The Last Word: Who cares about SPOTY? Millions, but Beeb's commitment still grates

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The Independent Online

It might be sacrilegious to suggest so on the sport pages of a quality newspaper, but you have to hand it to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. Over its many pilloried years, it has somehow managed to attain absolutely irrelevant status within the absolutely irrelevant confines of its own subject matter.

Yes, while sport may well be the toy department of life, those whose job it is to report what goes on in that department dismiss SPOTY as worthless goods. "Who cares?" is an exhortation I hear on an annual basis from some of my colleagues.

Well, here's who cares. The millions who watch, the millions who vote and the contestants who can collect millions from the exposure. Want to know why the winner is almost always there to accept that strange little trophy (which still reminds me of a Dalek assembled on Blue Peter) from Sue Barker, or whichever sporting hasbeen it is retiring on our licence fee nowadays? It's because it's an earner. And an ego-boosted earner, at that.

An agent of one of tonight's candidates assured me that, if successful, his client would rake in a few more million in the next few years. He explained it wouldn't only be the higher profile which would attract the sponsors, but the fact the public have been proven to like him or her. To a canny marketing executive on the endorsement prowl, this represents an extremely large and an extremely plausible focus group. "Look at these SPOTY results – he connects with the man in the street. They chose him over David Haye. And Phil Taylor."

This sales patter would not have been possible when voting was shrouded in privacy and nobody was sure how the BBC arrived at its decision in those dusty boardrooms of Kenny Everett's imagination. But now, with a public vote on the night, the legitimacy is ensured. Or, it should be. Yet with SPOTY nothing is ever as it should be.

Invariably, there is controversy at the result. Four years ago, the world of boxing was joined by most other sports in spitting out its gum-shield at the selection of a royal horse-rider, Zara Phillips, over an un-royal light-heavyweight, Joe Calzaghe. Oh, how we all revelled in recalling how Phillips' mother, Princess Anne, was named as SPOTY in 1971, ostensibly for that seismic sporting success in the European Eventing Championship. And how a footballing pigmy called George Best and a rugby no-name called Barry John were beaten into second and third. It just highlighted the absurdity of the show.

Yet that was then and Zara was now and her award did no such thing. All it did was highlight how fickle sporting popularity remains. Leave it to the columnists to come over all pompous about true sporting greatness, because it isn't measured much place else, certainly not on SPOTY. The clue is in the "personality" part of the title. What turns on the public isn't necessarily the worthiness of the achievement. Dare we use the term in this Cowell-led age, but there is an "X Factor" at play in widespread sporting appeal. Now more than ever.

It is why Ryan Giggs walked off with the prize last year. There were howls of derision from some quarters (surprise, surprise, they comprised mainly of the "who cares?" brigade) that the Welshman was winning it for a lifetime of achievement rather than just a mere 12 months. What utter nonsense. It's as if each sportsman or sportswoman begins each season with a blank canvas. It's interesting that nobody complained when Steve Redgrave won in 2000, when he was selected as the one from a four-man boat to take the majority of the plaudits. Quite rightly, the voters took into account what had come before in Redgrave's Olympic odyssey, just as they had when eventually voting for Calzaghe in 2007. Alas, if only this had always been the case. Best, the UK's biggest sporting personality of the last century, would not have been ignored then, and neither would other household names such as Gareth Edwards or Lester Piggott. Giggs' overdue recognition has set the way for the established sporting heroes of our generation to receive the fanfare they have long deserved.

That is why AP McCoy would be – and, in my view, will be – such a worthy recipient this evening. No slight is meant to Graeme McDowell who had a quite spectacular year in winning the US Open and then in holing the winning putt in the Ryder Cup. Indeed, it is perverse, because if a UK tennis player had won a grand slam event, he or she would be a shoo-in.

Yet sport is perverse, and for years SPOTY multiplied this perversity in electing three times as many more athletic winners than football and six times as many more Formula One drivers than rugby players. It's better now. In fact, a McCoy triumph would show how much more valid it is in this transparent age. It would be remiss of a show purporting to identify the sporting stars of the present day to snub the man almost unanimously hailed as the finest jumps jockey in history. The laying of his Grand National curse in April gives the public the excuse to vote for him.

But herein lies the problem and why, to many of us, the BBC's sporting feature-piece will continue to grate, no matter how authentic the protagonist. Will the corporation have given McCoy's candidature such a strong presentation if Channel 4 had the rights to the Grand National? If the Beeb covered the US Open would McDowell have been granted an extra push? These questions, and more, will niggle as the credits roll tonight. And as one goes on to consider the ever more shameful paucity of the BBC sporting portfolio, the anger will only grow. Exactly how interested in sport, and in projecting the sporting heroes, is the BBC? Not very if the examples of the two sports which will surely dominate this year's programme are an accurate gauge. Ten years ago, the BBC covered 80 days of racing; next year they cannot even guarantee more than 14. Five years ago it showed 30 days of golf; next year there will be 14.

This is the reality of their commitment to sport and it should be remembered when they fete the gladiators this evening. It is a shameless smoke and mirrors escapade that will fool only the ignorant. It's a real pity, as a good idea for an awards show is being demeaned by association. In fact, maybe that's the answer. SPOTY should follow the lead of the sports it illuminates and seek an immediate transfer. To a broadcaster that really does give a hoot.