Sunday, June 23, 2013

Death of organised sport, particularly professional sport

From Roman times on, it has been recognised that the “masses” can be kept in line only as long as they are given diversions particularly “bread and circuses[1].”   

In this 21st century professional sport provided the circuses and up till now the events have been inspired by the increasing celebrity status of professional sports people with the audiences fueling their success, and television and radio being the media that has provides mass distribution and engagement for the masses.  

Now this pattern is beginning to change. Something is happening that is altering the habits of individuals and groups and is leading to the disengagement of the masses from sport, both as audience and as participants.  These dramatic changes are occurring rapidly and may see the diminution of sport as the circus events for the population, especially for those under 40 years old. Some of the elderly will still engage, but with limited disposable incomes they will not be sharing the experience with the whole population.

The first thing that is happening is that audiences are becoming disillusioned by the champions themselves. The media has, in the past, promoted as more than human, but drug scandals, family violence and drinking antics of professional sports men show the myths of champions not supported by facts.  

This diminishing role of champions is being coupled with reductions in the attendance at stadium and the watching of television at home for sporting events. Events are becoming increasingly expensive, particularly for those many individuals and families who have limited disposable incomes and watching live events is reserved to those who have purchased pay television subscriptions.   
It is significant to notice that over the last twenty plus years, the salary packages and sponsorship perks of professional sportspeople have risen faster than the audience numbers.  There are increases in incomes, luxury homes, and lucrative sponsorship deals for top particularly football, rugby and tennis sportspersons. All these income packages need to be paid for, as does the maintenance and security of stadiums and sports grounds.  

In this blog I am suggesting that these trends will shift sports participation away from team sports participation and audiences of the big team sports towards individual sports like cycling, walking and running.

This shift is exacerbated by  the diminishing disposable incomes being allocated on sport and demonstrated by fewer people attending events, less people joining and playing sport at club level  and the increasingly expensive fees necessary to enable them to watch games, play sport necessary while supporting the growing expense of sport generally.

Also there is a further change that parallels that growth in the costs associated with staging events and events.  This new era is associated with the internet, and mobile distribution of information through tablets and smart phones and the shorter attention spans that are fuelled by mobile devices and the simultaneous watching of multiple communication systems.   Premier sport will be screened on the internet at a higher price than Sky PayTV and will be watched by a small elite.

So let’s look at what is happening. 
Some of the signs have been seen with the increasing disengagement with Super 14 Rugby, Cricket and “A” League Soccer and with that, half empty stadiums for other sports events.  While a few events are still command large audiences, they are now the exception and are not enough to keep stadiums profitable.

At the same time as audiences are reducing, we hear tales that many team sports clubs are struggling financially.  Sport’s clubs are coping with increasingly ageing memberships and less commitment by younger players.  

The Brazil protest movement has shown that the popularity of big events has not been universal and national planning for economic growth from events is criticised, especially when the core service expenses associated with health, education and transport are being put off till after the events.  

We need to see some of the more recent political events as yet another signpost of change away from sports circus events.   The people of Brazil don’t believe that prosperity will come from spending billions of dollars on ‘entertaining’ overseas visitors. The widely broadcasted event this week has been the massive popular political reported demonstrations in many parts of Brazil might have started with an opposition to the increases in transport costs, but they quickly evolved into demonstrations against the major events in sport for Brazil (Olympics 2016, Soccer World Cup) and the costs of these events is being met by Brazilian tax payers and the general public, some living in poverty but also the middle class who want basic services before entertainment from sport.

"This is not just about bus fares any more. We pay high taxes and we are a rich country , but we can't see this in our schools, hospitals and roads." Many in the mostly young, middle class crowd were experiencing their first large protest. 

Matheus Bizarria, who works for the NGO Action Aid, said people had reached the limit of their tolerance about longstanding problems that the Confederations Cup and World Cup have brought into focus because of the billions of reals spent on new stadiums rather than public services. Rio is also due to host a papal visit to World Youth Day next month, and the Olympics in 2016[2].  "It's totally connected to the mega-events …" Bizarria said. 

So back to Brazil and the deal with Coliseum Sports Media. Is this a sign of what is to come or is it just another way to grow sports professionalism?  
What does this mean?       Really what is happening?

In summary:
1.   Less people are attending events
2.   Less people are participating in sport
3.   Coverage of sport is becoming too expensive
4.   Attendance at big events is dropping
5.   Sports scandals associated with high profile sports people has dented the celebrity status of sports people
6.   Disposable incomes of the masses is diminishing
7.   Individuals are no longer totally absorbed in watching sport and they watch on their second screens parallel with the sports event
8.   Sports clubs are finding their memberships dropping

Finally individuals are no longer seeking mass entertainment and maybe the internet and smart phones mean we no longer need circuses.  Hopefully there will still be bread, or at least breakfast in schools for the poor.  The only positive is that many people are striving for physical fitness. They want to do exercise and wish to have group companionship.  Hence individual activities, casual sports in the form of cycling, walking and running is growing and gym membership remains high.  

What happens in the next ten years will be interesting. I suspect the huge incomes of professional sports people will be under stress first, then premier events will no longer be profitable and the popularity of sports people will be significantly reduced.  Sponsorship will dry up.  Will team sport then die?  

Well maybe – but there will certainly need to be change otherwise major sport as we know it today will be dead and with that stadiums will be empty and our sports fields, golf courses and sports clubs generally will be empty or sold off as prime real estate.  

[1] "Bread and Circuses" (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered "palliative." (Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia)

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