'Every single sport is looking to adapt to a changing society'
Steve Dennis on the push for a new young customer base
Even for well-established sports, reinvention and revitalisation is a key factor in the drive to maintain popularity in a crowded buyers' market. It is a terrible cliche but nevertheless true that if something doesn't go forward it will not stand still but instead go backward.
Every sport has had to cope with the transfer of purchase power to the next generation, but in virtually every case these transactions have been performed seamlessly and successfully without any quibble from those involved.
Now it is different – the next generation of sports consumers have many more rival attractions for their time and interest and are prone to following the tune of a marketing department that is turning all its firepower their way.
The old certainties of old sports no longer have the luxury of a captive audience. Accessibility and variety is key, history and tradition are out, or at least temporarily sidelined. There is no longer any room in modern sport for the sacred cow, unless it is cut up small for easy consumption by a generation for whom the primary concern is to be entertained in short, exhilarating bursts – and not necessarily by what is taking place on the field of play.
Football has changed immeasurably since 1992, hardy at all in the way the game is played but in the way it is marketed and broadcasted.
That year saw the rebranding of Division One as the Premiership (now the Premier League) and, concomitant with the influence of Sky as a new broadcaster, football has garnered incredibly vast audiences on a global basis.
The amount of money flowing into the game has increased beyond imagining, and its popularity now stands at an all-time high. Football always was – arguably – the global game but in the last three decades its market share of interest and influence has outstripped all other sports.
A rebranding exercise – in one stroke making the perception of one section of the British game considerably more 'important' than the rest of it – has resulted in a self-perpetuating financial explosion that shows little sign of reaching its limits.
The posterboy for sports that have adapted to the demands of the modern marketplace while still retaining all their traditional aspects is cricket, whose steady evolution from being a solely five-day Test game to one that also supports several varieties of one-day limited-over fare reached its logical conclusion with the advent of Twenty20 cricket – a 20-over-a-side, three-hour smash-up that has become globally and enormously popular since its inception in 2003.
"Cricket could have faded away completely without the advent of Twenty20," said former England captain Michael Vaughan in his column in the Daily Telegraph."It is the saviour of the game. Twenty20 is short and sharp. The actual game is secondary to the entertainment and fan experience."
In a society in which the concentration span is diminishing rapidly, few new converts to the old game could be found. There has been a little tinkering with the rules to suit the format, but T20 is the same game as a five-day Test, thus avoiding accusations of gimmickry and allowing all but the most reactionary elements of the fanbase to remain enthusiastic.
The old joke about a game of cricket taking five days to reach an inconclusive conclusion has been swept away by T20, marketed to a younger generation as the antidote to a day yawning in the sun as bowlers and batsmen amiably played through hours of technically adept but visually tedious maiden overs.
T20 is smash and grab, every ball a catalyst for a thrill, all the essential elements of 'old' cricket distilled into one heady gulp. As Vaughan makes plain, the rapid-fire nature of the game is key to attracting an audience who no longer want to wait for their kicks.
Put a six on your card
The popularity of T20 has also boosted interest in the other forms of the game, something that golf – arguably the most resistant to substantive change of any major sport – has taken to heart in its development of GolfSixes, unveiled to the world by the European Tour earlier this summer.
GolfSixes follows the Ronseal doctrine: a six-hole course, two-man teams, a different problem to solve – a long drive competition, a shot clock – on each hole. Thus it follows the template set by T20 – short, sharp, sassy, designed to fit into the average attention span and marketed with both eyes on a young audience.
"Of course it isn't going to replace the 18-hole game," said Sky broadcaster and former tour golfer Henni Zuel, in The Guardian.
"But it was really noticeable that it seemed to bring in a younger audience. I kept hearing from families about how you can take your kids along to six holes, because it is not a massive long walk, and it made for a great atmosphere."
It matches Vaughan's assessment of the actual game being secondary to the entertainment and fan experience. The 18-hole game rumbles on inviolably, but GolfSixes sounds a lot more fun for younger elements who find it hard to engage with traditional sport.
Adapt or die? Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Tour, said in the same Guardian article: "Every single sport is looking to adapt to a changing society. If you are not, you are going to fall behind."
On track for change
The perception might be that there's not much that can be done with athletics, given that a race is such a brief experience anyway, but the need to evolve is seen here too.
A concept called NitroAthletics has been trialled in Australia – mixed-sex teams, elimination races – and Sebastian Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, admits the sport will have to be brave to rekindle its relevance and excitement.
League of their own
Rugby league, for so long perceived as a sport with a fanbase consisting of flat caps and whippets and firmly in the shadow of its 15-man Union sibling, reinvented its image by changing the calendar.
Where it was once a winter sport, it became a summer sport and was transformed, in no small part by no longer having to fight other winter sports for the leisure pound and the column inch.
This departure was, like football, fuelled by the trillions of Rupert Murdoch, who wanted to beef up his summer portfolio and connect the sport in Britain to customer bases in Australia and New Zealand.
This prompted an increase in both financial terms and popularity, with the game now available to a much wider audience. Rugby league's comedy value was swiftly replaced, never to return.
Two wheels good
Cycling is another sport transformed by the marketing department rather than any alterations to the way people compete on two wheels.
The money poured liberally into the British Olympic cycling set-up produced not only a vast harvest of medals but an enormous spike in interest – after all, there's a bicycle in many households and cycling is a pastime that requires no particular skills or equipment to be enjoyed at a basic level.
Further exposure and success through the success of the Sky team at the Tour de France and in other major cycling events accelerated the appeal of the sport and made household names of its leading participants.