The Icing and the Cake

10th December 2020

In the absence of watching any sport from the terrace or the boundary edge since the beginning of February, it might have been expected that I would have compensated by seeking out more sport on television. This has turned out not to be the case.

Since the Spring, the full catalogue of my television sport viewing has comprised:

* the BBC’s evening highlights of England’s Test match series against the West Indies and Pakistan (see “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020);

* BBC Alba’s coverage of the Glasgow City vs VfL Wolfsburg match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020);

* the respective finals of the rugby league Challenge Cup and rugby union’s Heineken Champions League (“Risks and Probable Outcomes”, 19th October 2020) plus a couple of games in the earlier rounds of the Challenge Cup;

* the weekly editions of the BBC’s The Super League Show and The NFL Show (a review of the National [American] Football League) and Fox’s NRL Try Time (the tries in Australia National Rugby League shown on a Sky terrestrial channel);

* the evening highlights of the major cycling tours of France, Spain and Italy (the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana on ITV4 and La Giro d’Italia on QUEST/Eurosport); and

* ITV’s coverage of England’s delayed Six Nations match against Italy (when the English half backs spent 80 minutes kicking the ball high into the early evening Rome sky).

For what it’s worth, the programmes I have most looked forward to have been the ITV4 cycling highlights (with the excellent presentations by Gary Imlach and informed commentaries of Ned Boulting and David Millar) and The NFL Show.

The latter, in addition to the highlights of the week’s key games, has included some revealing analysis by Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora (both former NFL players) not only on the intricacies of individual plays on the field, but also some deep-rooted issues within the sport, including the “taking of the knee” and the psychological effect on the individual of long-term injury. The programme does have a laddish tendency, however, and the mid-season replacement of the reliable Mark Chapman by Dan Walker as its anchor is a step backwards. I am prepared to wince at some of the on-field hits that are shown, but Walker’s comment that the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrows “looked the most promising” of two young quarterbacks following an earlier “Me and Jason were wondering…” really did set the teeth on edge.

The overall choice of viewing has been constrained by the prescient cancellation of my Sky Sports subscription in 2019 but, even so, the above list is selective and not particularly long. There are no one-day cricket internationals or England soccer games (or, indeed, any soccer games apart from the Glasgow City/FC Wolfsburg encounter) or any of England’s recent rugby union internationals in the Autumn Nations Cup. There is no Match of the Day or golf or motor racing or athletics… Admittedly, some of these I probably wouldn’t have watched in a “normal” year, but the fact still remains that the scope of my interest in the general sporting environment – and the specific outcomes within it – does appear to have narrowed.

I am not at all sure what the psychological roots of all this are, though I suspect that they are complex. I assume that underpinning it must be the continual process of revaluation of what is or is not important – prompted by the global impact of the coronavirus – that all of us must have undertaken in some form or another in recent months across many parts of our day-to-day lives.

I should acknowledge that – pre-coronavirus – I was already really not all that interested in watching the global multi-millionaires of the Manchester United and Arsenal brands battle it out in front of a capacity Old Trafford on MOTD. So it is not surprising that I have not had any more interest when the stadium is empty. However, it can’t all be about the finances. My interest in The NFL Show has not been diminished by the reports of Patrick Mahomes – the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs – being awarded a contract worth $503 million over 10 years.

Perhaps some insight is given by looking back at the soccer games that I attended over the two years prior to last Spring. There was an international at Hampden Park, a Europa League tie at Celtic Park and Scottish Premiership fixtures in Kilmarnock and Edinburgh. But the other matches I watched were in Berwick, Alloa, Dumfries and Annan. Likewise, the rugby league venues included Workington and Millom as well as Huddersfield and Leeds and there was rugby union in Otley and shinty in Kingussie… It is not difficult to work out that, whilst I enjoy being an observer at a “major” event, I also like to attend the small-scale contest when there is a new place to visit and a local history to explore.

It was probably inevitable that the availability of television sports would not compensate for the absence of opportunities to watch local events. The sports on television are largely at the elite ends of their respective spectra – not at all surprisingly, given that broadcasters have hours of airtime to fill, the sponsors want value for money and the governing bodies and major clubs need to receive the finances for which they had budgeted.

Hence, for the rugby union authorities, the Autumn Nations Cup: on the one hand, a much-needed contribution to addressing a financial black hole; on the other, a quick-fix solution without any history, played in empty stadiums, the viewing rights for which were sold to the streaming arm of a global behemoth with no pedigree in the sport. Regrettably, for me, in the grand scheme of things, it just didn’t seem that important.

The principal impacts of the coronavirus on sport have been below the elite levels. In Britain, the 2020 rugby league season was abandoned after a couple of games at all levels below the Super League. For the 2020-21 season, the Rugby Football Union has cancelled all matches below the top two divisions (and even the second tier – the Championship – has not yet started); Scottish Rugby followed suit for all matches in its league structure. The 2020 English cricket season saw the 18 First Class counties muddle through truncated versions of their 4-day and 1-day competitions, but the club-level programme was drastically curtailed. The recent lockdown in England ruled out amateur and grassroots team sports, whilst team sport in schools has also been severely affected.

And so the elite players are – if not thriving – keeping their heads above water. The multi-millionaire footballers and motor-racing drivers are still being paid. But the events in which they participate are – as they always have been – the icing on the cake. The difference now is that the icing is in danger of being all that is left. The cake itself is being hollowed out and is at risk of disappearing.

The Super League’s governing body can probably feel satisfied that its competition succeeded in reaching the end of the season, which culminated in a pulsating Grand Final between St Helens and Wigan that was only decided in the final seconds of the match. However, in doing so, they would do well to remember that, amongst the players who took part in that encounter, were those that had begun their professional careers at lower league clubs such as Batley, Featherstone Rovers and Whitehaven. About a dozen others had aided their development via loan or dual registration experience with other teams in the lower divisions, including the North Wales Crusaders, Dewsbury Rams and Workington Town.

My concern is that, by the time that we reach the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world, there might be a generation of sports participants below the elite levels – especially players and coaches, but also administrators, volunteers and spectators – who will have moved on to other things, not to return. Where, then, will the elite players come from for the television sports of the future?

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