The End of Geography (Except, Not)

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When I was young I loved maps. (Not that I don’t now; I still spend a lot of time browsing Google Sightseeing, the book of transit maps from around the world my girlfriend and I bought, and reddit/Map Porn.) As a child I had a puzzle of the United States that I would regularly trace, writing in information of limited importance such as the order of their admittance to the Union. I remember being enthralled at my friend’s CD-ROM street map that covered the entire country.

The intersection of Internet technologies and the traditionally geographically diverse nature of sports has created some interesting issues, and for that matter, maps. This one shows what teams are blacked out in what locations on MLB.tv, baseball's out-of-market TV service.

Of course, today we don’t think twice about being able to pull up a comprehensive street-level atlas of the entire Earth on a portable device the size of a Game Boy Light. Anyone could come up with countless examples of how the world has shrunk even more as the Internet has pervaded our lives more and more.

One might think this would mean that physical location doesn’t matter as much as it once did. In some ways, this is definitely true. It’s easy to get into Singaporean politics, Namibian cricket or Greenlandish hip hop while you lie comfortably in your American bed. This huge expansion of the information one can find if they put a little bit of effort into it is one of the things, if not the main thing, that makes me happy to be alive when I am.

But when it comes to the mass media, I’ve noticed an odd thing: It seems today that location means destiny more than ever.

Take national politics, for instance. Coverage of presidential races is now overwhelmingly reported on by 24-hour cable news networks that deliver the same content whether you’re in Hawaii or Maine. Yet political parties worry about the optics of geography more than ever.

Look at where national nominating conventions have been held. From 1992 to 2004 Democratic conventions were held only in liberal metropolises: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston. Since then the conventions for both parties have been swing-state only affairs: Denver and Charlotte for the Democrats, St. Paul and Tampa for the GOP.

Another area in which geography is playing a larger role is television. Scripted TV shows of the past may have had real settings, but the Milwaukee of Happy Days or the Seattle of Frasier were little more than abstract concepts flavoring the L.A. soundstage environments. While there are still some spectacular examples of this—until you’ve seen the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, you have no idea how much Greenwich Village looks like Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A.—the phenomenon has lessened as single-camera, on-location shows become the norm. And it’s even more pronounced when it comes to reality TV.

A somewhat-less-than-true-to-life New York City street set from Wizards of Waverly Place.

The Real World is often cited as a reality pioneer and that holds true in its featuring a different city for every season. Because today, it seems like most big reality franchises are somehow location-dependent. You’ve got Pawn Stars in Las Vegas, Swamp People which inspired a bevy of other shows set in the Louisiana bayou, Jersey Shore which did the same for New Jersey, and The Real Housewives of most conceivable upper-class locales, the format of which is now being exported internationally.

The area in which location seems to have taken on the most added significance recently, though, is sports. ESPN and other national media outlets once acted actually national; now their inordinate focus on teams from the very few largest media markets is unmistakable.

Take the Jeremy Lin phenomenon. I think his is an incredible story and it certainly deserves media attention. But you’ve got people like Mark Cuban—the owner of a team in a big, but not huge, non-coastal market, the Dallas Mavericks—saying that it wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t happening in New York. I’m sure Cuban was exaggerating when he said “no one would know” about Lin if he was playing elsewhere. But it seems clear to me that it wouldn’t have developed into the same obsession for the Worldwide Leader.

Interest in consolidating the NBA’s elite talent into the biggest markets seems to be at an all-time high, if the recent demands of players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard to be traded only to alpha cities are any indication. It’s hard to blame young men with boundless fame and disposable income for wanting to live in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. But I do blame certain media outlets for encouraging them by focusing so disproportionately on teams in places like that.

North American celebrity culture in the realms of film, TV, music, comedy, and so forth have always been centered around an extremely narrow group of cities. I don’t have a problem with that—after all, that’s part of what gives those cities their unique attractiveness. But I have always thought it was kind of cool how sports, by the nature of its organization, is a glamorous industry that is quite geographically egalitarian. To ply their trade professionally, a baseball player from Miami could go to St. Louis, a football player from Southern California could go to Green Bay, and a hockey player from Stockholm could go to Calgary, and all of these moves would be considered seriously moving up in the world. I don’t like the feeling that we’re losing that idiosyncratic feature of sports with increased emphasis on big-market teams.

In my opinion, this is particularly unfortunate in the NBA, which has a tradition of placing teams in small cities that no other major pro leagues are present in, like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio. Before securing a new arena deal this week, one such city, Sacramento, came extremely close to losing their team to Anaheim, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which has two teams already. Is this idea of stacking huge media markets with ever more teams a sign of things to come? I hope not, but with the media focus on those areas, it would make a perverse kind of sense for the teams.

The way I see it, national media has two choices about how to approach coverage of a nation- or worldwide sports universe. Either they can identify stories from anywhere in the country that they think, if widely publicized, would have the most wide appeal; or, they can act like a local outlet focusing on the teams with, statistically, the most fans, and push stories about these teams onto the rest of the country that might not otherwise care at the same time. I think they choose the latter far too often. Which frustrates me, because in this day and age, I want to revel in the fact that we’re no longer beholden to local newspapers and TV for our information. And I certainly don’t want to feel like our spectacular modern communication technologies are just feeding me a facsimile of that experience, and about a location I might not even care about in the first place.

Living in the age of cyberspace hasn’t made geography irrelevant—if anything, it’s amplified it. Some of the effects of this are positive and some are negative in my opinion, but either way, I find it pretty counterintuitive at first blush. But as a recent study showing that Twitter connections match up quite tightly with airline routes indicated, the Internet serves as a compliment, not a replacement, for the physical world. Methods of communication may shift rapidly, but human nature has proven much more resistent to change.


Written by Dan Wohl

03.02.12 at 1:53 am

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