Monday, April 02, 2007

The Sporting Post

Ok, this is going to be a big one. There are things in life that we take for granted, things we've always known to be true and don't usually feel the need to question. And then sometimes for one reason or another we end up questioning them and sometimes they hold up to that questioning and sometimes they don't. Now I'm going to say something controversial:

Professional sports are a waste of money and resources.

I guess what made me really start thinking about all this was the death of Bob Woolmer. It's still not clear what happened but the general consensus that seems to be forming is that someone cared more about protecting their own match fixing racket than about Bob Woolmer's life. Even if we found out that Bob died of natural causes, the fact that we all assumed there was enough incentive for murder there should be cause enough for concern.

Then a couple of days ago I got a letter from my energy supplier - EDF. They were proud to announce they would be sponsoring the forthcoming rugby world cup. So proud in fact they felt the need to write and let me know specially. All I could think was that this was an excuse by the management to use company money to get themselves ringside seats. Personally I will not benefit at all from their sponsorship. I would benefit much more if they instead reduced my bill by an amount equivalent to my share of the sponsorship. A bit like I would benefit much more from the London Olympics if they just reduced my council tax in line with my share.

Today I read an article from the BBC about the impact of sports on fans. The research showed that winning fans were in fact more aggressive than losing fans. They also found these fans were more aggressive than they had been before the game. Losing reduced happiness, but winning did not increase happiness. It's not the biggest study or the most impressive but it doesn't seem to have found any positive side effects to guys watching sports. And of course we've all seen horror footage of fans rioting after football matches. And I think most of us have been out socialising and had our evening disrupted by the arrival of a big crowd of noisy drunk guys huggging each other and singing something about "One-nil". And many of us have felt intimidated or actually been hurt, deliberately or accidentally by these guys.

Professional sports do nothing for gender equality. The three top sports in the UK: football, rugby and cricket are barely played by women, when they are the matches are almost never televised or promoted and sponsorship is negligible. No women play these sports professionally in the UK. Other minority sports face a continuous uphill struggle to get funding and recognition for the women's side of the game. How can we tell young people that they live in a society where we value equal opportunities, then say "boys you can work as professional sportpeople, sorry girls you can't"?

And finally look at all the other things that professional sports fans are encouraged to do: drink too much, smoke, eat unhealthy pies and chips and waste money gambling. They also are likely to hang around in big groups of guys leaving their wives unsupported and their children feeling unloved. If children are brought along they are dressed up in team colours they are too young to understand, taught how to shout abuse at other fans and exposed to drunken rowdy behaviour.

By now you are probably thinking "bah humbug"and you probably have a few questions racing round your head. A few points about the benfits of sports that have been drummed into us all from birth and are going to take a bit of dislodging...

What about encouraging children to take up sports? Surely we need sports funding more than ever now to combat rising child obesity?

I am all in favour of sport in schools. And indeed my EDF letter assures me that they'll be funding a major school rugby program alongside the rugby world cup. I can't get hold of the numbers but what percentage of the money they're spending is going to schools? I suspect very little. Lots more good could be done if management didn't need to keep their executive boxes.

When I was at school we all played sport twice a week. Well most kids did. We were told in every subject from music to maths that we shouldn't be competitive, it was about doing the best WE could. Except sport. Then is was about winning. And I wasn't good enough at it to win. So I wrote excuse notes, faked illness, went AWOL, etc. And I was wildly depressed about it - all the subjects I was good at I had to shut up about and the one thing I wasn't so good at I was paraded infront of the rest of the school and made to look like an idiot. Parents were not invited in for geography day - no, they came in for sports day and laughed at me.

Funding school sports equipment is the excuse for everything these days. You can even get free school sports equipment vouchers with chocolate eggs. Equipment doesn't make kids fit, bright enthusiastic dedicated teachers and parents who encourage kids to participate without belittling them make kids fit. Chocolate bars and a nation obsessed with sitting on the sofa watching others do sport don't help either. The number of children who will go on to play professional sport is tiny. The number who aspire to do so and see their dreams end in disappointment is much higher. And the number who know from the outset that they'll never be able to live up to that standard and are quickly taught that sport for them is something to watch, is the highest of all.

What about encouraging sports at grass-roots level for adults?

Years after I left school I discovered I enjoyed playing sport. I tried to join a team and when I couldn't find a team I started my own. Over the three years I ran that team (in Tokyo), I spent a fortune out of my own pocket paying for practice courts, balls, bibs, kit, spare shin-pads, socks, adverts to find new players, laundering kit, competition entry fees, website upkeep, hiring refs and linesmen, league subscription fees and internal administration money. Not to mention all the time I put in. Of course I was pretty careful about saving money where I could. We got our shirts from a local mens team who were throwing them out to get new ones, etc. Despite eventually winning the all-Japan women's five-a-side tournament, I was never able to get any sponsorship money from local businesses or government programs.

When I came back to the UK I joined a local FA-registered side. I paid £50 FA registration fee, I paid to train every week, we all chipped in to pay for coaching, I paid for a transfer when I wasn't getting a game and we payed for matches we played and covered our own transport to and from games.

As far as I can see there is NO FUNDING at grassroots level for adult sport in the UK or overseas. Or if there is it isn't coming into the women's games at all. I no longer play group sport, the effort and cost isn't worth it.

Don't men need sports to somehow use up all that testosterone?

Well, as the Cardiff University researchers have established, watching sport in fact generates more testosterone and increases the likelihood that guys will become aggressive. If guys wanted to use up excess testosterone, they could try playing sport. Mr Cru likes boxing - he used to participate but now he just watches it on TV. I'm not a fan but in the interests of domestic harmony I tolerated it when he first moved in. A little over a year later I've started deliberately leaving the room when it's on. If I watch it late at night I don't sleep so well and I have more violent and upsetting dreams. Even as cynical and defensive towards it as I am, I am still well aware that I am affected by it. I thought boxing was the extreme end of sports but I increasingly see similarly agressive behaviour being accepted as the norm in rugby and even in supposedly non-contact football. And of course our screens and stadiums are now welcoming the even more violent option of "ulitmate fighting" where kicking, strangling and breaking arms and legs are also allowed. Occassionally Mr Cru will watch this too to my horror and every time I see it, there is actual blood spilt.

But what if I like watching sport?

So do I. But wouldn't it be nicer to go and see a game where the stakes were a great deal lower, where the games were genuinely played for honour? The prize money came from the ticket sales and thus accurately reflected the entertainment value of the sport? So playing good quality skillful sport became as important as winning and diving and then screaming for a penalty was a thing of the past? I think a happy medium would be that ticket sales could go to pay players wages, sponsorship money could only be given to school sports campaigns and merchandising profits should as a sign of good will be given to charity. Government money should of course be barred from going into sports, other than where needed in schools. I think the fun to be had watching sport under that arrangement would be much greater. And you could genuinely feel that you were doing something positive by going to a game.

But what about our international reputation for being good at sport?

We could trade that in for an international reputation for having the good sense not to waste resources encouraging drunken violent sexist aggression, cheating and in some cases even murder. We could use the money we save to build a new reputation as the country which prioritises improving the human condition across the globe rather than spending all our money on having half a dozen guys who can kick really hard and run really fast...


Chris Coltrane said...

I agree entirely, but particularly with your points countering this argument:

What about encouraging children to take up sports? Surely we need sports funding more than ever now to combat rising child obesity?

From day one I've been against hosting the Olympics. Partly this is because it was clear from the start that everything would be privatised and therefore mis-managed, and partly this is because experience has taught me that whatever this government does, it will cost more than they say at the start.

But mostly, I'm against hosting the Olympics because one of the central arguments in favour of it was that it would encourage people to take an interest in sport. This opinion is wrong. I tell you what would get even more people into sport - taking that £9.3bn (1) and spending it on affordable leisure centres, playing fields for the public and for schools, and giving schools all around the country top-class sports and fitness facilities.

You know, instead of selling off all the school's green land to property developers.


Stan said...

I don't feel right about responding to your many paragraphs of well-crafted prose with a simple "Oh no it isn't !" - but that was definitely my first instinct.

(1) People who knock sport I think tend to believe that if they don't need it in their lives, nobody should need it in their lives. You obviously have your comedy and your writing. Would you be as comfortable with someone criticizing sponsorship for the Arts ?

(2) The fact that watching professional sport is a bloke thing is plain wrong. Regarding football, at Bolton from my position in the stand, it looks like 1/3 of the spectactors are women, and this has been steadily growing since hooliganism was beaten last century.

And then there's Wimbledon. Equally-paid elite athletes giving their all in front of a majority-female audience.

(3) You are absolutely right about the shameful neglect of grassroots and women's sport - I don't see though how slashing away at professional male sport is going to help.

(4) As a nation I believe we should be fostering ALL talent. We should have as much respect for people who run on a field as we do for those who tread on a stage. Because w're different, and that's a good thing ...

Cruella said...

I'm sure in another fortnight Ms Jowell will be back with a higher bid soon. I hate the idea that British schoolkids will be inspired to take up sport in the hope of making the 2012 olympics. That's tight kids, you train REALLY REALLY hard and you'll get a free holiday - in Hackney! Surely kids would be more inspired to take up the discus if the olymics were going to be in the carribean. I would.

Cruella said...

Hey stan...ok, don't say you don't get good service here on Cru-blog...

1) My plan would not prevent people watching sports, in fact it would make it a much more fun experience. Without money to fight over corruption and match-fixing and agressive play and diving would be eradicated. Plus no advertising hourdings, no hard sell, no gambling. And I think and hope it would shift the focus back to local teams so you could watch them on a Saturday and then play for their C-team on a thursday night...

2) Statistically watching sport IS a predominantly male preoccupation. Sure there are some women who do it too but when was the last time you saw your local train station clogged up with women in Bolton Ladies Netball tops and cans of Stella? It's rare, Wimbledon being perhaps the best example.

3) Well there is a finite amount of money in the world. So cutting money in one area frees money up for others. Professional sport is wildly over-sponsored. We need to get away from the "sponsoring sport is good" and into a more "depends what kind of sport" mentality.

4) We should foster all talent... Does that include talent for breaking in to parked cars? Presumably not. I think we should encourage all talent that betters our society. And right now professional sport is not providing, in my mind, a societal good, not is it under-funded or in need of encouragement.

Iceman said...

"Professional sports are a waste of money and resources."

Many American cities are forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on stadiums (at the same time as cutting funding for things like schools, hospitals and mass transit). The professional baseball, football or basketball team threatens to leave if the city doesn't build them a new stadium, and many cities comply because they think that they won't be a "real" city without a pro sports team. Meanwhile, studies show that pro sports teams don't add to the economy - they just redistribute leisure spending away from other things, and it winds up in the hands of millionaire players and billionaire owners.

"A bit like I would benefit much more from the London Olympics if they just reduced my council tax in line with my share."

The Olympics is a financial disaster for most of the cities that host it. Very rarely a city successfully uses it to get on the tourism map (Barcelona), but far more often a city spends huge amounts of money on stadiums that are mostly or totally unnecessary and gets very little out of it (it's not like Atlanta or Seoul or Turin have become tourist hotspots). I was glad when New York didn't get the 2012 Olympics - let another city waste their money. The World Cup at least mostly uses existing stadiums, and attracts a lot more fans from outside the host country, and who stay longer in the host country. (But the Japan/Korea World Cup was a disaster because they had to build mostly new stadiums and attracted very few international fans.)

"A little over a year later I've started deliberately leaving the room when it's on. If I watch it late at night I don't sleep so well and I have more violent and upsetting dreams. Even as cynical and defensive towards it as I am, I am still well aware that I am affected by it."

The promoters and cable television companies make a fortune off of boxing and ultimate fighting, while 99% of boxers and ultimate fighters never make any real money from the sport, and wind up with all of the brain damage, slurred speech and other bad health effects and none of the fame and fortune.

Cruella said...

Yes it takes a particularly weird kind of mentality to justify fund-raising for a sport that actually does more harm than good to those who participate. Mr Cru has serious damage to his neck and spine as a result of all his years of boxing. Personally I suspect it has affected his head too...

No-one would sponsor you to stick your fingers in a power socket... unless you were part of the cast of Jackass that is.

But it's a great point that very little of the money in sport ends up int he hands of the actual players or indeed in facilities and teaching. Agents and managers take big slices. Shareholders expect a cut and then there's all the dodgy people who end up getting bribed, etc. The bookies make good money of course.

Stan said...

You run an truly excellent blog here, I usually agree strongly with you because I make it my policy to agree with you when you are right ...

However, I think you're on the wrong side of this one. Is it possible you hate the kind of people who love sports rather than have a problem with the sports themselves ? (damn I'm cheeky today)

One point I'd make is that the vast majority of the silly money sloshing around in sport is not yours or mine, so we can't mandate how it is spent. Oh, would that it were so, but it's not. Frank Lampard's wage packet comes from stolen Russian natural resources rather than mis-spent taxpayer's money.

To me the money for "Sport For All" should come from other budgets (don't get me started on Trident) rather than squeezing elite sport.

I have much else to say, but I need to fill my own blog with something !

Cruella said...

Well thank you Stan.

I don't hate sports... I've played a lot of sport...

...and I've watched a lot too. But it doesn't mean I can't see a better way of running national sports.

Abromavich's money doesn't seem to me to be doing any good. The richer the clubs get the more corruption creeps in. There are more and more fans going to games and hanging round the stadium. More policing has been needed for games, at great cost to the local police force. Where's the upside?

And how is elite sport being "squeezed"? Show me a penniless Chelsea player/agent/manager...

Stan said...

The way I see it, people watching sport aren't indulging in porn, warmongering, kitten-shaving, anal-bleaching, date-rape or happy-slapping - so I can't see how it's a bad thing.

In fifteen years of watching football games I've only been close to one unsavoury incident, and that was at the derby game in Stockholm - and Sweden is probably exactly the model you're looking for.

I think there's no danger of elite sport being squeezed. Unless you become Sports minister that is.

Cruella said...

So we should subside entertainment for people so that while they're enjoying it they won't commit any crimes? Maybe we should be subsidising Odeon cinemas and dog races too? Free wool for knitters?

And I'm not sure that football supporters aren't committing more crimes per person per hour than cinema-goers and knitters.

You seem to lose sight of the fact that I'm not advocating banning sport, I'm advocating stopping throwing money at it.

Cruella said...

The benefits of sport in terms of encouraging grassroots participation are by your own admission, short-lived. The day after the cup final kids want to play football, two weeks later the fields are empty again.

My own experience is that I've really gone out of my way to find football teams and eventually I've given up because the cost and amount of effort I have to put in to get there are too much. If - as Chris suggests above - the money from, say, the olympics was put in to local affordable sports facilities I think the impact would be much more significant and lasting.