Why do you/I watch sport? I’ve been asking myself this question for quite a while now. Why do I spend so much of my non-working, waking life, watching sport? Obviously the major sports like football and cricket will dominate my attention; I’ll watch the big events in sports I have a vague interest in, like rugby, maybe tennis. There’s golf, especially the Majors, and a staple of my Sunday nights during the summer, especially. Then there’s the NFL, NBA and MLB, all interest me to some degree, quite often depending on how my team is doing. The Tour de France, the Olympics, all that jazz. Sport has been my thing all my life.
If it wasn’t there, what would I miss? Would I miss the cut and thrust of competition, of two equally matched teams fighting it out for the major prizes? The best individual talent pitting their wits against each other. Thrilling finishes. Exciting matches. Highest level quality. How would I feel if I missed the modern day equivalent of the Edgbaston 2005 test? The 2004 FA Cup Semi-Final (the most emotional sporting event I’ve been to)?
There was a question posed on Twitter by Nasser Hussain:
In many ways this got me thinking. Did you prefer a close contest between two earnest teams, with some high quality mixed in, or did you prefer the battering of a lower ranked team, playing in alien conditions, with some extraordinary individual performances? Simple, eh? You would think so, but when push comes to shove, is it really?
Then ask yourself whether you would watch Real Betis v Valencia battle out a 3-2 win, or whether you want to watch Barcelona batter Getafe, or some such team, 6-0 and watch Messi, Suarez and in the past Iniesta and Xavi weave beautiful patterns, showing genius at every turn?
The answer is more people watch the bigger team, and want to be “entertained”. It’s not about competition, it’s about domination. Golf was never more popular than when Tiger was in his pomp, yet arguably it was more entertaining without him. Men’s tennis rode a peak of the top three, with a Wawrinka or Murray butting in here and there, while women’s tennis may have a Serena, but is, sadly, largely anonymous to many when she’s not there. Men’s tennis still depends on that top three. Who can replace them? Who is going to replace them?
Sport needs competition to survive. It needs the unexpected to thrive. It needs the champion to be knocked off, say like Spain were in the Brazilian World Cup Finals (and then Brazil in turn), and like Germany were in 2018. It needs to thrill the punter, who will pay more for the thrill. But sports teams, especially, are like businesses. And businesses crave certainty. What was the reaction to Leicester winning the Premier League? The big clubs are going to do their damndest to make sure that doesn’t happen again. They want to get more of the revenue, more than they already do. They want to rig the Champions League to make it so big clubs have to be relegated out of it, and actual champions of mid-level leagues, have to fight for four spots.
I’m beginning to contemplate my own stupidity and naivety. I saw the EFL fixtures came out today. Salford City are on live the first weekend, picking up another nice little, and it will be little, cash bonus for the pleasure. Why? An astroturf club… Of course I know why. It’s not about your team it is about their designated teams. Before they’ve kicked a ball in the league, their curiosity factor wins them one of the rare League 2 live game honour. Spare me the “it’s their first game in the football league”. Never showed Forest Green’s opening game. Any others get one? Media judges who you want to watch, judges that that is the best sporting contest to watch, and it’s more about who than the what. And I’m as guilty as anyone else.
So what does this have to do with cricket? Everything. We have a structure for the World Cup of 10 teams in a round-robin. It’s the format the pros wanted. The ex-pros in the commentary boxes, dependent on TV revenue for their burgeoning recompense, and other opportunities – big time in favour of it. But it simply has not worked. The problem is, nothing will work. From its moving away from the 8 teams, 2 groups of 4, semi and final, we’ve had nothing but gripes. The Super 6 and Super 8s were too complicated. The 2007 tournament, with 4 groups of 4, and a Super 8, went on longer than most wars. The 2011 and 2015 tournaments meant they played 42 games to eliminate 5 + 1 of the weakest “proper” test teams (and in 2015 it was England instead of Bangladesh). Now we have the dead zone that is the next two weeks.
But the authorities aren’t going to be fussed. England, India and Australia, the Big 3, are still there, and their games will be watched avidly. Both England and Australia have also to play New Zealand. England have India and Australia. Plenty to get excited about. Plenty of talent to watch, with no real jeopardy. TV companies get their 9 games for each of them, and stuff the rest. There’s none of the thrill of 2007, when a defeat to a “lesser nation”, like India and Pakistan managed to do, could mean elimination. We know that from that point, the world’s largest market switched off. It’s a business man (as Jay Z once said). That simply can’t happen. Wishing it away is to believe sport is more about ideals and the triumph and not about money. It’s all about money.
England play Sri Lanka at Leeds tomorrow. England go in as massive favourites. Sri Lanka look pretty down and out. With three strong fixtures to come, England know a win pretty much seals their spot. A loss means that they probably have to win one of their remaining games against India, Australia and New Zealand to qualify. But let’s be hones. We’re expecting more like a Messi and Barcelona show, rather than a Betis v whoever it was again, aren’t we? We’re only worrying because it’s England and we can stuff it up, aren’t we? We’re worrying because Sri Lanka could always do what Pakistan did, and put a score on the board we fail to chase, aren’t we? We’re only nervous because this is England.
I guess that’s why we still watch. And when we watch, the adverts, and the subscriptions, and the online “engagement” persists. I guess we are fools. We love what we love, and we really don’t want to give it up, even when our minds are trying to overcome our hearts, and tell us that this is a rigged game, that we’re being milked by charlatans, they’ll never stop, and wowzer, what a shot that was! The greatest ever…
This World Cup has been rank. But, it might get better. It really might…….please, make it so.
How would you have voted in Nasser’s poll?
[Post-Script – Yes, Bangladesh were spirited. Yes they are probably the 5th best team in the tournament, but even I don’t really believe they could overhaul England, even if we lost from here out. Then there’s net run rate….]