Time to show some love for sport’s great unloved
Without fans in stadiums sport would lose its soul
If you bought a ticket to sit in the east stand at Kingsmead on Thursday for the opening day’s play in the Test series between South Africa and Australia, you would have paid good money to spend most of your time squinting into the sun as it burned through your skin.
It was 27C with 85% humidity. The discomfort was palpable.
To get through that in one piece you would have had the choice of a limited range of food and drink, none of it worth the bother unless you were desperate. The only coffee inferior to a stadium espresso is instant.
That’s not to take a dig at Kingsmead in particular. Much the same scenario would have prevailed down the road at Kings Park on Saturday when the Sharks met the Waratahs in their first home game of the Super Rugby season.
The key difference was that nearby roads were choked with cars before and after the game, cars that contained the crowd of 15,428.It’s not an argument you would have heard from Cricket South Africa’s marketing department, but they could have done worse than entice people to come to Kingsmead rather than go to Kings Park by telling them the crowd at the cricket on Thursday was 3,957 and 4,865 on Friday: not a lot of traffic to worry about here, sports lovers.
Saturday’s Kingsmead crowd numbered 6,118, which means a couple of middling domestic rugby teams — they won 13 of their 30 matches last season — attracted more people for 80 minutes of mediocre muddling to a 24-24 draw than two of the finest XIs in world cricket drew in the first three days of an absorbing contest.
As David Warner said after stumps was forced 14 overs early on Thursday by the dreary familiarity of bad light, “If people don’t want to come they’re going to miss out on some good cricket.”
Except they won’t. They’ll watch it on television — in comfort and with what they would prefer to eat and drink to hand, and without having to disrupt their real lives to the extent that taking a day or five of leave to go to the cricket would entail.Why would you want to put up with the hassle of going to the game — and that’s largely what it is, hassle — when you can bring the game to you?
Sport’s revolution has been televised. In fact, without television there would be no revolution in sport. There might not even be sport. Not the kind people would want to watch in significant numbers, anyway.
They would, instead, play sport. And be watched by their friends and families as they did so. Sport would be real, not made for TV.
Is it too cynical a thought that sport’s revolution has not happened organically? That it has, instead, been designed this way right down to the godawful stadium espresso?
Television suits have long since infiltrated the boards of too many of the most prominent franchises in South African sport. Wouldn’t the TV types prefer more customers paying for their service over full stadiums?They would, but it is too cynical a thought.
For one thing, empty seats make for bleak television. Last year cricket reporters found themselves shot in this movie at CSA’s annual awards, which were broadcast live from a Johannesburg theatre.
Reporters comprised a significant chunk of the audience. They were expected to sing the national anthem, and then laugh and applaud in all the right places at the entertainment that followed.
And that without the network gaining their permission to make them extras in their garish production.At least the reporters were paid for their efforts in the form of food and drink, and a flight to Joburg and hotel room for those from elsewhere. They even got some interviews done.
For another thing, even if every seat in every stadium was empty because their potential occupants had taken out television subscriptions, that wouldn’t add up to significantly more new coach potatoes relative to the current number.
For still another, most of the people who go to stadiums probably are already subscribers.
So television conspiring to capture the entire sport spectator market remains a theory. For now.
But there can be no denying that the spectator who bothers to buy tickets, queue at the gate, sit through sun, wind and rain, and put up with dismal fare and the odd drunk is at the bottom of sport’s food chain.
They are fodder for television cameras combing the crowd for shots away from the action, often with their misogyny exposed, and unpaid suppliers of the roar that tells viewers something important has happened.
They are what stadiums depend on for their atmosphere, without which they would be wastes of space that should be public space.
They are the people players profess to play for, only to recoil in assumed untouchable superiority when those people disapprove of how they play.
They are sport’s great unloved, and that must change if sport isn’t to lose its soul.