SJA awards’ seven decades of history and innovation

Jim Rosenthal and the Grand Connaught Rooms are ready for the 2015 SJA British Sports Awards. Picture by Steve Rowe/SJA
Our host Jim Rosenthal and the Grand Connaught Rooms are ready for the 2015 SJA British Sports Awards. Picture by Steve Rowe/SJA

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: As the SJA prepares for its biggest day of the year, STEVEN DOWNES explains why Britain’s longest-running sports awards have much to offer

By this time on Thursday, the biggest day in the SJA’s calendar will be almost under way.

Over the afternoon at the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London, the Association, its guests and sponsors will be handing out a dozen pieces of silverware or Perspex – and sometimes both.

I cannot reveal the identities of the recipients for fear of some horrendous punishment involving bulldog clips and the battery from an old Ford Anglia, likely to be applied by the chair of the organising awards sub-committee, Andy Elliott.

But at some time after 3pm on Thursday, we will have announced the Sportswoman of the Year, the SJA’s Team of the Year, and we will have named the 67th winner of our Sportsman of the Year.

The SJAs are the longest-running sports awards in Britain, a red-carpet event introduced in 1949, five years before the BBC got around to doing its version. And because we have never tried to involve the word “personality” in our title, and because we’ve never had a shortlist of contenders, we reckon that, more times than not, we get the results right.

It was the very existence of what was then the Sports Writers’ Association’s Sportsman of the Year award (and a similar trophy presented in the 1950s by the Daily Express), which forced the BBC to call its prize the “Sports Personality of Year”, a usefully non-gender specific title but one which has seen the BBC become bogged down in almost annual controversy over how it chooses its shortlist of contenders.

“Personality”, after all, suggests that some other factor, beyond sporting achievement and performance, comes into consideration.

From reception to presentations, world champions mix with the public at the SJA British Sports Awards. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
From reception to presentations, champions mix with the public at the SJA British Sports Awards. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty

In choosing our award-winners, the SJA (we changed our title at the turn of the century when we joined forces with the sports photographers) is fortunate, too, because our members have a vote based on their own expertise, as sports writers, photographers, editors or broadcasters, and are not prey to any manipulative mood music, heartstring-tugging videos, nor the need to secure TV rights from a fickle sports governing body.

Nor is the SJA voting limited to any shortlist determined by a panel of “experts”. When I worked at BBC Sport, before the SPoTY shortlist was introduced, I was made well aware of the great efforts made even then to try to halt lobby groups, the petrol heads who backed their motorsport hero, or fisherman Bob Nudd’s fan club, who might organise to ensure that their favourite defied the higher profile candidates. The shortlist takes care of that these days.

Voting in the SJA awards closed earlier this month, with the embarrassment of riches in this Lottery-funded golden age of British sporting achievement resulting in some of the closest polling in the 67 years of the awards.

If you can’t be there on the day, there will be some live tweeting on @SportSJA, and we ask all those who are at the awards to take their tweets with #SJA2015.

Confirmed as attending Thursday’s event are 2015 world champions Lizzy Yarnold, Max Whitlock and Jessica Ennis-Hill, members of Britain’s victorious Davis Cup tennis and Ashes cricket teams, Steph Houghton and players from the England women’s football squad who finished third in the World Cup, and Alex Danson and her England hockey team mates who won the European title, while there will also be Olympic gold medallists Katherine Grainger and Greg Rutherford seated at tables with our guests and members.

But one person who won’t be there is Tyson Fury, boxing’s new heavyweight champion of the world.

Fury’s inclusion on the BBC’s SPoTY shortlist caused controversy, after his offensive remarks about women and homosexuality.

He had his invitation to the SJA event withdrawn last week after the giant 6ft 6in boxer posted a menacing video threat of violence against one of the Association’s members. “We feel that it would be incompatible with the nature of our event, or the interests of our members, our other guests and our sponsors, for us to continue to extend a welcome to Tyson Fury to our awards next week,” we said.

It was, as they say in boxing, a TKO.

We know that our awards are considered to be a special honour by most of the recipients, because they are voted for by the people who watch Britain’s sports stars week-in and week-out through the year. And they also tend not to be prey to the whims of public opinion. As Steve Redgrave, Britain’s greatest Olympian at that point, remarked when he finally got to step up for the BBC award in 2000, “I had to win five Olympic golds to get this”. We sports journalists had by then already named the oarsman as our Sportsman of the Year on two occasions.

We have also been innovators around our awards. We introduced the first Sportswoman of the Year award in the 1950s. Our members had an embarrassment of female sporting riches to vote for this year – no restricting shortlist – so you can be sure that whoever succeeds Jo Pavey as the SJA’s Sportswoman of the Year will be our 57th in a very distinguished list.

The SJA's 2014 Sportswoman of the Year, Jo Pavey, receives her trophy from Sir Michael Parkinson
Jo Pavey received the Sportswoman trophy from Sir Michael Parkinson last year. The 2015 winner will be our 57th Sportswoman of the Year

The SJA was also the first to recognise what today we call Paralympic sport, with a prize awarded since 1963, and we are proud to work together with the British Paralympic Association to maintain that tradition.

And while the all-singing, all-dancing BBC awards are staged with a very generous budget from your TV licence, with star presenters such as Gary Lineker and Clare Balding fronting a production staff of dozens, the SJA’s small committee of volunteers puts on their 400-guest charity awards lunch together with the full-time help of our masterful compere, Jim Rosenthal, co-host Sybil Ruscoe, and all marshaled by a small  team from an events company based in Croydon.

Petta Naylor has been working with us since her time with Sport England, and her company, Start2Finish Events, now employs James Green, a tireless young man who since he succeeded Martin Castle has helped us further innovate and worked hard to ensure that all our guests – whether international sporting superstars or members of the public who we welcome to join us – have a memorable day.

And by Friday morning, when Petta and James return to their office, they will start all over again, preparing for that “night of nights”, our British Sports Journalism Awards which this year happen a little earlier than usual, in February.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s enjoy Thursday’s awards and, for anyone fortunate to join us at the Grand Connaught Rooms, please try not to rush off at the end – because this year we have a very special announcement which we hope will delight everyone in the room.

  • Steven Downes is the Secretary of the SJA. He has been attending sports awards events since 1983, but claims not to remember much about them, apart from the incident with Shirley Strong on the balcony of a hotel ballroom
  • Next week in View From The Pressbox: David Walker, the SJA Chairman