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British sport's boom and bust culture

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Matt Slater | 19:59 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

There were two major events in London's Battersea Park on Wednesday night: the first was the Sport Industry Awards and the second was Sky Sports News presenter Charlotte Jackson's dress.

Enjoyed by hundreds of party-goers and talked about in every news room, marketing office and sports HQ this morning, it was a success. The ceremony went well too.

For the first five years of the awards' lifetime they were relatively parochial affairs but that changed in 2007 when royalty visited in the shape of Posh n' Becks. What had been an event for the ad men, sales staff and other suits that make up the back office, was now somewhere to do deals, somewhere to gossip, somewhere to be seen.

There were moments during Wednesday's jamboree when it felt like the centre of the sports news universe, which is a bold claim for a little island but not a totally ridiculous one when you consider the reach of the Premier League and the magnitude of the coming Olympics. The wine was flowing too.

Among the 1,700 guests furiously networking under the big plastic tent were leading lights from every national governing body, agency and brand.

On one table Nike, another Adidas, whilst the daddies of the Jerry Maguire business, IMG, were guests of honour as recipients of an "outstanding contribution" award.

And for those who enjoy a frisson of tension with their cheese, on the table behind mine was the man who led England's doomed 2018 World Cup bid, only yards from the man who helped Qatar get it in 2022. There was no need to chill the Chablis.

Charlotte Jackson. Photo: Sport Industry Awards

Jackson won the paparazzi prize Photo: Sport Industry Awards

But this was a night for celebrations, not recriminations, and the list of winners gives an indication of the strength of British sport and its top brands.

English cricket, buoyed by what happened over the winter in Australia, picked up two gongs, Celtic Manor won the venue prize for providing the backdrop to one of 2010's best sports stories anywhere and BSkyB earned plaudits for shaking up the peloton with its headline-grabbing cycling team.

But behind all the back-slapping and glad-handing was an important message: sport matters. This did not look like an industry in recession and austerity was short on the ground. Be it international prestige, jobs or old-fashioned cash, the UK sports sector is punching above its weight.

Of course, it's not all champagne and cigars, and earlier in the day I had been at a very different event: the launch of two discussion papers meant to shape the debate on how British football can be saved from its worst excesses.

Gathered in that room were fans of clubs that have been to more insolvency proceedings than prize-givings and it was more than a little bit depressing to hear them recount their tales of woe.

The group behind this plea for sanity is Supporters Direct (SD), the body set up in 2000 to promote greater influence for fans in their clubs and hopefully encourage a more sustainable business model for the game.

The subsequent years have seen the "fan-ownership" movement make some progress but there have been backward steps. That is all in the past, though, as there has never been a better time (or a more receptive audience) for the SD message.

Among the 80 or so who came to Westminster's Portcullis House were a dozen MPs united in the belief that something has to change, if not necessarily a firm view of what that something is or how it can be achieved.

For that, many are pinning their hopes on the report coming from the recently-concluded Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into football governance.

Hundreds of submissions and two months of hearings have gone into an effort that could see the coalition government deliver on its promise to "encourage the reform of football rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters."

It is a subject I want to return to so I will leave that there for now. But I will recount a conversation I had with a member of the CMS select committee about how and why he got involved in an area that has usually been viewed as a political backwater.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport spends peanuts compared to other parts of government, a fact reflected in the lack of cabinet status for the sports minister.

But, as the MP pointed out, while it might not "matter" much in Whitehall terms, it matters an awful lot to the electorate. Aircraft carriers, hospitals and schools are any government's big-ticket items but football and X Factor are what voters talk about most.

It is why events like the Sport Industry Awards will probably continue to grow in size and ambition. The business of sport has become, like pop music, teaching English or making reality TV, something we do well. But it would not hurt every now and then if we admitted we could still do it a lot better.

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  • Comment number 1.

    The commercialisation of sport is a double edged sword for sports fans - we pay for the privilege either live or through improved coverage. Whether we always get the best experience is another question.

    But CJ in HD always brightens my day...

  • Comment number 2.

    I'll second that :D

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    An evening for all the 'Mr. ten percenters' to brag about who had made the most money last year from ticket buying sports fans?

  • Comment number 5.

    Strange times indeed...and you get the sense of another enormous bubble inflating that must surely, sooner or later, burst.

    The bust is plain to see in football where, despite all the Premiership backslapping, the real English game is in decline and many clubs survive under conditions that would bring in the receivers in any other business. Professional rugby, barring the top teams is largely hand-to-mouth and County Cricket teams are on life support from a trickle of TV money.

    But it isn't just money. Professional sport on TV is being treated like a kind of recreational drug, with the user having to take bigger and bigger doses to get the same "hit". So we have pundits talking up dreary mid-table matches as the "game of the season". Facile rivalries are synthesised out of nowhere to up the ante between teams. Cricket players are forced to dress in spandex costumes and deliver a dumbed-down baseball equivalent, while the dancing girls prance around in the background. Rugby players are forced to play at a level of intensity that is frankly dangerous and would get you six months in any other setting.

    Who's paying for it. Well the fans obviously, especially those who pay royally to turn up and find that their interests and comfort take a distant second place to the TV schedulers and the blobbies, lying on the sofa, sucking on a Stella in front of the box! Most of all though, it is the players who are being abused with longer seasons, months away from home at a time, rock-hard pitches, plus all the pitfalls that befall a young man living in hotel rooms while the "paps" scrutinize their every movement. The injury list, physical and mental, in professional sport is huge. The price of all this entertainment is being paid in broken bodies!

    "Aircraft carriers, hospitals and schools are any government's big-ticket items but football and X Factor are what voters talk about most."

    ...and that's a worry. I'm a big sports fan but recognise that it is, in the end, just sport. It isn't that important and those who wrap their whole lives up in it are simply flirting with an anaesthetic to blot out reality!


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