by Adam Gilfix
A few weeks ago, an article by Grantland writer Bryan Curtis addressing the prevalence of sports’ most dreaded question, the Talk About, was sent around our group’s mailing list. Watching a press conference these days, it can feel like every few words out of an interviewer’s mouth is that expression, “talk about,” which signifies the start to a terribly-put question (or even just a statement made at the interviewee). As a friend put it, the above piece “riffs on the ubiquity of the phrase ‘talk about’ in post-game interviews,” and I couldn’t help but read the article and agree with the premise.
Then I thought of recent abuse of the terminology. It is hard not to notice that 3 of the first 9 questions of Coach Belichick’s press conference after the Patriots’ narrow victory over the Ravens use a Talk About. Well, to be exact, 3 of the first 9 question blocks in the interview contained the phrase. What is a “question block,” you ask? It is nothing more than the group of questions (or just a single inquiry) a reporter asks at a time. Thus, in a conference, a question block occurs each time a reporter addresses an athlete or coach. Therefore, a question block can contain 0, 1, and sometimes (God forbid) more occurrences of Talk About. This of course leads to the question: how prevalent is the phrase empirically and is its widespread use a new phenomenon or, as Curtis hints, just something we happen to be noticing and talking about now?
With this goal in mind, I proceeded where any analytical person would, with the collection of data. Fortunately ASAP Sports had everything I was looking for, with press conferences and interviews dating back two decades. Having decided on using the mainstream, interview-heavy sports of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and tennis, I set about scraping.
A few important notes are necessary here before diving into the analytics and trends. Much of the football and basketball data was college-centric with some professional athlete and coach interviews, while the other sports’ data was mainly at the professional level. Due to much more content on the site since the turn of the millennium, my investigation focused on 2001-14 (this year’s sample size is still a bit small). Although the results I found were relatively consistent across that span, I truncated the dataset to 2007-14 based again on sample size and some inconsistency in the html-scraping process, including press conferences where the questions were unavailable due to microphone malfunctions and the like.
In the end, between the five sports and eight years, I was able to explore about 30,000 interviews with a total of nearly 400,000 question blocks. But that begs the question: how did I count instances of “talk about” within this sample? It was not quite as easy as searching the question block text for “talk about.” For one, that gives unwanted results that must be subtracted, including “there is a lot of talk about…” and “It seems the actual talk about…” Furthermore, it was imperative to incorporate variations of Talk About such as “talk a little about,” “talk a bit more about,” “do you mind talking about,” and other equally annoying questions and follow-ups from the media. Finally, by keeping track of whether or not a question block contained at least one occurrence of any of those expressions, I could likewise determine whether or not an interview contained a Talk About and subsequently examine some metrics explaining the data.
It is important to note that over the 8 years of data, interviews and press conferences have generally been shortened, with question blocks per interview decreasing in 4/5 sports.
Since this undoubtedly affects the average number (1.2 overall) of question blocks per interview that contain a Talk About, I generated percentage-based metrics to explore trends in the Talk About media phenomenon, thus eliminating bias from press conference length.
What I found was that the overall percentage of press conferences and interviews that contain at least one Talk About is 53% across the five sports and eight years. That means that roughly half of the 30,000 sports conferences over this time period included at least one question block with at least one question that had at least one Talk About. The graph below breaks down this percentage for each sport and all of them combined as they have changed since 2007.
Immediately, one sees a disparity between the sports, with football and basketball interviews containing a Talk About more often than not, hockey and baseball in the middle ground, and tennis well below the average. In all but tennis, the portion of press conferences that contain at least one Talk About undergo evident decline. Of course, the sample is not scot-free from interviews and press conferences that contain multiple instances of the “talk about” variety. In fact, the ratio of the sum of all Talk About incidences to interviews was a sizable 1.22 to 1.
Similarly, tennis conferences had a much lower percentage of question blocks that contain a Talk About compared to the other sports. However, looking at this statistic, basketball stands head and shoulders above the rest, and football now lies with hockey and baseball around the average.
What should be clear in both of these graphs, each measuring the prevalence of the phrase “talk about” slightly differently, is that (at least according to this massive sample, which may be indicative of the overall population of press conferences and interviews) Talk About is not at all a new sensation in sports media questioning. Rather, it appears to have been a relative constant since the mid-2000s (and dates at least as far back as the data I probed from the beginning of the century). And although we often perceive that Talk About is all that is talked about in sports press conferences, these data show that perhaps we are witnessing the onset of a decline in this least thoughtful form of media interrogation. Maybe interviewers and networks are finally catching on that athletes and coaches do not want to “talk about” what was going through their heads as the ball sailed across the field, or why somebody or other stepped up that day. Or could it be that the media outlets recognize sports fanatics’ and viewers’ apathy with Talk About, this junk question-that’s-not-a-question they so love to ask (demand)?