LANE ONE: Naomi Osaka may have lost at the U.S. Open, but everyone learned her lesson: the press still matters

“Like, I didn’t know how big of a deal it would become.”

Although newspaper circulations are way down, the press – reformed for the digital age – is still a very big deal, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Japan’s tennis superstar, Naomi Osaka, found this out directly.

She made headlines in May by refusing to participate in contractually-required post-match news conferences at the French Open. Her announcement post on Twitter included (as posted):

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m not just going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

She was fined $15,000 after skipping the appearance after her first round victory and then withdrew from the tournament, announcing on Instagram:

“Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”

She skipped media appearances after her matches at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she lost in the third round, then briefly walked out of a post-match news conference (but returned) after a third-round loss at the Cincinnati Open.

At a pre-U.S. Open news conference on 27 August, Osaka, 23, explained:

“Honestly, I feel like there’s a lot of things that I did wrong in that moment, but I’m also the type of person that’s very in the moment. Like whatever I feel, I’ll say it or do it. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a lot of things that I learned to do better. Of course, I don’t feel the same situation will happen again.

“I would say maybe think it through a bit more in the way that, like, I didn’t know how big of a deal it would become.”

After all that, Osaka suffered an upset loss to eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez (CAN) in the third round on 3 September and used the post-match news conference to announce she was taking time off from tennis.

“I feel like for me recently, like, when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”

She was sobbing, so the moderator was ready to end the session, but Osaka decided to continue:

“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

That was it, but now Osaka was employing the assembled press to tell her story, which was dutifully reported worldwide.

In this instance, the post-match news conference was exactly the right forum to get her message out. Because the press still matters.

It’s worth noting that news reporting by the “press” – even if tied to a television entity like ESPN – is really separate and apart from the interests of broadcasters, who are geared toward co-promoting events with their owners to drive viewership.

It’s totally true that U.S. print newspapers have fallen on hard times. Britain’s reported in August that audited figures showed Monday-Friday print circulation averages for the 25 largest U.S. papers are down from a combined 4.7 million from the first quarter of 2019 to just 3.4 million – that’s almost 28% – at the end of the first quarter in 2021.

Former million-circ print dailies like the New York Times (362,763), USA Today (183,270), Washington Post (180,159) and the Los Angeles Times (164,845) are shadows of their print reach of just 10 years ago.

But where there were regional powerhouse papers all across in the U.S., new, national, digital players have taken their place. One ranking of sports-themed Web sites from March 2021 estimated the U.S. sports traffic leaders as:

● 125 million monthly unique visitors: Yahoo! Sports
● 80 million: ESPN
● 40 million: Bleacher Report
● 30 million: CBSSports
● 25 million: Sports Illustrated

This does not include the large audiences for sports for the online posts of legacy newspapers; these are reader totals which were unthinkable prior to the digital age.

Osaka’s experience with the press at the U.S. Open, with its strong media coverage, demonstrates the challenge for most of the Olympic Movement in the United States. True, hundreds of American journalists cover the Olympic Games, but then what?

There are large, dedicated media corps devoted year-round to sports that are coincidentally on the Olympic program, such as basketball, football, golf and tennis, but beyond that?

Sure, there are niche sites – like this one – but the big-traffic sites only occasionally offer direct coverage for track, swimming, gymnastics and the rest. That keeps Olympic-focused sports well down in the public consciousness; where are the dedicated U.S. beat writer(s) on Olympic sports? Are there any left?

There were more than a dozen in the 1990s at the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many others. Not now.

What about social media? Once identified as the cure-all, it may not be the answer. A 2021 study by the Association of National Advertisers showed that “the quality of the media exposure is more important than the quantity of the media exposure in driving results” with the no. 1 metric being “return on investment/return on advertising spend.” Familiar Web advertising and social-media indicators such as “Shares,” “Impressions” and “Likes” ranked nos. 31-34-35 in importance. Followers are nice, sales are much better.

The press matters, and the only way to get attention is to reach out and touch them, often. This process is beginning; U.S. National Governing Bodies in wrestling, weightlifting, volleyball, rugby, track and others mounted aggressive e-mail campaigns to news media during the Tokyo Games and several – especially USA Wrestling and USA Volleyball – are continuing.

With another Olympic Games coming in just three years and then Los Angeles in 2028, now is a good time to – if you will – press ahead.

Rich Perelman

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