Ken Jones: The new breed of spectator just wants to experience being at the party

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The Independent Online

One of the most reliable clichés of sports reporting, print and electronic, is the phrase: "Millions of people around the world will be watching..." If this is demonstrably true of great events that are beamed across continents and time zones to a vast international audience, it has helped to create a type of spectator who puts the event above the action.

One of the most reliable clichés of sports reporting, print and electronic, is the phrase: "Millions of people around the world will be watching..." If this is demonstrably true of great events that are beamed across continents and time zones to a vast international audience, it has helped to create a type of spectator who puts the event above the action.

I can't imagine, for example, that the people of Japan and South Korea gave a hoot about technical matters in the recent World Cup and probably did not even notice that there was not one great team or one truly great player out there. It was enough to be at the party, to invest it with their colour and boundless enthusiasm. No brighter star crossed their eyes than David Beckham who, unfortunately for England, was more effective in the fashion stakes than he was on the field.

It is when this perspective flourishes in populations with a long history of exposure to the dramas of sport that you begin to wonder. It is fine for entrepreneurs and administrative bodies, fine for the professional games' players and their agents, but there is no guarantee that the games themselves can thrive simply on the urge to be there.

A pretty sure bet is that the Open Championship at Muirfield next week will be watched live by any number of people for whom golf is an unfathomable mystery. Some pushing children in prams, it will be enough for them to say that they saw Tiger Woods in the flesh, if only from a distance. At the hint of a British challenge, flags will be unfurled, banners unfolded.

At a guess, plenty of people who queued overnight for places at Wimbledon, or helped to populate the vantage point now ludicrously known as Henman Hill, were merely there for the experience. It is a lesson in imagination, the desire to be actively involved when all the doors are being unlocked on a great sports event, every feat and mishap recorded and broadcast. Golf and tennis are not alone with this phenomenon. It is equally manifest when the England rugby team turns out at Twickenham. Frequently, on the train from Waterloo you are in the company of people who are exclusively patriots.

Not so long ago, I attended a boxing promotion in Manchester that featured Naseem Hamed when he was drawing huge support from a younger generation, few of whom could be described as genuine fight fans. It was Hamed's flash style, his brashness, the bizarre entrances that drew them. On the undercard that night there was a terrific contest between Carl Thompson and Chris Eubank for the World Boxing Organisation cruiserweight championship. A war from first to last round, it caused consternation in sections of the audience unfamiliar with the realities of prizefighting. Looking around the packed arena I saw young women hiding behind their hands in horror. One vomited into the lap of her boyfriend.

All right, say the modern sages, nobody forced those young women to attend. And, of course, a boxing arena is always likely to test the stomach of spectators coming fresh to the sport as a live rather than a television experience. "God, I didn't realise how hard fighters hit," said a friend who until then had only watched boxing from an armchair.

Let us be clear about the kind of sports watchers I have in mind. We are not not talking about people who have grown up with a feeling for sport. We are not talking about people who are prepared to make tedious journeys to follow a football team, people whose lives are made better or worse by the team's performance. We are talking about people who are attracted to sport events much as they are to the theatre by a must-see musical, to the cinema by a film breaking records at the box office. Got to see it, got to be there.

I know a man who would not cross the street to watch a sports event unless he is guaranteed the comforts of corporate entertainment. A friend who thinks deeply about these things says: "None of the people you describe are really interested in sport." This is not strictly true. I have come across at least a dozen in the last five years.

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