Can Olympic sports retain their appeal in the face of football?

As the Premier League returns to dominate the sporting landscape, Ian Herbert assesses whether the other Olympic sports can retain their appeal

Well, when the backlash starts – as it certainly now will – against football, with all its bling, bust-ups and bloated self-importance, don't let's lose sight of what happened three months ago. There are some tired old disputes to re-engage with now that the Olympics have gone – Roberto Mancini still wants more players, Robin van Persie still wants another club, John Terry still wants to be in the clear – but nobody was complaining when Sergio Aguero was running around the Etihad Stadium on 13 May whirling his shirt around his head like a demon, after that finale. It is an incredibly fine sport.

Going back does weary the soul, though – a bit like returning to a one-party state after two weeks out in the fresh air of democracy. Yes, the Olympians do get the free ride that footballers do not. They're heroes to the last, exalted for giving four years of their lives to 50 seconds on a pommel horse or 36 seconds in a canoe and served up with nothing more challenging in the press/athlete mixed zones of the Games than the question of whether bronze was actually enough. But their lack of pretension has questioned football's core and served a reminder that there is another way.

Will any of them linger under the bright lights, now? The evidence of previous Games is certainly not encouraging. Football, with its soap opera narrative, heroes and villains, nine-month fixture list, where every town has its place and tribalism lives, is a juggernaut. We've been here before, wanting to continue telling the story of the cyclists, swimmers and athletes. The BBC began reporting hockey after Sean Kerly's men won gold at Seoul in 1988. There was no interest and the plan was quietly dropped.

That, however, was in the day when football meant only Jimmy Hill, cricket Peter West and here, in the age of choice, there is hope for those sports looking to make chinks in football's armour. The cynics will scoff at the idea of little hockey standing in front of the juggernaut but GB Hockey, with its articulate players, deeply philosophical and engaging coaches Jason Lee and Danny Kerry, and imaginative rule changes making the sport so relentlessly fast, has attracted a blue-chip sponsor, Investec, whose money subsidises the cost of coverage on Sky.

Rowing also has one – Siemens – and the names of the sponsors are important for the evidence they provide of where the more discerning brands want to put their money in British sport. Richard Gillis of the sports business blog Unofficial Partner has shown how Premier League shirt sponsorship has largely become a vehicle for the gambling sector, with others using it simply to raise awareness of their virtually unknown brands. Gillis shows that – Chelsea and Samsung aside – there is a complete absence of Premier League club sponsors from Interbrand's list of the 20 top brands in the UK. Clubs lower down the Premier League have failed to fetch a competitive price at all. Barclays' bumper renewal of its Premier League sponsorship deal – £40m a year over three years – was announced the day after Bob Diamond's resignation in the wake of the Libor scandal, last month. Would the bank have signed that deal had it known that Libor would leave it needing to be seen as nicer, friendlier and more lovable? Gillis thinks not.

Stealing some of football's following is a different proposition. The story of basketball is a salutary one. The British Basketball League had a famously good Sky TV deal in the 1990s, a "narrative" with teams like the Birmingham Bullets and London Towers, backed by wealthy owners who saw potential. Then the game's governors ditched Sky to go to ITV Digital. When that crashed, Sky wouldn't take them back, and the disillusioned owners pulled out. Cricket, transformed as a TV sport by Sky, has repackaged itself in the past few years but domestic T20 has also been struggling.

Yet cycling's golden summer has thrown forward a sport that might begin to challenge football's one-party state. The sport's emergence reveals the significant part broadcasters and journalists have to play in creating and shaping the new narrative, instead of gorging on football's easy option. Sky, which for all its detractors has sought to identify, push and broadcast other sports while the BBC has thrown the sink at football and Formula One, has been a part of that. The Eurosport/ITV Tour de France deal, which has three years to run, limits Sky to a minute of coverage each day but Sky Atlantic launches a five-part series on the world of cycling and the British squad later this month. A Wiggins documentary will air later in the year. Others have been instrumental in shaping the story of cycling as a modern, absorbing sport, with characters. Journalist Donald MacRae's Victoria Pendleton documentary on the BBC was defining. Gary Imlach's wit, presence and hard-nosed journalism fronting ITV's Tour coverage took us a long way from Match of the Day's blokes, now without Lee Dixon, its most modern, erudite analyst.

BBC radio is looking for new "minority" sports to give airtime to. British news organisations will be seeking ways to preserve some of the last two weeks and if none can be interested, there is now nothing to stop sports developing an online business model, Gillis points out. It may be that by mid-September, the spirit of Ennis and Farah, Hoy, Stott and Baillie will be forgotten and we will be gorging on football's cheating scandals and officiating rows all over again. But if the Olympics has taught us one thing, it is that sport can take us as far as our imagination allows.

 

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