This morning on the Today programme one of the sports interviewees was a bloke called Dai Greene. ‘Dai who?’ I thought as I threw Coco Pops at the ankle-biters. (Wikipedia tells me he’s a world champion track athlete at his event - the 400 metres over the sticks.) Now I’m sure Dai The Hurdle is an all round great guy and athlete. But if I wasn’t entirely sure who he is - and I’m pretty a pretty big sport couch potato - then I doubt many others do.
It’s no coincidence that we had Dai on the BBC, because they are desperate to pump one of the few sports events their meagre coffers allow them to buy: the athletics World Championships. One can safely assume they weren’t in a fight to the death with either Sky or BT for the rights, with numbers going into the stratosphere. We’re willing to show a polite interest in the hammer, the high jump and the modern pentathlon during the fervour of the Olympics, but it doesn’t extend much afterwards - which is a shame.
And this despite the fact that you don’t get a better story than Jessica Ennis, who can pop a son out and then go onto win gold within a year. Santander will be paying her a small fortune to front their marketing. The fact that the Chinese World Championships appeared to have allowed in more athletes who have failed drugs tests than those who were ‘clean’ may have something to do with the great British public’s mix of suspicion and slight ennui. A fatal combination.
No. The sport everyone wants is football. And more and more of it. Footy footy footy. Watch it ad nauseam, bet on it, Tweet about it. I watched a bit of the interminable pre-match discussion on Sky last night before Arsenal and Liverpool managed a 0-0 draw. The sincere intensity with which Henry, Neville and Carragher - the last of whom one can just about understand without the assistance of a translator - discussed what was about to occur was a like a modern day Lutheran debate about the true meaning of the cross. It is the new religion. Probably even within Islamic State, which is run by immature boys who probably love their idolatrous footie on the quiet.
Yesterday, we had a perfect example of the cupidity of modern football with the merciless pillorying of Jermain Defoe, a once semi-notable centre-forward who now languishes at Sunderland not doing much of any interest. He was advertising for an executive assistant to aide him with everything from keeping his fridge filled, to helping him ‘create a global brand for the Jermain Defoe name.’ Included in this master plan was the inevitable ‘fragrance’ - ‘Defoe: Because you smell a whole lot better with Jermain all over you.’ Defoe - who somehow failed to hack it for Toronto FC in that cauldron of football that is Major League Soccer - is thought to be costing Sunderland some £70,000 per week.
Football is now like the Last Days of Rome in its decadence. Awash with money the television rights go for sums that are literally mad because it’s unlikely they can be recouped. Bubbles from Dutch tulips to the Chinese stock exchange all end in tears - and FIFA already has the FBI on its tail.
So far Sky seems to be doing an amazing job keeping the subscriber numbers up and the churn rate down. It will be a slow unravelling but £10m per Premier League game is simply not sustainable. Russian oligarchs will invest in Bolivian tin mine futures and Defoe will just have to sell more perfume and take a reduced salary.
Not content with slugging it out like a couple of punch drug heavyweights over football, Sky and BT have also recently been mauling each other over the rights to The Ashes. The audience and prices are much lower than football, but The Ashes are a trophy purchase. BT won one of the series. What this means is that the consumer is going to wind up paying more, because increasingly sports fans are being forced to take both Sky and BT sport on subscription which costs a small fortune. In the short term at least, increased competition doesn’t bring the prices down but puts them up.
The market est fou. Let’s bring in Jeremy Corbyn for some good sense and nationalise the lot. In the meantime it almost makes the good old days of a BBC licence fee, free to air ITV and jumpers for goalposts seem like Elysium.