The future of sport – coming to a PC near you

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: SJA members Kevin Mitchell and Brian Oliver were today named among the short-listed candidates for the Foreign Press Association’s Media Awards. Their 21st Century Sport series for The Observer, written with James Robinson and Richard Gillis, looked at the rapid globalisation of sport – with NFL matches being played in London, pictured left, the Premier League’s 39th game proposal, and the European golf tour working to a climax in the Arabian Gulf.

Here, as the SJA approaches the end of its 60th anniversary year, we extract part of Oliver’s thought-provoking essay from a year ago on the changes in sport that make market value more important than the final score.

The event that sparked The Observer‘s 21st Century Sport series was the match at Wembley between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants on October 28, the first competitive, regular-season NFL game to be played in Europe.

On the same weekend, Manchester United, at the invitation of an Indian billionaire, were staging a training programme in Goa, run by their academy director Brian McClair. Today, as our series draws to a close, Chelsea are in India. Their team of chief executive Peter Kenyon, media director Simon Greenberg, former player Graeme Le Saux and famous fan Lord Coe are part of London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s ambassadorial team promoting London and “creating closer ties between the capital and India in business, tourism, education, sport and creative industries”.

Which has the better chance of reaching out to a new market in the next decade: American football in Europe, or English football in the subcontinent? Or maybe neither – perhaps the big mover will be Major League Baseball, which has just announced that the season-opening series next March, between the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, will be played in Tokyo. It will be the third time since 2000 that the MLB season has begun in the Japanese capital.

Here are some other news items that have appeared, mostly in the specialist media, since part one of 21st Century Sport:

· Golf: News is leaked, ahead of the official announcement (available on webcast), that the world’s richest tournament is to be held in Dubai in 2009, with a predicted £10 million prize fund and as much again for appearance money, making the number of European Tour events in the Gulf the same as those in England; the European Seniors Tour announces a new $750,000 event in Moscow – “further evidence of the rising prominence of golf in Russia”.

· Formula One: TV viewing figures for the 2006 season are released in India as part of a push for more commercial sponsors. Nearly 23 million watched races last year, and the number of women (just under 10m) was far greater than the overall national audience in Britain. When the Force India team race next season, “the figures will skyrocket”, says the team’s billionaire backer, Vijay Mallya.

· Athletics: The IAAF, the sport’s world governing body, is told by a BBC executive during negotiations for a new European broadcast deal that “athletics is dying”.

· Cricket: Coverage of the first Australia-Sri Lanka Test match is restricted, with international agencies refusing to provide print photographs, in a row (since resolved) over media rights; Test cricketers from around the world are warned against taking part in the ‘rebel’ Twenty20 league in India in February.

The world of sport, as we have been saying, is changing. So fast that we are in the middle – or end, or beginning, depending on your viewpoint – of the most important period of upheaval since the latter decades of the 19th century, when rules were made, leagues formed, players paid to perform and paying spectators turned up in large numbers week after week.

Dick Holt, an expert on Victorian sport who teaches at De Montfort University, says one of the biggest changes in the late 19th century was “the emergence of a specialist sports press and a daily sports page for a new mass, urban, readership. Before radio in the 1930s, this was the only way to follow sport if you were not actually present”.

The key structural changes were in the Football League (formed in 1888), both codes of rugby and county cricket. “These provided the basis for the 20th-century system of professional, but not commercial sport, largely still run by amateurs. They did not see team games as a commodity subject to the forces of the free market.

“In striking contrast to baseball in the United States, which was begun as a business by Spalding, a sports-goods manufacturer, county members subsidised their cricket teams and directors of professional football clubs were limited to small returns on their investments. Most of them lost their money. Profit-maximising never occurred to them. Tickets were cheap, advertising was almost non-existent and no one thought of hiring out the facilities for anything but sport. It was another world and one which lasted more or less unchanged until the advent of television.”

Now, we are in the post-television world. Within a few years, and with a lot of help from Asia, the Premier League, or the EPL as outsiders prefer it, could leapfrog the three ahead of it in the world league of leagues, all of them American: the NFL, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. “We should be able to overtake one or two,” says the League’s chief executive Richard Scudamore, which is strong stuff given that he does not, as he tells Observer Sport time and again, like to make predictions.

“From 1986 to now, it has been an unbelievable evolution,” Scudamore says. “There hasn’t been anything to match it since the founding two decades, when you went from kicking around on the fields of Eton and Harrow to setting up a professional league structure,” Holt says.

Now Scudamore talks of technological divergence. Back in 1986 it was “violence, poor stadia, Heysel and Bradford, Margaret Thatcher’s membership schemes and ID cards. You couldn’t sell football. It was a low point. Has the last 20 years been revolutionary? Yes. And it has definitely come on the back of technological developments.”

Unlike others in the business of sport, Scudamore thinks the most radical changes are historyalready. “Globalisation is with us,” he says. “Yes, there are places to expand and grow, but I don’t see the next 10 years being entirely radical. It’s hard to see how the next 20 years can be as progressive.”

Peter Kenyon, the Chelsea chief executive, does not share that view. “We are yet to understand fully the potential of new media and its global penetration and what will happen to football in India, China and Africa. But one thing is apparent: since the 1880s the fundamentals of the sport have changed very little, and that is the beauty of football.”

Another who fundamentally disagrees with Scudamore is Nick Massey, managing director of the global sports marketers and agents, Octagon. Massey, more a basketball man than a football man, also works from London, and his view on the globalisation issue is: “It’s really only just starting.” There are, he says, many more changes ahead. Why? “Because rights owners still haven’t worked out how to monetise their rights.”

This leads into an area where British football fans fear the worst and which has been written and talked about extensively since the start of the Observer Sport series – shifting kick-offs to suit viewers in the Far East. “A lot of it has been nonsense,” Scudamore says.

“Everyone thinks 12.45pm on a Saturday is to please our audience in the East. Nonsense. It is actually a complete product of trying to protect the domestic situation.”

Scudamore explains how some kick-offs have had to be moved from the traditional 3pm on Saturday because of a European Union decision to make more games available for live broadcast than the League wanted. Add in problems caused by European fixtures – the League do not expect clubs to play twice in three days, so Sunday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday combinations are to be avoided – and it can, and does, become complicated.

“You can’t play early on a Saturday morning, so lunchtime is the earliest you can realistically expect people to go to the game. No police authority will let you go later than 5.15 on a Saturday evening because police forces are managing pubs, clubs and other activities later at night.”

Moving start times is one of the many “challenges to the traditional approaches and attitudes” that will shape the future of sport, Massey believes. “There won’t be one single revolutionary change in sport in the next 10 years, but there will be lots of lesser changes.” Among them, he predicts more sports tourism; more people playing sport, as well as watching it, in emerging markets; a threat to American sports’ commercial growth, largely because of the popularity of football; big changes in golf, with a World Tour to challenge the American tour; and attempts by English football clubs to “break” the Indian market, starting with pre-season tours to the subcontinent.

The Indian billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal, who owns Bharti Airtel, India’s leading mobile-phone network and is worth more than £6billion, is a man with a mission in Indian football. He is investing in the game with the aim of seeing India compete in the World Cup finals for the first time.

Among all the changes, Octagon’s Massey sees two constants: “The key to everything is getting a kid to kick a ball or bounce a ball” and “The success or failure of any sport or league will be decided by the consumer. If the product isn’t there or isn’t right, the fans won’t connect.”

The Premier League clearly has the right product, the one others envy. “Only the American leagues do better on a commercial basis than us, but they have a population of 300million and we are only 60million,” says Scudamore. “They are interested in how we have done so well internationally. We have one big advantage – we play football, the global game. I don’t have to show countries what football is, with exhibition matches to explain the rules.

“I don’t think anyone would describe me as a Luddite – I dwell in the future. But in that future we are marketing what is a very traditional event. The sport that has grabbed the world is in the same form as 1888.”

Scudamore speaks proudly of the increase in localisation, as well as globalisation, among his clubs. “You see a huge amount of effort being put in – the clubs’ community schemes, the Creating Chances, all the stuff they are doing locally is far greater than what they did before. They have to do it, and they want to do it. They are seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year operations now, rather than opening their gates once a fortnight.”

As the pulling power of the big clubs increases, what about localisation beyond the Premier League? What if children in Luton forsake their own club to support Chelsea, or Manchester United are more popular in Northampton than the Cobblers? “Any youngster should go to their local club, have access to their local club,’ Scudamore says. ‘Some are blessed with their home town club, others not. Suppose they support two teams – does it really matter?”

Scudamore is also dismissive of those who complain of over-commercialism. “What does it mean when they say, ‘Sport is sport, not a business’? When people don’t want to do it any more, don’t want to watch it any more, then it will change.”

So there you have it. The clear message is that sport has gone global at the top end, stayed local in other respects, and can cope with both – even though the policing of it becomes ever more difficult. More money means more temptation, as we have seen in the past few weeks with headlines about match-fixing and even poisoning of players in tennis, and ‘bungs’ in football.

Sport in the 21st century may be unlike anything that has gone before, and in some respects it will become even more unrecognisable. But on the pitch the games are more or less as they were 120 years ago. And above all, one thing has not changed since sport was first invented by humans 30,000 years ago, even to all us cynics at The Observer. Sport is still fun.

To read this article in full, click here

This is the latest in an on-going series of articles about covering sport over the past six decades.

To read David Hunn on how the Association was formed, click here

To read John Rodda on what it was like to cover the 1948 London Olympics, click here

To read Hugh McIlvanney writing about the Best footballer he has ever seen, click here

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