Edition number 29; dateline 31 March 2010

The view from the middle order

At The Leisure Review we love nothing more than a good pub quiz and at a recent charity event I found myself seated next to the evening’s celebrity. Not having recognised the gentleman in question and in order to avoid any embarrassment later in the proceedings, I immediately confessed my ignorance and introduced myself. Marcus Buckland (for it was he) was charm itself and, with just the right blend of self-assurance and self-deprecation, explained that he was a presenter on Sky Sports. This led to a very interesting discussion about sport and the media in which I explained why I never knowingly let Rupert Murdoch in my house and Marcus explained some of the benefits of television coverage to sport from the broadcaster’s perspective. We were at least able to agree that some of the hyperbole surrounding some of the less than stellar sporting occasions (let’s say Hull against Burnley or anything involving Birmingham City) was unnecessary and at the end of the evening we parted on good terms, the second-place trophies safely stowed in our pockets.

Had we met a couple of weeks later, following the publication of the letter signed by six of sport’s governing bodies protesting against Ofcom’s investigation into Sky’s dominance of televised sport, I suspect the discussion may have been rather more animated. I have been critical of the attitudes of the FA, the RFU and the ECB (the other signatories to the letter being the Professional Golfers’ Association, the Premier League and the Rugby Football League) in the pages of The Leisure Review on numerous occasions so I won’t rehearse the arguments here but their claims that a diminution of their revenues would have a negative impact upon their support for grass-roots sports continue to ring hollow. While the big national governing bodies of sport never cease to trumpet their community links and largesse in the cause of developing the lowest reaches of their respective sports, few explain why they continue to accept public finance for grass-roots provision with one hand while demanding the benefits of the untrammelled free market economy with the other. There may well be examples of genuine community development inspired by governing bodies but the message delivered by their expensively remunerated chief executives and heads of communication seems to be that “we will only take an interest in community sport with any money that might be left over from paying ourselves and our star players the millions we  believe we deserve; or if someone else pays for it”.

In this issue of The Leisure Review (and in almost every issue to date) we have a strong theme of grass-roots development. There is street sport, dance culture, community legacy from major events and a new approach to sports development in one of these governing bodies. This is what we do, the environment that we inhabit. How long will it be before these governing bodies understand that the sports they purport to represent do not belong to them, no matter how much revenue they are able to generate from their guardianship of the game? The game of football belongs as much to the kids in the park with their coats down as it does to the chief executive or chairman of the Premier League. The game of cricket belongs as much to me, with my middle-order ineffectiveness now a distant memory, as it does to the chief executive or chairman of the ECB.

In our interview with Pete Ackerley, recently arrived at the FA as head of development for the non-professional game, he speaks of this notion of guardianship of the game, of leaving it better than he found it. It will be interesting to see how far up the FA hierarchy this principle is able to rise. It seems that few involved with the management of the sports that have acquired a professional elite understand that they are guardians of the game and as such have a duty of care to those who play it a short distance from their front door. For too many in the bigger governing bodies this duty of care seems to equate to increased revenue for their organisations and bigger bonuses in recognition of their own financial acumen. By thinking that their sport only exists as something to be sold they have created the situation, replicated in so many sports in so many countries, in which ordinary people are alienated from the game they loved and the game itself is changed out of all recognition. Very few people who take to the cricket pitch or the curling rink on a Sunday morning, or who wander down to their local park or ice facility to watch a familiar game, will be much interested in the demands of raising viewing numbers on pay-per-view channels. To the bemusement of so many people who play and watch the sports they have played and watched for many years, marketing men and women insist that these sports must be destroyed in order to secure their survival.

Nor is it irrelevant to point out that I developed a love of cricket from watching Test match cricket in black and white (I’m not that old, it’s just that my dad couldn’t see the point of getting a colour telly while the old one still worked) with commentary by Richie Benaud. Nor is it irrelevant to remind ourselves that Richie declined to have anything to do with coverage that was not free to view. He understands, as any true sports fan must, that by not being available to everyone a sport begins to die. Have a look on the sports pages of any quality national newspaper (choose carefully, there are precious few) and you can see it happening. Watch Sky Sports and you will only see what Murdoch’s minions think passes for entertainment. But only if you keep paying.

Jonathan Ives



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“How long will it be before these governing bodies understand that the sports they purport to represent do not belong to them, no matter how much revenue they are able to generate from their guardianship of the game?”

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