IT'S OFFICIAL: World Cup football is the 95th most popular sport in the United States. Or, to be more accurate, equal 95th, along with collegiate wrestling. This remarkable statistic nestles among many others in The National Sports Study II, a document based on a 64-page questionnaire completed by 1,479 US citizens.
World Cup football is thus demonstrably less popular than, for instance, table tennis (83rd), log rolling (90th) and dog sledding (92nd) and only slightly more of a turn-on than cliff diving (98th). Does this signify tough times ahead for the organisers of next year's World Cup?
'You don't want to take any notice of those polls,' Steve Goff, the Washington Post's soccer correspondent, says. 'These things come out all the time.' Does he have a more accurate rating of the sport's popularity in the United States? 'It's higher than 95th,' Steve says, 'but I don't know how much higher.'
John Griffin, at the World Cup '94 HQ in New York, is equally unperturbed: 'Frankly, it doesn't surprise us,' he admits. 'Never before has the World Cup been available in this country. This time next year the popularity will be different.' Is John an aficionado of collegiate wrestling, his sport's bedfellow in 95th spot? 'I've never even seen it on the TV,' he declares. 'And if I did, I wouldn't stop to watch.'
We have always known Americans had strange tastes, and perhaps it should be no surprise that 'stage-to-stage tour bike racing' comes in at No 113, a place below arm wrestling. And this is the nation which gave us the first English speaker to win the Tour de France.
LIKE Arsenal, Botafogo struggled to score this season until a recent recovery. After the Rio club had endured eight barren league matches, their first goal was greeted with euphoria by Brazilian television, who celebrated by replaying the moment to the strains of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. Thank goodness they didn't score seven.
CHANT Of The Week has been suspended as a mark of sympathy for the Norwich fans who were so carried away in midweek that they forgot the words to 'Come On, City' and had to be prompted by the scoreboard.
Scrum down for rugby's TV rights
ALMANACK recently drew attention to the intense competition among satellite and terrestrial television companies for coverage of future Olympics. Now coverage of another sporting event seems destined for a spell of controversy: the prize at stake is rugby union, and the BBC, ITV and Sky are circling hungrily.
It's a complex battleground: for a start, three companies, IMG, CSI and TSL, are competing for the right to advise the RFU on the sale of English rugby. CSI, who already own the rights to the game in several emerging rugby nations, handle England's marketing deals and are thought to be the favourites to land the contract.
Then there's the question of the Five Nations' Championship. At present the four home unions share television coverage and revenue from the tournament equally, while France have a highly lucrative deal of their own. The possibility has to be considered that the RFU's advisers (whichever company they appoint), duty-bound to deliver the best possible deal, may suggest that England go the same way as France and negotiate their own exclusive television contract. Another, less radical but still controversial approach would be for England to request a larger slice of the cake: there are more viewers in England, the argument runs, so why not more revenue? It is not an argument that is likely to go down well with the other home unions.
The RFU has stated that it does not consider satellite an appropriate medium for the game. But wouldn't the kind of BBC / Sky combination that nabbed the Premier League work perfectly well for rugby? Pure speculation, of course.
Surfers on the crust of a wave
IT IS not unknown for sport to attract the attention of environmentalists: they condemn the depradations of golf-course growth in sensitive areas, castigate gas-guzzling grand prix racers and caution willow- threatening cricket-bat manufacturers. But sport has its own greens. This weekend, Britain's finest surfers are hanging 10 in the Toxic Wave championships off the coast of Glamorgan - an event organised by sport's most unusual pressure group: Surfers Against Sewage.
'SAS started three and a half years ago,' recalls Chris Hines, the group's General Secretary, 'with yet another bad day's surfing. Yet another day going for a surf and getting hit in the face by, you know, human crap, panty liners and condoms.' He organised a public meeting near the beach in St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, and 'it was packed beyond capacity - you couldn't get in. We'd hit a nerve and it snowballed from there.' The members soon realised that the aesthetic unpleasantness of pollution was in fact the least of their problems, and Chris can now quote from research in the British Medical Journal showing that surfers are 80 per cent more likely to develop health problems than non-bathing water users.
Today the group with the aggressive acronym has 11,000 members, including many parents and grandparents of young surfers, and Chris is expecting a healthy turn-out of competitors and spectators for the fourth annual jamboree: 'I expect a thousand people will watch over this weekend.' The premier event on the surf is the Toxic Trophy, which will be contested by about 40 of Britain's top boardriders.
The premier event off the surf is the delivery of a giant inflatable toxic-waste drum to the main gate of British Steel in Port Talbot, as a protest at the amount of industrial gunk the company dumps into the sea. 'Their effluent contains monohydric phenols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,' says Chris, who knows a fair bit of chemistry for a beach bum. 'In effect they are using Swansea Bay as a convenient toxic dump.' Doubtless the company will be incensed at the protest, but in fact they are getting off comparatively lightly: the other weapon in SAS's formidable armoury is a 10ft inflatable stool.
Chris is sure that such jolly japes - and SAS's more serious efforts - are beginning to have an effect: 'There have been some improvements,' he says, 'and definitely the polluters have a harder time in getting away with it.' An SAS member was recently granted legal aid to pursue a case against Southern Water, having contracted Hepatitis A after windsurfing off Eastbourne.
Away from demonstrations, boardrooms and court-houses, Chris still manages to squeeze in a little of the sport he loves, but it's difficult to escape the job. 'I spend two or three weeks going round the country hassling', he fumes, 'and then when I go surfing, which is my relaxation, I paddle out to sea . . . and get a panty liner stuck in my hair. It just rams the problem straight back in my face again. Literally.'
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