On watching sport

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More people want to watch sport, but when this desire interacts with inequality of wealth and access, the result is that fewer and fewer people are allowed in. No event illustrates this more neatly than the recent London Olympics. As the London Metro reported yesterday:a vast operation was at work to make sure that the most desirable tickets were kept out of the hands of ordinary spectators and reserved instead for corporate sponsors.

Only 3% of tickets for World number 1 Novak Djokovic’s opening match in the tennis went on general sale, with the vast majority going to sponsors. Less than half of the tickets for the cycling went on general sale; most of those that were sold were kept in the “top” price bands of £150-£325. LOCOG promised to keep half of all tickets in every event affordable (ie under £20).  This target was missed for every single sport with the sole exception of the unloved Olympic football.

The problem is hardly restricted to London 2012. The increasing rigours of work in an age of austerity mean that the vast majority of people are too time-poor to do anything with sport but watch it. Indeed, we watch sport from further and further away. Here, as so often, football shows the way to all other sports. Check old photographs of the crowd at the Hillsborough FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 and you will see something as distant to our time as Arkwright’s spinning machine which launched the Industrial Revolution; a football crowd composed of people in their early 20s or younger (37 of the 96 dead were teenagers).

In the modern Premiership of £2000 per year season tickets, few workers under 30 can afford to get in. The average spectator watching Premiership football live is now in their mid-40s. Younger supporters make do, not with watching games live in the flesh but watching them on television, not with scanning free-to-view programmes but with satellite channels, not on ordinary subscriptions but on pay-to-view tariffs. Supporters are driven to scouring the internet for clips of goals, even though they are mere fragments of games.

No sport is exempt from this dynamic of holding the spectator at further and further remove from the action. Live Test cricket is banished to satellite television, so are the Cricket World Cups. Watch the footage of West Indies’ victory at the 1975 World Cup Final at Lords and you will see an audience, young, mixed in terms of both race and gender, responding jubilantly to every boundary. You will not see the young or the poor at the 2013 Ashes not when ticket prices start at £80 per day.

For football in particular this banishing of the spectator is extraordinarily self-defeating. Take away the intense passion of its supporters and football would be just another sport, as well-paid and as culturally significant as handball or darts.

Force people physically away from live sport, and their ability to grasp it is diminished. Their perspective is narrowed and flattened. In the women’s 800 metres finals at the Olympics, the consensus of those who commentated on the event was that Caster Semenya could and would have won gold if only she had started her final sprint 50 metres earlier. It was the judgment of people who followed the event on a screen, focussing (as the camera does) on the action at the head of a race, not on those – like Semenya – struggling at the halfway point to keep up with the early leaders. Watching live sport gives invariably a broader canvas, a better chance than technology ever allows to peer back from the moment, to view the whole, to see the runs at the side of the action, to grasp tactics and the personality of all the players.

Late capitalism refuses to allow both a broad perspective and the intimate view that you can only get in the flesh.

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