming from those states. Since there was no caption for the two maps and they looked relatively similar, this was an ineffective way to compare tweets about the two teams unless the purpose was to show that there was no significant difference between the numbers of tweets about each team.

Twitter has become a main source of measuring the popularity of a topic or event, even more so in recent years than television views. The next images are three twitter references to the same period in time, when several upsets happened within a couple of days of the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness is called that for a reason, and after several upsets, twitter blew up with statistics.

SportsCenter is considered one of the more reliable news sources about sports via internet and television, under the ESPN network. It has 16.5 million followers.

Bleacher Report is a digitally based company solely online and has 1.73 million followers; it is known for its opinion articles and is known to have bias.

Parody accounts have been created as well such as NotSportsCenter, which relays a more humorous take on sports events and news, sometimes either exaggerated or fictional and it has 342,000 followers. Hashtags like #MarchMadness are used so that users can see other related tweets from public users.

As a head Sports Editor for Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black Newspaper, Michael McLaughlin talks about how messages have to change depending on the channel that is being used. For example in print version, headlines are more traditional and formal but online, “numbers, words such as ‘how’ and ‘why’ and personalizing the headline work well.” Social media is allowed to use more conversational and personal language in order to capture the attention of readers who are likely scrolling through pages of articles or posts.

The online channel for communication about sports can be particularly effective for informative purposes, but also creating pathos for a particular subject. A recent example is the Lauren Hill Basketball story. If not for the media exposure about Hill and her condition, her recent death would have gone greatly unnoticed. The story of Hill erupted just after the tip off of the 2014–15 college basketball season. Hill, a freshman at Division III Mount St. Joseph, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer. She was given just a few months to live. After scoring four points in her first of four collegiate games, social media blew up with supportive tweets from fans around the country as well as celebrity athletes such as Lebron James and WNBA star Candace Parker. Without the exposure from social media, idols such as these would not have known about Hill’s accomplishment and fulfillment of her dream since women’s sports games at a small college typically do not gather large crowds. ESPN’s coverage of this event in the article, “Hill fulfills dream, nets 4 points,” posted on November 4, 2014, incorporates tweets, statistics and statements from Hill herself as well as friends and family. This article is effective in both informing the audience about Lauren’s condition, how much money the game raised, and creating an emotion connection between this player and people around the country.

Another article on Lauren Hill posted shortly after her death on April 10, 2015 by USA TODAY acted a tribute towards Hill. This article had a similar organization to the previous article by ESPN, but a more global feel focusing less on a single game or event, but more on the life of Lauren and the legacy she has left on the nation and sport (Russell 2015). This article was more in the format of a hard hitting informative news story rather than a happy-go-lucky piece about a dream, but still received much attention from celebrities and fans alike.

Before a piece of sports writing or journalism goes into print or appears online, it must be invented. Where does this piece of published literature come from? McLaughlin assigns his writers either to a game or to a specific story. When reporting, he personally prefers to take notes on his computer and record any interviews on his phone, but sometimes only pen and paper is necessary. All articles have to adhere to the Associated Press Style and go through several forms of editing including line editing, structural changes, lead edits, “nut grafs” (which is editor’s slang for the context and value of the news being reported in the story), and graphical/visual editing and accompaniment. Editing insures that reported news and opinions are logically presented.

With the relatively small size of the newspaper writing staff at Wake Forest, writers and photographers convene in an open room on the 5th floor of Benson University center. This set up, like at many universities, allows for a collaborative effort between writers, editors, and graphic designers. In larger settings such as at Winston-Salem’s own IMG College, which according to their website is the “nation’s leading marketing and multimedia provider” specializing in college sports, as shown above, has rows of cubicles lining their office space. Because Winston-Salem hosts the headquarters of IMG, its offices host people working with media, sales, television, and radio broadcasting.

From the outside, it looks like just another office building, but the inside is complete with a full basketball court. This could potentially allow for situational practice for interviews and reporting as well as giving the building a sports-minded atmosphere.

Ethics play a large role in sports writing. McLaughlin outlines several ethical guidelines that he and other reporters must follow when interviewing and writing articles. He must inform the subject that he is a reporter and the topic he is writing about. This prevents any misconceptions about what type of information he needs to get from them. He also must ask for permission to record the conversation and ensure that if the individual wants to say something “off the record,” he cannot use this information. In order to ensure that ethos is maintained, a reporter must present both sides of the issue or argument. This entails speaking to individuals or groups from both sides along with verifying that information. The phrase “there’s no cheering in the press box” is an accurate description of the unbiased behavior that needs to occur. In the past, an anonymous writer was accepting free athletic gear from a coach at Wake Forest University. Accepting such gifts can create bias towards that coach or team and therefore lowers his or her credibility. When ethical issues like this arise either within the newspaper staff itself or from a reader, the editorial board discusses the issue and makes a group decision on how to handle it.

Although when we think of sports writing, we think of social media posts or newspaper and website articles, there are also many examples of formal sports writing. Formal writing can vary depending on the topic on hand. In general, formal writing is a more difficult read, using longer sentences, and precise but sometimes unknown terms. The article written in the Journal of Sports Economics, “Political Correctness, Selection Bias, and the NCAA Basketball Tournament”, Paul & Wilson, 2015, uses less scientific terms and formulas and more theoretical terms and program based language. This language is used since the audience for this journal is more likely to be those interested in either the economics, sociology or theoretical calculations behind sports rather than experimental scientists. The average words per sentence was 24, which is considered to be a complex sentence, and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease was 37.4. This means the article is meant to be read by at least university students. Jargon terms such as “running up the score” (203) are put in quotation marks, and are the main reasoning behind the long sentences as they use subordinate clauses to include definitions and/or explanations of these terms. Although this article was found using a scientific article database, the format of the article is not in the typical IMRAD format, at least for headings. The article does include several of the sections of IMRAD including an introduction and statistical methods section, but they are not split up by paragraphs or headings, and the only headings are Abstract, Economic Rationale Behind Tournament Selection, Regression Results, and Conclusion. Another notable observation is the use of “We” and the repetition of “we believe”, “we wish” and “we consider.” The first person writing style in combination with the statistical methods effectively relates back to the idea of human and computer error and biases in the topic of selecting teams for the NCAA basketball tournament.

A second sample of formal writing, was written in the scientific journal, Nature, “Who needs a referee? How incorrect basketball actions are automatically detected by basketball players’ brains,” by Proverbio et. al, 2012. It is interesting to compare these two pieces of formal writing because with formal writing in sports there seems to be a couple differing categories. The first is a more economic or statistical outlook on the sport, as with the bracketology report described above. The second article I chose to look at was more medical based and fell into the category of sports psychology, physiology and sports medicine. This specific article was about the neurobiology behind responses to incorrect basketball actions. Despite being a more science-based article, the words per sentence was 18.5 and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease was 36.9. The words per sentence is lower than the previous article and would suggest only a slightly lower readability, possibly due to the neurobiological terms, that would be unfamiliar to an audience not clinically or medically based. Overall this article was better organized. It follows the IMRAD format better than the previous article, only differing the order of the headings with the method section left at the end. First person language such as “we wished” was also present in this article but most of the article other than the discussion about the figures was in past tense and passive voice. Because this article was an experimental study, there are more attempts to create distance between the paper and the writer, whereas the previous paper included a human voice in order to create a certain ethos that some bias was reasonable.

These pieces of formal writing are to inform its audience about different discoveries in the sporting world, and rely less on frilly language than in the marketing or entertainment sector. In conclusion, the multiple channels of sports rhetoric play different roles in communicating messages. Despite differences, all forms rely on ethical soundness, appeal to audience, and logical organization to be effective.

Works Cited

Bennett, S. (2013, June 24). Social Times. Retrieved from AdWeek website:

Greenwald, D. (2014, October 29). 8 things you didn’t know about game-time music at the Moda Center. The Oregonian. Retrieved from

IMG. (n.d.). Retrieved from IMG Worldwide website:

Paul, R. J., & Wilson, M. (2015). Political Correctness, Selection Bias, and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Journal of Sports Economics, 16(2), 201–213. doi:10.1177/1527002512465413

Proverbio, A. M., Crotti, N., Manfredi, M., Adorni, R., & Zani, A. (2012, November 22). Who needs a referee? How incorrect basketball actions are automatically detected by basketball players. Nature, doi:10.1038/srep00883

Roenigk, A. (2014, November 4). Hill fulfills dream, nets 4 points. ESPN The Magazine, Retrieved from

Russell, S. (2015, April 10). Lauren Hill dies at 19 after battle with brain cancer. USA TODAY. Retrieved from

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