Harsh reality dictates why Olympic sports will never match football’s popularity

Joel Lamy says that those who criticise football and want to see Olympic sports get more air-time need to make the first move if broadcasters are to be swayed...

Team GB's match against Brazil drew 70,000 but attendances in domestic matches are woeful

There's a scene in new show The Newsroom where anchorman Will McAvoy, producer Mackenzie MacHale and television executive Charlie Skinner are told that they have lost half their audience in a week due to their decision not to cover a high-profile trial which they believed to be unimportant and tacky. Mackenzie, who is determined to resist covering the trial and focus on "real news", demands that they ignore the ratings, but she is over-ruled by the two others who instantly recognise that sometimes you have to pander to what the audience want, even if you would rather be covering something else.

In some respects this is what the media do now. To generalise, tabloid newspapers will look for celebrity exclusives and the broadsheets will focus on politics and politicians. When it comes to sport though, there is only ever one winner. That is not to say that the press don't cover other sports such as cricket, rugby and tennis adequately, but the number of football writers employed will top all others combined. The number of websites and magazines devoted to football outstrips all others as well such is the global demand for our national sport.

This has always been an accepted fact, but events this summer have led many to seek a change. The Olympics and Paralympics have brought us new heroes and re-established the legacy of some of our already great athletes. The events in the Olympic stadium, the Velodrome and everywhere else have shown why we are still the greatest country when it comes to hosting sport events. Nowhere else can match our enthusiasm for sport, whether it's packing out Wembley stadium for a friendly or sneaking the cricket scores on our laptops when at work.

What the amazing events we have witnessed have done to the national conscience is re-affirm our love of sport, but also bring up the many faults of football. Flick through any comment piece on the Olympics or Paralympics and the most liked comments at the bottom will be from those lamenting the return of football and those who play the sport. They are overpaid, lazy and aloof, more concerned about the number of cars and watches they have and always cheating on their pop star wives.

As a stereotype it has stuck with many managers and writers acknowledging that there is some truth to it. You only have to read The Secret Footballer's articles in The Guardian to see that. As with most stereotypes, though, it is grossly overblown, and until England perform well at a major tournament it is likely to stick for sometime. After all, when things are going well the nastier side of sport is ignored, as was the case on occasions this summer when some Olympians didn't live up to the spirit expected during the Games.

A common rallying cry produced by the Olympics and Paralympics is that minority sports should no longer be ignored, that major broadcasters such as the BBC should start showing more from the sports where we medalled and that journalists should start devoting more of the their time away from football grounds and more on the low-paid sportsmen and women who remain away from the public consciousness for most of the time between Games.

But what these people forget is that the media will only cover these sports more if they actually show a willingness to maintain their support once the memories of London start to slowly fade from the memory. It's all well and good watching an Olympic sport during the Games because many will have done it for the experience, to say that they went to arguably the greatest show on Earth when it turned up in their home country. Why, though, should broadcasters and journalists spend more time (and money) on sports where for the next four years the competitions are not as prestigious and the crowds nowhere near as big?

Take Sky for an example. They have invested heavily in mainstream sports because they know the appeal is there all-year round. The Darts World Championships will never come remotely close to matching the Olympics, but when Darts is the second most watched sport on Sky it is no surprise that they will keep buying the rights to show it. TV rights for football keep increasing, putting more money into the game with more of it, consequently, going to the Premier League teams and players. This is because football audiences are at a high and the product sells well. If people are so upset at the money that footballers receive then they should realise that watching the matches on Sky are part of the reason why wages have been steadily going up.

Another point to remember is that we are in recession, meaning that money is at much less of a premium now than it used to be. The BBC has slowly seen its sporting coverage eroded with its live football, golf, horse-racing and F1 all cut-back. Channel 4 has invested in the Paralympics but little else and Channel 5 shows cricket highlights and the Europa League (much to the derision of supporters). ITV, who show football, the IPL, the French Open and cycling, are much better at showing sport even if their coverage leaves plenty to be desired. Investment from these broadcasters is only going to increase if they feel that it can be justified spending the money on them.

A good example of all this is women's football. Over 70,000 saw Team GB defeat Brazil 1-0 at the Olympics (with more watching the final), but there was consternation that their FA Cup final this year was cut off in extra time and pushed to the red button to allow for build-up to the League One play-off final. Anger was understandable you may think, but look at the attendances for both and you will see why it was done: 8,723 were at Ashton Gate for the FA Cup final and 52,100 went to Wembley. Attendances for the Women's Super League are remarkably low – Arsenal ladies moved to within four points of retaining their title on Sunday but only 571 people were there to see it - and until people get excited by the product then it will always be treated as second-class to the men's game. By contrast, every match in the Conference this weekend – the top division of non-league football and the fifth tier in England- had higher attendances.

So for those who claim to have discovered a new sport that they love at the Olympics and Paralympics, those who claim to be disillusioned with football and its many problems and wish other sports received far more coverage, you make the first move. Tickets will probably be cheaper than watching your local football team in action (certainly if they are in the Premier League) and you can say that you are doing your bit to put pressure on the media to stop being obsessed with our national sport. If not, then you can hardly complain when the events of this summer remain a pleasant dream and the footballing juggernaut re-asserts its dominance on the sporting agenda.

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Joel Lamy



Published

10th September 2012



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