A quick post to pick up the Observer’s piece on ten trends in sport over the next decade. Some are clearly fillers (‘boxing will fight back’? Who cares?) but among the more considered contributions, the two trends that they see as being on the up are about the domination of sport by television, and talent taking control of teams. There’s also an interesting note about sports in long-term decline: skiing, Formula One, and snooker.
I’m prepared to believe that television will increasingly dominate sport; I’m a lot less sure about talent taking control.

The contribution on television and sport is written by Richard Williams, maybe the most thoughtful sportswriter in Britain. He sets up the strawman that no-one will watch live, quoting Ray Jones at Loughborough University:

“We could have scenarios in the future where no one goes to watch sport live, preferring instead to watch it on television.” With 3D promising to enhance the immediacy of the pictures – this year the World Cup will be filmed in 3D, and Sky will launch the first 3D channel – coupled with the possibility of controls that allow the viewer to zoom in and out, or to change his or her viewpoint – watching from home will offer the fan an experience they can’t get in the stadium.

Well, that’s true, but ‘live’ has a visceral quality, in the age of experience, which watching at home can’t match. People still go to fan parks to watch World Cup games rather than staying at home – or to Henman Hill, despite the poor quality of the visual experience.

But technology, as Williams observes, will change the quality of the live experience, and sometimes in unexpected ways (beyond arranging events to match peak viewing times). Certainly, live spectators will have better access to the digital experience – whether built-in replay monitors  or access to match stats. In Munich, the Allianz Arena changes colour depending on who is playing at home. Williams concludes:

The logic is inevitable: the greater the extent to which videogames take their inspiration from sport, the faster the rate at which sport will need to advance in order to keep pace with the digital world in all its ever-multiplying dimensions. … And the response of those who are either priced out, or simply yearn for the kind of ambience already vanishing from the superstadiums, will ensure plenty of support for all levels of sport.

The argument about talent running teams is less compelling. Paul Hayward starts, effectively, from the position that talent has more scope than it used to, even in cricket, and projects this forwards:

Imagine this, in football: the world’s top 20 players form their own club, build a stadium (easy) and bring so much financial and celebrity clout that Uefa can’t force them to start in the Ryman League. Remember the dread of Ronaldo (not Portugal, but Ronaldo) failing to make it to this summer’s World Cup? Talent is the new tyranny.

The argument about this is quite complex, but it rests in media economics. John Kay wrote a celebrated piece some years ago about the way in which, in competitive markets, media industries fall into three parts – talent, production, and distribution. As sport becomes an adjunct of media it follows the same pattern. The three have different skills, and in lucrative markets such as professional sport talent can cream off a rich share without the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for anything. The producers here, I think, are the leagues and other promoters (sometimes intermediaries provide glue for the parts), but also the clubs, who have the long-term relationship with supporters. Talent is the most ephemeral of these three. And even in tennis – the sport which seems most controlled by its talent – the ATP wields disproportionate power.

As to declining sports, the threat to Formula One and skiing come from environmental concerns – in Formula One’s case, its sponsors become increasingly exposed to taunts of environmental inconsistency. The threat to snooker appears to be boredom. “After 80 years of proud professionalism, the game is unlikely to exist in its current form for much longer. By 2020, it could be an amateur sport again”, writes Barney Ronay. Perhaps this is not a trend – after all, some sports will always be worse managed than others. But it raises the interesting question of whether, after a generation or more in which the trend has been towards more, and better paid, professionalism in sport, perhaps we’ve reached saturation point.

The trends touch on issues such as technology, embraced by tennis and rugby, and now by cricket, but resisted by football, a trend that seems certain to extend over the decade. It misses one of the looming threats to hardcore contact sports such as rugby and American football, which is that injury levels may cripple the sport, at a professional level, literally, as athletes become stronger and fitter, and also at youth level, as parents discourage their children from the risks involved.

With news of the attack on the Togo team still fresh, and that in Pakistan on the Sri Lankan cricket team recent, the other missing trend is darker; anything with money and media coverage is a potential target. The more sport succeeds, the more vulnerable it becomes.