The Irritations of Modern Life: 39. Sporting Razzmatazz

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The Independent Culture
DOES ANYONE remember sport? Once it was a leisure activity for Saturdays, like weddings. The idea was to defeat the opposition through superior talent, fitness or luck. Then people figured that it was possible to make money, or "maximise revenue" from vigorous promotion - loud music, soundbites, merchandising possibilities and attempts to create "personalities" out of people who would once have been your slightly obsessive but harmless neighbour.

Every sport has fallen prey to event culture. (Except football, though the fans do sing to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys' "Go West", and how glamorous is that, darling?)

Take rugby union. Scratch the burliest prop forward, and rather than growl menacingly he'll give you some guff about "marketing potential".

I enjoy rugby, and will happily watch two sets of square-jawed bruisers beating seven shades out of each other, while their fleeter-footed brothers stand around pondering just how wealthy they might now be, had they taken up that football apprenticeship. But is anything more embarrassing than the tragic attempts by the announcer at Richmond to rally support with his hopelessly plummy imitation of an American wrestling MC, bellowing "LET'S HEAR SOME NOISE FOR YOURRR RRRRICHMOND RRUGBY CLUB!"? At Wasps a different signature tune signals a try or penalty, and (honestly) even injuries - probably "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" Are the young so easily impressed?

Rugby League has seen venerable teams with decades of history behind them take new titles along with the Murdoch shilling. Perhaps the Leeds Rhinos took their name from the majestic beasts that roam the Yorkshire savannah, but somehow you suspect the hand of a pony-tailed adman.

This year's Sunday League cricket will see the Northamptonshire Steelbacks (good grief) take on the Kent Spitfires - the same teams that play all week, only with a sabbath suffix. Why not the Yorkshire Puddings, or the Worcestershire Sauce? Worse, they sport lurid pyjamas rather than whites. You can imagine the scene when team colours were decided - some old duffer in the Long Room at Lord's moaning, "Why can't I be Mr Maroon?" a la Reservoir Dogs.

Yet the best features of American sport are its oldest traditions. Take baseball - the unflattering uniforms, the seventh inning stretch, the playing of "Take Me Out to The Ballgame". Their own recent attempt to create a sport from scratch seems to consist of naming major league soccer teams after defunct pop groups - the LA Galaxy, New England Revolution, San Jose Clash, New York Dolls (all right, not the New York Dolls). But the sensibly tagged DC United are the most successful.

Still, the prosaic can go too far. Apparently New Zealand's basketball team call themselves the Tall Blacks. Clearly, intimidation is not part of their gameplan. Now that's what I call sport.