With two posts already on why people should love sport, I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge the existence of the other side of the argument- all of you out there who don’t share my passion are not without merit. Like everything, the sporting sphere has its flaws, its weaknesses and its annoyances, which I will begin to discuss in a complementary series of posts.
Brilliantly satirised in the film ‘Baseketball’ by South Park’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the overbearing importance of money in sport has truly exploded over the past 10-15 years. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I highly recommend it- Trey and Matt star as slackers in a near future where Americans have totally lost interest in the world of US sports centred as it is around fickle, ever-mobile franchises. To fill their free time, they invent a new ‘sport’ on their driveway, naturally a kind of cross between baseball and basketball, which eventually becomes hugely popular and the familiar cycle begins again.
Back in the real world, money continues to permeate all aspects of sport.
20/20 cricket, originally invented in England a few years ago to pull in the punters and keep the counties, ever more dependent on handouts from the ECB, afloat and vaguely viable in a business sense, has led to cricketers giving up international careers to pursue the riches on offer in the Indian Premier League.
In football, the FA Premier League (a beast created with one purpose in mind, and not the stated purpose of improving England’s national team) has forsaken the tradition of the Saturday 3pm kick-off at the behest of Sky, Setanta and ESPN, who pay exorbitant sums for the rights to broadcast the matches. 3pm on Saturday is protected by law against live broadcasts of top-flight football so that attendances at other games are not affected by people choosing to stay at home to watch the big match. This means, after 17 years of slow erosion of the traditional timing, we now usually have 4 or 5 of the 10 games each weekend starting at the proper time, with the others moved to Saturday lunchtime, Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon or Monday night so as many games as possible can be put on the TV, thereby justifying the subscription fees charged by the broadcasters.
The vast amounts of money on offer from bidders for the TV rights to the Premier League (currently around £2.7bn when international rights are taken into account) have attracted a host of foreign ‘investors’- generally as popular as the proverbial fart in a spacesuit- who have discovered that what seemed like a promised land full of guaranteed immediate rewards is not so simple. Many clubs are struggling with crippling debt, most notoriously Liverpool and Manchester United, both of whom were purchased by Americans with no knowledge of the game or the heritage of the institutions they were ‘purchasing’. The twin-headed beast that is Tom Hicks and George Gillett, in the spirit of the American franchise culture they grew up in, claimed as they announced the deal to be big fans of ‘Liverpool Reds’ and, though they have been less visible to the public and generally avoided such PR gaffes, the Glazer family are the target of similar derision by most supporters of their club, Manchester United.
Both of these clubs were ‘bought’ in a way that only the very rich have open to them as a possibility and that sounds almost laughable to us regular mortals. Hundreds of millions of pounds were borrowed to pay for the clubs and then these debts, instead of being owed by the businessmen involved, were simply transferred to the legal convenience that is the holding company. Essentially the clubs themselves must pay back the money used to buy them and the Yanks are totally clean, no responsibility for the borrowing but able to take their share of the running profits. Thanks in part to the global tightening of the credit channels, the interest payments have risen and paying off the debt without harming the performance of the team is impossible. Competing with the sugar-daddy funding available at Chelsea and Manchester City in the near future is looking a very tough proposition. Many other Premier League clubs also reportedly face financial meltdown, with the vast majority living beyond their means in order to stay in the League and have access to their share of the TV honey pot.
For many sportsmen, most visibly the one-man sport that is Tiger Woods, advertising and sponsorship deals have become much larger even than the astronomical salaries and prize money available, necessitating a clean-cut public image in all but a few cases. For ‘clean-cut’ read ‘dull’- modern sportsmen must be a journalists nightmare, interviews and press conferences almost never offer up anything beyond anodyne cliches, simple platitudes and the occasional bout of mutual back-slapping (BBC’s Match of the Day a legendary proponent of the latter). To actually give a real opinion or anything close to the real truth on a subject is no longer an option- someone somewhere is bound to be offended or, more importantly, made somehow out of pocket. Why the media even bother with the whole farce of press conferences and post-match interviews is beyond me. If they asked me, I could easily provide them with a simple set of templates for them to fill in the relevant blanks- names, teams, times etc.
Players and managers could simply email the news outlets before the match with something along these lines:
In response to your questions, should they be the same as at every other previous game this season or not, our answers will be as follows:
1. ‘It’s a team game, you know what I mean?’
2. ‘No comment’
3. ‘In the circumstances he did OK’
4. ‘Er, you know, possibly or possibly not’
5. ‘I’m concentrating on the, you know, next game, which is, you know, a massive one for us’
6. ‘I only want to talk about the game’
Moments of genuine interest and emotion, e.g. Rafa Benitez pulling out a pair of glasses and polishing them when asked about a referee’s performance, are practically extinct
Enough for now, look out for more ‘Reasons to…’ coming soon