Sport as Entertainment – Introduction

Sport – a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job.

 

Entertainment – agreeable occupation for the mind; something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement, especially a performance of some kind.

 

Floodlights encircle the arena shining a confusing mix of searing brightness and eerie gloom.  The massive roof adds to the claustrophobic effect.  Within these enclosed confines, special effects – flame-throwing machines, flashing lights – take on an extra potency in their assault on the senses.  So too the musical riffs, interspersed with PA announcements urging the spectators to “make some noise”, as if it would make a difference amidst the amplified cacophony.

 

Out on the ground, the cricket players – nominally the primary focus within this whole spectacle – would go almost un-noticed were it not for their glaring uniforms and the promise that every ball bowled will bring some form of “excitement”, “drama” and “action”.  It is cricket, assuredly, in that two teams are playing each other in a match for which someone, somewhere, is keeping score.  But as the healthy crowd disperses at the end of the evening, it is evident from the chatter and youthful exuberance (and, yes, this is a predominantly young audience) about anything from their merchandise purchases to their latest diversions on social media, that it was not the gentle knock of leather on willow that absorbed them for the preceding three hours.

 

Until recently, this scenario would have been considered a dystopian fantasy by most cricket fans, raised in an era of cricketing whites and games played over days and under baking summer skies.  In 2018, however, this is reality.  Cricket’s metamorphosis from five-day Tests to 3-hour T/20 games is a particularly striking example of a trend that’s evident across sporting codes and across nations.  Sport, professionalised and polished into slick, easily digestible events for mass enjoyment.  Sport in which the total sensory experience is more important than the result.  Sport that appeals to the theatre-goer more than the fan.  Sport as entertainment, if you will.

 

The line between “sport as sport” and “sport as entertainment” is admittedly a fuzzy one.  We have always played, watched and analysed sport because these are “agreeable occupations”.   The staging of sports for the primary purpose of mass entertainment is not unique to the 21st century (the gladiatorial sports of the Roman Empire were hardly staged for the health and well-being of the participants!).  However, the way we are experiencing sport, whether as participants or observers, has changed significantly in recent decades.

 

In this series of articles, I will explore how sport has crossed a line whereby it has become primarily a source of entertainment, with all the attendant notions of diversion, amusement and performance contained in the definition.  This thesis applies particularly to high level spectator sports, but some of the trends in modern sports participation point towards similar changes in the way we ordinary folk participate in sport.

 

The recent debate about the AFL’s proposed rule changes highlighted this coalescence of sport with entertainment.  The central theme in that debate was whether, in tinkering with the rules, the AFL could tread the fine line of preserving the sport’s integrity whilst, at the same time, making it “more entertaining”.  What’s interesting from the language in this debate is the clear divide being articulated between the notion of footy as a sport, and footy as a segment of the “entertainment industry”.

 

There are plenty of theories about how and why this shift has occurred.  But I reckon there are three big forces at work here.  Two of these are obvious:

 

  • increasing commercialisation – sport has evolved from essentially amateur pursuits to professional big business. As such, the way sport is played, packaged and promoted is very much on business lines with the emphasis on growing markets;
  • technology – advances in a whole range of technology platforms mean we can now experience (consume) sport anywhere, anytime. This is undoubtedly a great source of convenience, but it also has the effect of commoditising sport, making it a time filler rather than an important and fixed ritual within one’s calendar.

 

The third force is our changing lifestyles.  The way we are choosing to play and view sport is a reflection of busier but less structured lives.  This is affecting the way audiences experience sport, but it’s also resulting in declining participation levels – for a variety of reasons we’re playing less competitive, organised sport.  I will explore what I believe to be an important link between participation and consumption which is contributing significantly to this transition to sport as entertainment.

 

In the interests of presenting this analysis in manageable chunks, I’ve tackled each of these issues in three future instalments.  A further instalment presents a couple of sports as case studies to illustrate how these forces have converged to significantly change the way these sports are played and viewed.  The final segment poses the fundamental question – so what?

 

The best of the Footy Almanac’s writing tackles the meaning of sport in our lives, in many ways and at many levels.  Much of it expresses passionate views, which is as it should be in a forum like this.  However, it’s sometimes important to contrast this with some dispassionate analysis.  What I want to put to this forum is a challenge to the theme that runs through much of our writing – that of lamenting the changes to sport that these supply side trends have caused.  To put it bluntly, there is a demand side cause to this as well.  To a large extent these changes in sport are happening because we, the audience, want them to, or, at the very least, are willing to accept them.

 

I hope these articles offer some explanation of the connections between sport and life in 2018.  I hope also that it stimulates some debate.

 

Next instalment – Professionalism and Commercialisation of Sport

 

For more of Stainless’ writing, CLICK HERE:

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. G’day Stainless.

    Yes sport is business,it’s part of the entertainment industry. Lots of money involved.

    Participation at the grass roots is under siege. Look at the travails of many country footy leagues. It’s not just in rural areas grass roots sport is doing it hard, urban competitions/teams are doing it hard.

    Looking forward to reading/commenting on your series of posts.

    You may find the following link of interest. I wrote it last summer.

    http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=19426

    Glen!

  2. John Butler says:

    Stainless, this is a discussion we can’t have enough of.

    On your third force – “sport is a reflection of busier but less structured lives” – I would think that lack of structure itself is an imposition of the commercial imperatives of the modern workforce. In a society where our very role as citizens often appears subservient to our role as consumers, how could sport expect an exemption?

    I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Cheers

  3. Stainless says:

    Glen – thanks for the link to your article. Resonates quite a bit with what I’ve got to say about cricket (you’ll have to wait for Part 5!)
    John – I hope there’s some debate about the “chicken and egg” argument about the evolution of sport and the degree to which we as consumers have been complicit in this. Thanks for your vote of confidence in this undertaking – hopefully it strikes a chord.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    These articles will be an interesting read.

    Country leagues have a deeper problem which is the depopulation of all smaller towns that is going on all around the world. It is not only found in the Wimmera.

    I think we old buggers think of sport as entertainment as we no longer play. Some of our distaste of the commercialisation of cricket (that awful Cherry person who destroys the charm of the Adelaide Oval and hour or so before play starts with his inane, loud comments is my best example of such) simply reflects our unspoken sadness at out own decline. The solution is to get involved in amateur sport.

    Finally once sport becomes peoples livelihood we have lots of responsibilities to provide a safety and use modern technology i.e. DRS.

    If they bring in DRS to the Merks where I umpire I’m retiring as amateur sport is a different beast. We sort of people love the amateur ethos but you won’t see it on the telly.

    Lastly we parents are imposing much more structure on our children. They only play sport in teams now largely as there is not enough kids in the average street . I think our lives are far too structured.

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