Sport as Entertainment – 6. So What?

In previous installments, I’ve endeavoured to demonstrate and explain what I see as an evolution of sport – at least the high-level variety that attracts big audiences – into a form of entertainment.


The ultimate questions for readers to consider are: is the evolution I’ve described real, and if so, does it matter?


I guess one answer is that this is really a storm in a teacup.  Sport is a frivolous pastime.  Many other big issues in our society, economy and environment should occupy far more of our attention.  Clearly our patterns of sports participation and observation have changed – dramatically in some cases.  But change in itself is not a cause for hand-wringing.  Organised sport as we understand it is barely 200 years old and organised spectator sport less than that.  Barely a blip in human history.  If, in spite of the evolution I’ve been describing, sport, in whatever form, continues to provide hours of harmless fun for millions, what’s wrong with that?


I don’t think this answer will really cut the mustard within a forum like the Footy Almanac community.  Diverse bunch though we are, we’re on common ground that we ascribe something more meaningful to sport than the mere playing of games and the keeping of scores.  Much of what we write is about what we see as important, even essential connections between sport and community, sport and society, sport and the human condition.


But there’s a pretty consistent line through much of our writing that rails against change in modern sport and nostalgically hankers for the “good old days”.  Although a sense of this may be apparent in my analysis, my motivation was not to add to the collective lament about what we’ve lost but to understand the hows and whys of what we currently have and where we seem to be heading.  Why have we moved so rapidly from regarding sport as an activity focussed around participants who played for fitness, exercise and competition, and which, incidentally, attracted spectators, to one whose raison d’etre is satisfying the desires of a mass (paying) audience?[1]  I wanted to explore dispassionately the connections between sport and society  and how this works (if indeed it does still work) in a globalised world.


Forgive the economist’s lingo again, but let me repeat: the influences I’ve examined are on both the supply and demand side.  I think this is an important point, particularly in this forum.  Almanackers often bemoan what we see as unwelcome changes on the supply side.  We deplore the loss of local teams and competitions, of fondly recalled traditions, rituals and, yes, hardships associated with playing or following sport the drift of young people towards individual pursuits.  We criticise how sport has become big business, and the pervasive influence of technology that reduces our experience of “real” sport to the same level as a video game.  As much as it may be easy and tempting to tip a bucket on organisations like the AFL for driving these supply-side changes, we tend to be rather less vocal about the demand side.  It’s clear from the popularity of modern forms of spectator sport that these concerns are not necessarily shared more widely, particularly if one uses that oldest of measures – bums on seats.  We can rant about the evils of big business/sport (these terms are increasingly interchangeable) imposing its new order on us, but I think we must also admit that plenty of us happily succumb to its temptations.


In short, my rather blunt and dispassionate conclusion is the principal causes of change in sport are merely mirrors of broader trends in society. How we now experience sport reflects broader socio-economic trends, or, in plain English, the way we live our lives.


If we, as consumers of the product, don’t like what is being presented we can of course choose not to purchase it.  But the deeper-seated question for those of us who don’t like the changes they’re seeing is to ask ourselves about the way we’re living our lives and whether we’d really prefer a return to the “good old days”?  That’s a deeper conversation than this brief essay allows for, but I think it’s the direction that my analysis leads to.  After all, we like to claim that sport mirrors life.


So my challenge to my readers (and I hope there are a few) is this.  Can we seriously think that we can somehow isolate what’s happening in sport from these broader societal influences?  And even if we could, would we really want to?


Over to you.


[1]On second thoughts it’s actually not even as strong as “satisfying desires”.  As is the trend with new products these days, many are developed to meet needs and desires that consumers aren’t even aware of having, let alone feeling them strongly.  It’s more like diverting the attention of enough people from myriad other entertainment options to generate a mass, paying audience.



About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. A thoughtful and well-written series Stainless; almost a thesis there. In relation to AFL my feeling is that, because of the passion a sufficient number of punters have for it, tinkering with the supply side (except for manipulating the draw) does not obviously impact bums on seats. However, is the same bum going every week or are there enough in the population now that the seat will be taken by another bum (as per UK Premier League)? I believe many sport fans are so passionate about their club that they will tolerate a lot of abuse (rule changes, noise pollution at games, reserve seating costs and uneven draws, etc.) to get their sport fix. Although society is fragmenting, people might go to watch live sport for some connection.

  2. Thanks BOD
    I wonder if Gillon, Andrew, Wayne, Ross and Allen would agree with you, having presided over the substantial supply side changes of the last 40 years, most notably the nationalising of the competition, the move to large, all-seater stadiums and major changes to where and when footy is played. I recokon theyd point to record crowds and tv audiences,and say “we’ve given the punters what they wanted”. Thoughts?
    Given the recent developments in the Cricket Australia review and the couple of interesting pieces on this site in the last few days, I’d be interested in readers’ views about how they relate to my observations in this series about the way professional sport is tending.

  3. Stainless; as you say, there are larger crowds per season but there are more teams than 40 years ago, matches over multiple days and times, bigger venues and a much larger population to tap into. My main beef is with the endless rule changes, apart from the safety-related, and the ridiculously compromised draw in a supposedly fair competition. The rule changes, draw and other annoyances are not enough to stop fans attending because they are addicted. Watching a game of footy, or other sport, is a relief from everyday stresses, a salve to the soul. Keep up your excellent work!

  4. G’day Stainless. I’m unsure if there were the “good old days.” It was different then, but unsure f i’d say it was better. no dedicated footy or cricket channels then.No live Grand Final coverage.

    I will always return to modern spectator sport being seen as part of the entertainment industry. I’m not passing judgement,good or bad,trying to be objective. Sport like all commodities has two values, use and exchange. In our contemporary world the latter is the primary. The standardisation and commodification reflects a world where we’re no longer citizens, or the public, rather consumers making choices on what product we purchase . Consumption, reflects our consumer based society,where it’ s all premised on cash exchange for personal gain.

    Now Stainless, the big Q? How do we subvert the dominant paradigm ?


  5. Stainless, I have enjoyed this series – and many thanks to you for pieces that are thought-provoking.
    I must say that I do not hanker for “the good old days” – I actually think footy (for example) is a much better game these days – and that is viewing it through the the prisms of both AFL and at a local level.

    And as for sport being entertainment…is not every pastime entertainment? Going to a gallery to view a Monet? Going to the opera?
    It’s just that entertainment takes many forms

  6. BOD – Agree with your notion of us sports nuts accepting change and compromise because we’re addicted, At the end of the day we whinge about it but we tolerate it because it’s still way better than most alternatives. I’d make the distinction however, between AFL and say, cricket, where I think the former has managed significant change far better than the latter. This is reinforced by crowd and viewer numbers, not to mention reactions on sites like this one about where cricket’s heading.
    Glen – I understand the “good old days” as a time in which watching sport was primitive, earthy and largely untarnished by the PR morons that bring you “your match day experience”. But as you say, those days had their limitations. Perhaps their popularity was to do with scarcity of choice? And perhaps this is the answer to your question about how to subvert the dominant paradigm. Stop making obscene shows like “The Block” that teach us to dutifully worship at the shrine of aspirational consumerism and learn the real value of things and experiences through scarcity?
    Smokie – thanks for your kind words through this series. There are no easy answers here but we shouldn’t stop asking the questions.

  7. david stiff says

    Stainless, I’ve loved the ideas your series has posed and the clear and engaging way you’ve expressed them.
    While I lament for the simpler, good old days of sport (like watching a formidable Carlton at Princes Park in the 80’s), I agree with Glen and wonder if there really were any good old days.
    Plato quotes Socrates that “children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise…”. Perhaps romanticising the past is a function of ageing?
    I do however, get frustrated at the modern, incremental bureaucracy of sport. Instant replays to adjudge who last touched the ball, whether they were offside, was it a point or did it hit the post, would it have hit the stumps…let’s halt the game and find out. I get that the powerful gambling industry prefer the absolute certainty, and people deserve a fairly officiated contest, but to me, this fixation of exactitude goes against my notion of why sport is important and the function it serves. Errors by competitors or officials (corruption aside) add to the drama and uncertainty of a chaotic and uncertain event. I watch and participate in sport to find and (hopefully) assert my order in the midst of a bigger and infinitely complex chaotic system.
    Also, just as the ancient greek tragedies gave the audience an opportunity to live an alternate experience without having to actually live it, sports and competition afford us opportunities to observe others in the conquest of the self over circumstance. It becomes all the more richer if we have played the same sport ourselves (as in, ahh, that’s how you do it). The changing role of sport from educator to entertainer is a symptom of our sped up times, as well as a positive feedback loop of bigger is better. The singular agenda of capitalism is to make money and sport is a moneymaker in our times.
    Nowadays it’s like Smokie suggests, sport is a form of entertainment, like going to see a Monet or going to the opera. WE could still paint, sing or compete, but who has time? Let’s just outsource it to the professionals – maximal comfort with less mess and personal distress.

  8. Thanks David – much appreciated coming from someone whose own series is really insightful and thought-provoking.
    I think we’ve reached a similar conclusion about the “Good old days”, which I’m pleased about, as part of this exercise was to provoke some of our more sentimental writers to reflect on some of their assumptions. That said, I’m with you about the “bureaucracy” of modern sport. There are times when it seems that we’re watching world championship auditing!

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