With the World Cup hurtling into view, the Reasons To Love Sport series gets a long overdue update, looking at the importance of community spirit.
As professional sports head en masse towards the situation predicted in ‘Baseketball’ where all sight of the joy and thrill of competition is lost and the merchandising, franchising and assorted other transparent money-making schemes drive fans away, there is still hope.
Sport will never reach this nadir, sadly for precisely the reason that the merchandising, franchising and transparent money-making schemes persist: the fans won’t leave, they can’t. Corporate mouthpiece Garry Cook is widely known and even more widely ridiculed for framing all his utterances on Manchester City, the football club he is Chief Executive of, with management-speak like ‘brand values’ and ‘core competencies’. Ruling out the possibility of permanent brainwashing during his time at NIke, he is overlooking the simple fact that sports teams don’t work like other brands in the way he would like them to.
Like the more recent case with Leeds United, at the turn of the millennium Man City were in the third tier of the English league. In simple terms, this means these clubs were just scraping into the top 50 teams in the land in terms of overall league position. Did the fans stop coming? Stop buying City shirts, scarves, dog bowls, bumper stickers etc? Some did, but a small minority. This season City were riding high- 5th in the Premier League- lofty heights which Leeds enjoyed a few short years ago, plus Champions League football in their case.
If we were talking about a regular kind of brand which, in the space of 7 or 8 years went from being the third best available in its area of the market to somewhere around 50th best, people would simply switch to a different product. In general, people will buy the best of whatever product that they can afford, or at least justify to themselves. If this applied to sport, 95% of sporting events would go unseen by any members of the public, unreported in the media, and very quickly into oblivion. So the question remains: why do they stay?
A complex matter indeed, partly answered by people’s need for a sense of community. ‘Belonging’ is a vital part of human life- having others around you who you know are experiencing the same things you are and feeling the same way as a result. Even before the modern trend of ever increasing social isolation in the developed world got going, the tribal element of sport was a real attraction, even if only subconsciously. Even if the team lets us down, our country loses another penalty shoot out in the World Cup or drops the catch that would have snatched victory, we feel part of something bigger than ourselves- the whole family feels the pain, the whole town, even the whole country.
Once I swore never to watch another football match involving the England national team- it was simply too dispiriting, i told my friends as I headed home sick with disappointment after we threw away our chance to win Euro 2004. It didn’t last long; by the time the next game came around I’d got over it a bit, and was already blindly optimistic about our chances of victory in the forthcoming World Cup. I couldn’t stay away- how could I look at myself in the mirror if I turned my back on them? Following England, and that includes the cricket and rugby teams, not to mention people like Tim Henman, is a generally disappointing pursuit. Following almost any sports team/person is- every competition can have only one winner after all. Without the losers though, there is no competition. People around the world rave about the current Barcelona side and the way they play football, but not many would go to watch them kick the ball around among themselves, whereas matches against Real Madrid, Valencia and even lowly Xerex and Gijon pull in 100,000 every fortnight.
The family isn’t what it once was, divorce is rife, attempting to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the pub or on the street marks you out as a dangerous lunatic, colleagues sat next to one another send emails instead of talking, and technology is slowly rendering human contact unnecessary and scary but sport will continue to bring people together- to rejoice, to commiserate, to gloat or simply to complain. We love the bonding almost as much as we love our team