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College of Human Development, Culture, and Media

Media Studies Professor Publishes Front Office Fantasies: The Rise of Managerial Sports Media

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.

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