These Press Conferences Don’t Matter

Naomi Osaka said that she isn’t going to talk to reporters at this year’s French Open. She implied that press conferences were damaging to mental health, and accepts that she’ll be fined, as is standard for players skipping post-match interviews. If this is the first you’re hearing the news and want a more in-depth treatment, here’s the New York Times article.

As my headline makes clear, these press conferences don’t really matter. Others do, and in a minute, I’ll explain why.

It’s often forgotten, but sports leagues and teams have a symbiotic relationship with the media. That’s why there are press conferences, as well as press boxes with workstations and free food. Not only is media coverage free publicity, it’s usually better publicity than the kind you can pay for. Sure, the US Open plasters advertising all over the NYC subway in August, but none of that compares to the publicity boost of daily tennis coverage in the New York Times or highlights shown on the evening news.

The biggest tournaments–such as Wimbledon, the US Open, and Roland Garros–still furnish those amenities, and they continue to make players available to the press. Inane and repetitive as those interview sessions sometimes are, they provide content that fills airtime and newspaper columns.

But the biggest events need not kowtow to the press. The majors are inherently newsworthy, and they almost always sell every ticket. If the French Open declared that no players would give press conferences during the upcoming fortnight, L’Equipe would still cover it. The slams have reached the status of a blue-chip corporation or a noxious politician–journalists might not want to cover them, but it’s part of the job.

Who’s bigger than what?

Many of the negative reactions to Osaka’s announcement center on the idea that she isn’t bigger than the sport–or if she is, that she shouldn’t act like it. After all, living legends such as Serena Williams and men’s Big Three have all given hundreds of press conferences.

For better or worse, Osaka–and a handful of other players–are bigger than the sport. But more importantly, the majors are bigger than the sport.

In a very long-term sense, maybe Osaka’s position will end up mattering. Maybe it will set a precedent that other players will follow; maybe the WTA will cave and not issue any fines; maybe journalists will ask even fewer tough questions (if that’s possible). But as far as the 2021 French Open is concerned, whether one star player answers media queries is irrelevant.

The same cannot be said about virtually every other event on the calendar. With the possible exception of Indian Wells and a couple of marquee tour stops in Europe, tournaments aren’t entrenched in the public consciousness, and they scuffle anew for sponsors, spectators, and press coverage every year. If Osaka were the headliner in, say, San Jose this summer, it would be a huge blow if she refused to talk to the press.

I suspect that Osaka knows this and will act accordingly. I could be wrong: perhaps her French Open decision is a trial balloon, and if the backlash is minor, she’ll never do a tournament press conference again. But more likely, she realizes that the stakes aren’t that high, and media outlets will manage just fine for the next two weeks without her. Even though she’s the highest-paid female athlete in the world, the tournament itself is a bigger star than she is.