28th June 2021
Press conferences, a staple of every major international sporting event in every discipline, have been in the news of late. Not the comments given by the world’s best about their sport, but rather the concept of pressers altogether.
Women’s tennis sensation Naomi Osaka got the ball rolling when she withdrew from the French Open after refusing to appear in the post-match pressers because she claimed that they were detrimental to her mental health. The event organisers hit her with a €15,000 fine and threatened expulsion if she did not meet her obligations, so Osaka walked.
This was followed by a pair of sponsorship contretemps in the group stages of UEFA Euro 2020, when Portugal captain and soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo disdainfully removed two bottles of event sponsor Coca-Cola’s product from the press conference table and demanded that people drank water instead, briefly knocking $4bn off Coke’s stock market value.
Ronaldo’s actions were followed up 24 hours later by Paul Pogba, who removed a bottle of tournament partner Heineken’s beer from the desk for faith-based reasons.
So where does that lead us in the relationship between the sports and sponsors that support them, and the media whom they wish to broadcast their news? It is a polarising subject that hits at the generation gap as much as anything else in popular culture and media today.
For younger audiences, press conferences and their output are no longer their first port-of-call when seeking the opinions of sports stars about their on-event performance or any other matter because they follow their social media feeds. These may be massaged and manicured by hired staff, endorsement-driven and hugely profitable, but they are perceived to be a direct link between the fan and the star in question.
Traditional press conferences are instead viewed as ‘predatory’ events by the latest generation of journalists and, by extension, their audiences. Here, sympathies side strongly with both Osaka’s stand against the stress of answering predominantly older male journalists’ questions and with the footballers’ revolt against brands that they do not wish to endorse.
A similar situation occurred in F1 during 2016, when the heated title battle between Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg saw the Englishman withdraw from press engagements at the Japanese GP. Lewis stated that he wouldn’t take questions due to ‘disrespectful’ coverage in the course of the season.
Lewis’s actions were unique, as always, because in general racing drivers tend to be fairly relaxed about press conferences. Tedious questions are annoying, but handled magnanimously in the main because they are small beer, relatively speaking, after going wheel-to-wheel at 190 mph.
The problem, if there is one, is that the majority of responses are fairly bland, and this is in no small part a result of the questions to which they are subjected.
Time and again, today’s F1 drivers are characterised as lacking in personality based upon their press conference appearances and other sundry interviews, but all too often they are simply responding to exactly the same questions that they have answered hundreds of times before.
That is not the fault of the press conference as a concept, nor the interviewees as a group. It is rather indicative of a culture among journalists to ask frankly terrible questions, many of which have very obviously been geared towards eliciting a headline rather than trying to gain insight. Take this example from the 2021 French Grand Prix:
Q: Lewis, coming to you, this felt like a reversal of Barcelona a few weeks back. You were the one being hunted down this time. Just how gut-wrenching was it to lose the race so close to the end?
LH: It’s not gut-wrenching at all. I think we did a great job today. It just didn’t work out, but I don’t particularly feel… I’m not massively disappointed.
‘Twas ever thus, of course. In 1999, for example, Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine stood on the cusp of becoming the Scuderia’s first drivers’ world champion for 20 years when he arrived at the Italian Grand Prix. In the pre-event presser, a journalist reeled off all the many things that Irvine’s success had brought him – fame, money, a yacht and a helicopter, to name but a few.
The journalist in question then asked Irvine if there was anything left that he wished for in life… anticipating a response such as ‘to win the title for Ferrari would be my greatest achievement’ upon which to base his next article. But this was Eddie Irvine. He grinned and replied that he wished that his manhood was a little smaller.
Once upon a time, responses such as this were commonplace. When James Hunt was asked what it meant to win the 1976 British GP, he said: “Nine points, $20,000 and a lot of happiness.”
That sort of irreverence was ironed out of the sport by commercial pressures in the 1990s, with drivers being trained what to say. Yet one obvious by-product has been the elevation of Kimi Raikkonen to folk hero status with a 20-year career at the top level that’s been sustained by saying absolutely nothing and trading on his ‘Iceman’ image.
If the prospect of answering to an enquiring journalist is daunting to modern athletes, however, their fears are undoubtedly magnified by concern over the potential social media fallout that may result from expressing an opinion.
Social media is conditioned now to fall upon every syllable uttered by public figures, seeking out offense and screaming it from the rooftops. This is likely as much of a cause of the anxiety felt by Naomi Osaka as the prospect of explaining why she double faulted.
Furthermore, the athletes also have the responsibility of their brand image and those of the brands who pay lucrative personal endorsement fees to be associated with them. Was Cristiano Ronaldo’s Coke outburst prompted by his concerns over childhood obesity or the fact that brand, which once paid him handsomely for advertising its products, no longer has a commercial relationship with him?
We do not know, because nobody asked him the question. Of course, Ronaldo could put out a public statement after the fact, explaining his actions, if he were so minded. But that is a long way different from the immediate response that he may have given if anyone in the audience had the gumption to ask him what was wrong.
Probably the most memorable press conference in Formula 1 terms came at the 1990 Australian Grand Prix, when Ayrton Senna faced the media after winning the world championship by colliding with Alain Prost at the previous race in Japan.
Among the TV pundits was none other than Sir Jackie Stewart, who was clearly incensed by what he viewed as a violation of the drivers’ code. Having failed to elicit anything like a response that he was satisfied with, Stewart went for the jugular when he said:
“Let me ask you another difficult question. If I were to count back all the world champions, and after all this is the 500th Grand Prix, that if you totalled up all of those great champions, the number of times they had made contact with other drivers, that you in the last 36 months or 48 months have been in contact with more contact with more cars and drivers than they might have done in total.”
It was an extraordinary thrust-and-parry between two colossal egos, and it ended with Senna going on the offensive.
“But I think it is all irrelevant, to all, what you are saying, Stew-Jackie, is really irrelevant. Because I am a driver that won more races than anybody over the past three years. I am a driver that has been on pole position more than anybody in history. And I am a driver that won two titles from the past three years. And I don’t think how, I don’t comprehend how, you can try to turn things around to say I’ve been involved in more accidents than anybody.”
Senna was pushed into dropping the well-crafted persona to reveal the raw emotion bubbling beneath him. Yes, it is hard to claim that Stewart’s line of questioning was without an agenda and that, in his view, only contrition would be appropriate. Yet the calibre of his questioning was faultless and that is why we still remember the encounter more than 30 years after the event.
An expert in account-holding is veteran scribe Joe Saward, but the Englishman prefers not to pay much attention to press conferences and spends his time weaving between the motorhomes to get 1:1 time with the teams, drivers, and officials.
“The problem is that the top journalists in F1 don’t want to ask questions [in press conferences] because they don’t want everyone in the world getting the same answers,” Saward said.
“They need information that no-one else has. These journalists do have some access now that the paddocks have opened up again and they can live off snatched conversations when they can get them. It really depends on the relationships that have been forged over time.”
Journalists like Saward are now in the minority in F1 as they are in other sports. This means that, without that same level of intimacy, the formal presser is the only vehicle that the majority of journalists have to put their questions.
The FIA has sought to shake things up a little in recent times, such as the introduction of the ‘fan question’, but questions from schoolchildren about how much an F1 car costs do little to move the game onward.
Ultimately, we have to accept that athletes in all sports are now as concerned by the potential fall-out from social media as they are the headlines that the genuine press may seek to elicit from them. That makes them more guarded, and their personal endorsements only complicate matters further.
Does this mean the death of the press conference? No, it is too important for that, but it puts the onus firmly on the journalists to ask the right questions in the right way.
Photo credit: © Honda Racing F1