Falling Figures

On Thin Ice: Football

A few months ago, a taxi driver carrying me home was even more familiar than usual with my address, a stone’s throw or three from Arsenal’s former ground in Highbury.  He had been a season-ticket holder for more than 20 years, but would be giving up this season.  Or rather, he would be giving up attending the games, but would spend match-time in the Bank of Friendship, a pub at the end of my road, with his mates.  He couldn’t justify the cost of the tickets, but would still get some of the atmosphere, and the camaraderie. The name of the pub is a helpful reminder that the Premier League is one of the UK’s biggest exports, along with financial services. But while banks are currently hated (friendship, my arse!), football remains unbelievably popular.

We’ve become so used to the dominance of football in TV sport, that we forget that this is quite a recent phenomenon.  A BBC sports survey in 1980 ranked football only 3rd behind athletics and figure skating in popularity.  Aah yes, Ice Dancing… John Curry, Robin Cousins,  Torville and Dean.  Good times, long gone.

Robin Cousins and John Curry… they could still compete at the highest level in British Ice Dance if Curry hadn’t died in 1994

The popularity of particular sports can depend on national success. Torville and Dean’s Olympic comeback in 1994 attracted almost 24 million viewers – one of the largest ever TV audiences.  These days almost no-one in the UK watches Figure Skating because we don’t have any successful practitioners in this country.   In fact by the look of it, in recent years, the British Figure Skating Championship has crowned winners but not bronzes or silvers because there were ‘no other competitors’.

I was once won First prize for a picture of a starfish made from silver bottle-tops where I was the only entry, but that was a Summer Fair in Henfield, not a national championship.

Football. It’s broken, but we still seem to need it

You’d think that if a skating competition was worth watching when we have a British competitor at the top level, we would watch when we didn’t. The quality of the dance, the beauty of the competitors, the raw competition, the costumes and music would all continue… but sport isn’t like that. We watch because of something inside us as viewers – such as a need to feel good about ourselves, or our country – not because there is something intrinsically compelling about the performance itself.

Interest in sports can rise or fall.  Athletics may have pipped football’s popularity in the 1980 survey, but this was a mere four years after the meagre medal tally at the Montreal Olympics in 1976: a solitary bronze for Brendan Foster.  But then we enjoyed a golden era of gold medals and middle-distance world records.  Athletics does seem to move in 4 year cycles relating to the Olympics.

We’re watching more tennis, golf and cycling now because of the sudden success of Andy Murray, those golf players whose name I forget, and Bradley Wiggins.

Yes.. it’s not about the bike. Or the ball. Or the skates. Or the players. Or even the play. It’s about the viewers’ needs.

We fall in and out of love for these sports not because the action changes, but the context changes and our needs.  Formula 1 may now have a shorter name and better cameras but is it better than it used to be?  Safer (of course, and thank God), but better?  Athletics has more telegenic stars, cycling is more technical and cricket is quicker but the sporting skills involved are broadly the same.  Structural changes – the cloistering of sports onto satellite channels where their potential is cramped  – means that we can’t really gauge genuine popularity easily.

But Football reigns supreme.  It dominates sport in a peculiar way.

Sky have admitted that the enormous fees it pays for football will squeeze out what they have available for other sports.  And you can understand that – Sky is paying £6.5 million for each match, essentially a direct transfer from TV viewers to premier league players.  Considering the rising cost during a recession, the rigged effects of investments in the top teams, the growth of foreign money and all the rest, it has bubble written all over it.  If you can make money betting against something, I’d like to put money on football coming a cropper in the next few years.  And no absence of choice – five Premier League teams are sponsored by betting forms (six if you count Fulham’s online trading sponsor Forex).  Perhaps I’ll borrow the money from the New Newcastle United sponsor.

For the bubble to burst, TV viewers would have to stop paying.  How might this happen?

Tomorrow, a longer post on the football, and how it has taken such a dominant position.  I’ve been boycotting football this season, as an experiment to see what it feels like to absent myself from the whole circus – it’s not easy, but understanding football’s appeal might help us understand how to break the addiction.

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