What is the purpose of sport? No – let’s refine that question. What is the purpose of professional sport? One purpose (some would say the main purpose) is to entertain – after all, the fans pay the TV subscriptions and the ticket prices not merely to witness the processes that lead to league tables being re-arranged, rankings reshuffled, stats amended, but to be thrilled by superhuman skills, close finishes and the prospect of their heroes emerging triumphant, our modern day gladiators, our champions whose deeds will live forever This is sport as great unscripted drama, a visceral rush that exists above and beyond the confections of Hollywood and the PS4 – a bounded, separate, fulfilling part of our lives. But this exceptionalism is beginning to be diluted, perhaps fatally.
In a development that sits uneasily with most people over thirty, but for those younger seems entirely natural, scripted reality shows and sports entertainment formats have become hugely popular. The Only Way Is Essex and its imitators gain big audiences and sustain a whole industry of spin-offs in TV, print and online formats. WWE megashows make superstars of their “competitors” and succeed in media’s Holy Land – the Pay Per View market. No punter, having paid their $19.99 or whatever, believes that they are watching some distant cousin of The Olympics: they know they are watching some not so distant cousin of a Jason Statham movie. And they like it that way.
At Wrestlemania XXXIV (or whichever bombastic name it has now), the Show trumps the Result and always has. Slowly, mainstream sport is beginning to realise that this order may hold more widely than is comfortable for those who believe that the Result trumps the Show (ie that achieving the Result is the purpose of the Show).
With the Tour de France unable to name credible winners for many of the last twenty editions, hundreds of thousands of Brits turned out to cheer the riders through Yorkshire and London, the spectacle sufficient to attract the largest crowd in British history for a single sporting event. By no means starting with The London Olympics, but given a momentum then that now appears unstoppable, the presentation of sports in Britain has focused on the emotional impact of the event, not just on the competitors, but on friends, family and supporters. The Royal Box and the Players Box at Wimbledon getting more close-ups than the actual players themselves, as the camera noses into the fist pumps and the tears.
In American sports, the draft system loads the dice in favour of lower-ranking teams to strengthen them for the upcoming season. In football, Financial Fair Play regulations tilt the balance (albeit only a little) away from the externally bankrolled clubs towards those whose football pays its way. Sports administrators chip away at the purity of man0-a-mano competition to protect “the product” more and more every year.
To cricket. Anything that compromises the sifting of the best from the also-rans in international cricket and the long-established domestic competitions should, of course, attract the opprobrium justifiably heaped on the match-fixers who occupy cricket’s Hall of Shame. But what of the new, history-free, franchise-based T20 leagues that have popped up around the world in the last ten years? Are they more like the WWE than the LVCC? Entertainment is surely their primary (maybe their sole) purpose and its enhancement lies at the heart of their promotion, their presentation and their personnel. Few will be able to recite the list of winners going back through time (as schoolboys once could about the FA Cup), but most will be able to find a youtube package of “Ten Biggest Maximums” or “Five Crazy Run Outs”. The result is less important than the spectacle – isn’t it?
So should we be surprised if the trajectory of a T20 season proves to have been manipulated to “get the Final everyone wanted” or bring a struggling franchise the revenue and publicity of knockout stage matches it needs to remain solvent or to revive a flagging match with a bit of quasi-declaration bowling in order to make the last five overs interesting? Who would be surprised if evidence existed of such deals? I know I wouldn’t be.
But there’s a more interesting question – who would care? Not the fans of the media products I speak of above, happy with a great night’s viewing no matter its construction; not those whose interest in sport is about the emotions attendant on victory and defeat, rather than the result, loving those close-ups; not those who sit with a remote control in hand who might just as easily flick across to a Britain’s Got Talent segment with a heartrending backstory. The T20 leagues are for them more than me aren’t they? Why should they “eat their broccoli” if they don’t want to?
Should franchise T20 cricket be judged as entertainment and not as sport? Should it be regulated and administered as entertainment and not sport? Are we all just a bit too precious about it?