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Square Pegs And Round Holes: Should British Sport Really Look To America?

24/01/2017 12:09

One does not believe it is too controversial to say that the 1980s were not a particularly successful time for British sport. The golfers had some good moments but, and one does not wish to appear uncharitable but to identify significant success is challenging. The England cricket team's success over Australia within the decade was overshadowed by consistent heavy defeats against the all conquering West Indies. A special mention must also go to Daley Thompson for his success in the early part of the decade in particular but Olympic success was not on the scale of more recent times.

If the national sport is to be accepted as football (some may disagree with that I am sure) then the decade was particularly difficult. Liverpool did however win two European Cups and Aston Villa one. On the field, since the visit of the Hungarian's some thirty years before, the difference in skill levels between British players and their overseas counterparts has been constantly bemoaned. However, it was not so much on the field but off it that the sport had its biggest issues. The spectre of hooliganism did not begin in the eighties but certainly had a considerable impact, including the banning of English clubs from European competition. The performance of the home nations in major tournaments was also patchy at best.

Another occurrence in the eighties was that the NFL was beamed into British homes via the medium of Channel 4, British audiences could embrace a new sport from across the pond. And for a while, it worked. Identifying why specifically it worked is challenging. People had perhaps been put off football by its associated problems and seeing NFL played in modern looking stadia with ten of thousands of different aged fans whooping away whilst eating hot dogs and drinking beer without fear of violence may have made British sports fans observe what sport could be like.
To add to the appeal of American sport was the emergence of Michael Jordan. Jordan was not an NFL player but a basketball player but one who became a global superstar. Sport had global superstars before but Jordan became a talisman for basketball around the world. Nike Air Jordan boots became a must have for many. It may be unpalatable for some but Michael Jordan became one of those sportsmen on extremely high wages and extremely lucrative contracts. There is a reason for that, he was extremely good and playing in a country that was happy to offer its sports stars those kinds of riches. It is only in recent times that British football stars would compete with this.

There was limited possibility that the British sporting public would switch en masse to NFL and basketball, leaving the traditional sports behind but that did not stop people from trying. The London Monarchs started with crowds of 40,00 for its World League fixtures. British basketball and ice hockey also had an attempt at rivaling the likes of football and cricket with some degree of success but were not able to maintain long term success. So what went wrong?

The chief answer to that was the rise of the Premier League which succeeded in bringing people back to football. From the difficult times of the eighties arose the leviathan. The top league teams resigned from the long established Football League to form an independent organisation. Credit needs to be given where it is due and the Premier League has been an extraordinarily successful enterprise, at least for some. Since its inception in 1992, there have been 6 winners of the Premier League. Over the same time period, there have been 13 different winners of the NFL, 14 different winners of Major League Baseball, 13 different winners of the NHL and 10 different winners of the NBA. There are roughly 30 franchises in each of the American competitions and 92 different football league teams in England and Wales alone.

American sport is different for numerous different reasons. There are no cup competitions and very little in the way of international competition. British sports fans would also regard it as anathema for a club to move between areas as happens in the NFL. Two aspect that are often missed about the American sports system is that the practice of drafting players makes for a more even playing field and that the College system of sport is extremely successful. Many Americans identify more strongly with their local College team rather than an NFL team that may be hundreds of miles away.

It is this notion of franchising that British sport seems to want to emulate. Image only 30 football team exists over the whole of the UK rather than the 134 that exist today. One might suggest that those that created the Premier League might have envisaged this happening. T20 Cricket has plumped for franchise systems across the globe and one is proposed for the UK. No firm details are yet in the public domain but one must question the impact this might have on the existing counties. What we do know is that franchising is almost always city based. This would mean that town teams, including several that were founder members of the Football League may be deemed surplus to requirements. .
A smaller number of clubs means finances are (arguable) spread thicker, bigger attendances are (arguably) obtainable within the bigger cities and with less competition. A fairer playing field would also (arguably) result. Except it probably will not happen.

The round hole of American sport works very well in America and would be the way forward for sports to implant themselves in new markets. The square peg of British sport is a more complicated animal that feeds of a spirit of tradition that spawned not always out of the big cities but the smaller towns. Cup competitions and the international game lack the kudos they once had but the lottery they provide has the potential to give supporters a chance of some glory which is not something that could happen in the NFL format. To look at British sport through purely financial eyes would lead to radical changes immediately but the sentiment and tradition would be lost. The assumption that the merger between traditional local rivals to form one franchise would lead to a massing of all the spectators together remains optimistic. The impact of marketing strategies which has benefited the bigger clubs and foreign owners arriving spending big money on one club alone also muddy the waters.

Franchising in sport does undoubtedly work in the right circumstances, the Big Bash cricket in Australia being a great example but ways that protect tradition need to be developed to ensure British sport balances its past and its future.

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