Sport as Entertainment – 5: Case Studies

In my previous three instalments, I’ve discussed three key forces that I see as having driven the trend of major sport becoming predominantly a form of mass entertainment. In essence, I’ve argued that:

 

  • Virtually all major sports have become commercialised and professionalised at the top levels;
  • Technology is playing an enormous role in the way we view sport;
  • Our attendance and viewing preferences have changed in line with our changing lifestyles, and, in particular, as a result of our declining participation in competitive sport;

 

In this piece, I’ve taken a couple of sports – cricket and soccer – and analysed how each has changed in Australia in line with these trends. The patterns were different in each case, but I’d argue the end point is much the same.

 

Cricket: From Five Day Draws to T/20

 

Cricket’s first wave of reinvention occurred 40 years ago. In this case, change was imposed on it by outside commercial interests as the World Series Cricket revolution dragged an amateurish, hidebound sport, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. After two years of parallel WSC and ACB competitions, an uneasy truce resulted in regular programming of limited overs matches, day/night scheduling, coloured uniforms etc. Although beginning in Australia and primarily driven by Kerry Packer and his television network, these changes filtered through the cricketing world and the popularity of limited overs cricket through the 80s and 90s was evident from the packed houses that attended these games. In Australia at least, a balance between the new and the traditional endured, with Test cricket maintaining its prominence, thanks to sensible scheduling and strong media coverage. However, this was not a universal experience. In many countries, Test cricket is poorly treated in programming and matches are played in almost empty stadiums.

 

Ironically, cricket’s golden egg-laying goose, the One Day International, has itself been marginalised by the advent of T/20 cricket, which now enables matches to be played in their entirety within an evening. Cricket’s second wave of reinvention has at least been driven by the sport itself (albeit with none-too-subtle commercial influence in the background, particularly in India) and T/20 certainly answers any criticism of cricket being slow, ponderous and unsuited to the modern world. What is interesting, however, is that T/20’s growth has been driven not through the traditional cricket structures of club, state/county, country but through the creation of “Leagues” in which manufactured teams are assembled from a growing band of international “guns for hire” who are able to make lucrative sums from their participation.

 

The popularity of competitions such as the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash League suggests that they are succeeding in attracting audiences. However, questions remain. Is this current popularity a temporary phenomenon like One Day International boom before them? What do we know about the audience? Are they genuinely new devotees? Are they existing cricket fans checking out this new form of the game? Above all, what is their attachment to T/20 and will it stand the test of time?

 

For cricket, in particular, now juggling three very different forms of the game, I think there is a significant risk to the approach it is taking in concentrating its promotion of the sport so heavily around T/20. This is that the new breed of “fans” being attracted by the entertainment package of T/20 are unlikely to develop any deep-seated understanding of or allegiance to cricket itself. An obvious reason for this is that for the viewer, T/20 bears little or no resemblance to the longer forms of the game. There are undoubtedly skills and tactics in T/20 that elevate it beyond the dismissive “slather and whack” criticism made by many traditional fans. But its compressed and accelerated format limits these to the point where fans raised on a diet of T/20 are unlikely to appreciate the slower pace and subtlety of the longer-form game, less still the discipline involved in playing it. This has obvious implications for future participation. For all that T/20 provides spectacular action, whether it be audacious stroke-play or brilliant fielding[1], it must be remembered that its most skilled exponents have learned their trade the traditional way – footwork, getting behind the line, playing through the line etc. Without this grounding in the long form of the game, it’s akin to an aspiring pianist wishing to become the next Paderewski without being willing to do the hours of technical work involved.

 

Moreover, T/20 appears to be moving cricket in the direction of football (soccer) in attempting to concentrate its branding increasingly in high profile players and clubs. This is also problematic. Throughout the world, soccer’s bedrock is club competition. This is not the case with cricket. Franchises like the Delhi Daredevils and the Melbourne Stars are growing in the public consciousness, but are light years behind Barcelona and Manchester United in terms of brand and identity. By concentrating promotion within the new T/20 format and hierarchy that are well removed from the game’s traditions, cricket may be attracting a new fan-base, but it will not be easy for the game to transfer that allegiance back to the older forms and structures of the game.

 

This divide is also evident in the profile of the star players in T/20. At the moment, many of T/20’s most recognisable players are the superannuated stars of the traditional game of yesteryear rather than players who have forged their reputations through T/20 itself. In its early days, the emergence from retirement of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and the like gave T/20 a certain appeal. But will this type of “hero” – jovially undertaking an end-of-career benefit year- really provide sufficient allure in the long-term? The alternative – cricketing mercenaries like Chris Gayle who deliberately abandon the traditional form of the game and the opportunity to play for one’s country in favour of a well-paying but itinerant career around the T/20 leagues – also seems an unsatisfactory sort of icon.

 

In summary, I see T/20 as a simplified, accelerated version of a sport, stripped of any requirement for understanding, stamina and patience that cricket has traditionally demanded from its observers. It is built on an artificial structure of franchises driven by commercial interests, whose sole function is to provide entertainment to a mass (paying) audience. It feeds off the traditional representative hierarchies of cricket, but does little to contribute to their crucial role of nurturing or sustaining the participation and development of cricket players. For the players it acquires, a potentially lucrative career awaits, yet one that is forever restricted to four-over bursts or the “hit and run” imperative of a 120-ball innings. For the fans, whether they know little or lots about the game’s history or the tactical intrigue of its longer forms, it is hard to imagine that such a compromised spectacle, bereft of complexity, competitive meaning or even a strong connection to the sport that spawned it, will ever mean much more than a few action-packed hours of entertainment.

 

“Old Soccer” to “New Football”

 

Even the term “soccer”, used in Australia as a way of distinguishing the round-ball code from other forms of football, highlights the difficult path that this sport has had to follow in this country. Although originally an English invention, Association Football’s development in Australia can be seen predominantly in the post-war European migration boom, with the formation of numerous clubs along ethnic lines. One can be critical about what this meant in terms of restricting player and fan participation or stirring up ethnic rivalries. However, this type of club formation did illustrate the powerful nexus between community and sport (in this case, soccer), to the point where it was retained and nurtured by members of ethnic communities even after they had transplanted themselves to the other side of the world with the objective of pursuing a new life.

 

Whilst the ethnic club model unquestionably created passionate support, it also generated volatility and divisiveness. Increasingly it was seen within the game’s ruling circles as holding back the sport’s development. Unlike cricket, a widely followed sport played in a form that was seen as increasingly anachronistic, soccer had the opposite problem. The game’s elegant simplicity is its great strength in the modern world, but its appeal in Australia was being constrained by governance and cultural impediments.

 

The Crawford Report and the adoption of its many recommendations, in particular, the formation of the A-League, are generally seen as the sweeping reforms that have turned around this ailing sport. The language of the report was about giving it the best chance of succeeding commercially as a spectator sport, providing a strong breeding ground for the national team and for world-class Australian players, and to grow general participation rates. On these measures, the changes over the last decade or more can be considered to have been broadly successful, especially in junior participation levels where soccer is clearly outstripping rival football codes, as well as bucking the broader trend of declining sports participation (see my previous chapter). At the elite level, Australia has now completed its fourth consecutive appearance at the World Cup Finals, although it is arguable that the Socceroos’ easier qualification pathway through the Asian Group is the main reason for this rather than any changes to the game’s local governance and structures.

 

However, it is the growth of the game’s elite competition locally, the A-League, and its women’s equivalent, the W-League, where some more searching questions need to be asked about the road the game has chosen to take in terms of its professionalism and commercial success. As I see it, the game’s custodians have chosen a very bland, conventional business model for structuring the A-League, forming geographically-based clubs representing the major population centres and with carefully structured equalisation policies. With the exception of Perth Glory, none of the old NSL teams made the cut, thereby clearly signalling the end of any ongoing links with the partisan, ethnically-based club system that previously prevailed.

 

On the indicators of attendances and media coverage, the A-League has bettered the NSL by a significant margin. The League is now regarded as a “mainstream” competition by which I mean that it is seen as an accessible, safe and attractive option for spectators, including that most important demographic entity – young families.

 

Yet, a decade on, the A-League appears to be languishing, serving up a diet of repetitive matches that rarely excite either for quality or atmosphere. As a competition, it seems to be suffering an identity crisis, confused as to whether it is a development league for the best young local talent, or a serious competitor on spectacle and entertainment with other sports. If it is the latter, the A-League suffers by comparison on two fronts. Against other local football codes, it lacks their history and, therefore, their depth of committed support. At the same time, it is a pale imitation of the best soccer competitions that devotees of the code can consume via technology from around the globe at all hours of day and night. The efforts to create passion and rivalry within the competition, such as naming active fan groups (think “The Cove”, “The Yellow Fever” etc) and marquee match-ups (“The Big Blue”) look contrived and manufactured. Like the Big Bash League in cricket, the A-League is little more than a moderately interesting filler over the summer months for the fan whose TV is always switched to the sports channels.

 

In short, entertainment.

 

[1] Notice that I do not include any notable additions to bowling prowess here. Even though top-class bowlers can be effective in this form of the game, the reduction of bowlers to mere cannon-fodder is one of the great limitations of T/20 cricket. It is perhaps one of the more egregious examples of the diminished appreciation of defensive skills that is implicit in the move towards sport as entertainment.

 

Read the other articles in this series by Stainless here.

 

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About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. An interesting read, Stainless.
    I am very much a cricket “traditionalist”, but am open to the idea that T20 attracts new fans who otherwise would not be interested in the game of cricket.
    Re soccer: the role that post-war ethnic communities played in establishing the game in Australia has been largely (and deliberately) overlooked in the brave new world of A-League.

  2. Stainless says:

    Thanks Smokie
    I’ll watch the evolution of T20 with interest. Cricket has a lot of sorting itself out to do over the next few years I reckon.
    I must admit that I have little knowledge of the old NSL but the snippets I’ve seen suggest there was a community-level passion about the competition that’s sorely lacking in the A- League. Would love to hear some comments from folk who have a closer connection.

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