The past two decades have seen a revolution in British sporting life. Spectator sports are now an enormous business, and have become remote from fans in ways they never were.
At the same time, participation in sport has been transformed, making it accessible and social for more people. For example, full participation in, say, 11-side football has been outstripped by the 5-a-side version.
We’re calling the trend Sports ‘n’ Social.
Until the invention of the Premier League, football in Britain was democratic. There were always big clubs with great resources and minnows where players shone their own boots, but it was easier for minor clubs to excel. Ipswich Town, Oxford United and Nottingham Forest are clubs that won cups and excelled against wealthier competition, but are never likely to re-enter the top flight.
There is a serious lack of upward (or much downward) social mobility in modern football, and the only form of affirmative action is investment by a tycoon, such as QPR, another one-time challenger, recently received from Italian impresario Flavio Briatore.
As it stands, the big 4 clubs are not just owned by oligarchs of some sort but are themselves an oligarchy – the reign of a small elite over everybody else.
For many seasons, so-called “second tier” clubs have remained exactly that. The Big 4 guys actually have all the luck and the consistent distance between them and the second tier, the lower clubs and the relegation/promotion see-sawers reflects that.
Aside from giant-killing surges in a downgraded FA or Carling Cup, many local clubs can no longer hope to compete at the highest level. Football’s still the game of the people, but when your local big club will never have a chance at the genuine big-time, it becomes a bit remote.
Since 15-a-side rugby went professional in 1995, something similar has happened to it. A highly competitive domestic league has brought with it the importation of players, especially from the southern hemisphere, and the best local players now have less of a chance at the big-time.
The Guinness Premiership may not be as profoundly divided as the Barclay’s Premier League but nevertheless, Northampton, relegated last season, have assured their return by winning 27 games in a row.
Like Ipswich and Forest, clubs such as Orrell and London Scottish that once competed with the big sides have been left behind by big-money professionalism. Added to that, the conditioning and muscle mass now required to play elite rugby are impossible without professional training.
The spectator form of rugby, like football, has grown distant from the game played by amateurs. At the same time, amateurs have less time and increasingly choose to play less demanding versions of both games.
In England, more people now play 5-a-side football than play the full 11-person game. 5-a-side involves less organisation, less people, less competition, requires no training, and demands less of the player than 11-a-side
In Ireland, a simple, tackle-free version of rugby that can be played by teams of men and women, has been the sports success story of the past few years – de-complicating and de-skilling the elite game that vast numbers watch, so that those vast numbers can play it. In fact, like 5-a-side, tag rugby is a game pretty much anyone can play.
In Ireland, the Sports’n’Social trend is nailed by Budweiser, who sponsor tag rugby leagues and emphasise the game’s social aspect. Tag rugby is supported in schools as well as promoted to adults, and ‘tag’ is endorsed by professional players, explicitly linking it with the elite game its audience watches on TV.
In the UK, tag-rugby is well-promoted in schools but most adult fans remain spectators only.
By and large, the trend in the UK is limited to 5-a-side football. The formula of de-skill, de-complicate, and maintain/add a social side is the way to capitalise on the Sports’n’Social trend, and there are several games, such as cricket, that might be adapted and brought to a wider playing public.
The point is to allow people to play together and be social on their own terms, in their own valuable time.
For feedback or comment, please contact Insight Manager, OMD UK, Michael Tully on Michael.Tully@omd.com
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