Following on from the Olympics, the new Premier League season starts this weekend amidst a backlash of negativity surrounding football’s reputation in the face of the humility and spirit in which the Games took place. Sunday quite aptly captured the diversion of sports fans’ interest when the Community Shield match between Manchester City and Chelsea, in the Premier League season’s curtain raiser, took place at Villa Park instead of the traditional Wembley stage and consequently sections of the stadium were empty. The game itself was a rough affair with Ivanovic’s red card only the pinnacle of an ill disciplined game; the view of intimidating players surrounding referee now a normality and explicit chanting from the stands a far cry from the highlighted grace and romanticism of the Games.
But will the nation ever turn off from football?
The Olympics have seen significant rise in interest in other sports. The British Volleyball website has seen an 850% increase in hits and British Handball has similarly seen a jump from 1,000 views a week to 38,000. The increase in interest is consistent throughout other Olympic sports with Boxing, Fencing, Swimming, Rowing and Judo amongst others experiencing record site visitors.
The Olympics’ domination of the public’s attentions for the last two weeks has inevitably influenced this rise but as the new football season draws ever nearer will this interest in other sports continue or is it something rather like the rise in gym memberships after Christmas.
The irrevocable popularity of football commands media and public attentions and children in playgrounds will continuously seek to replicate the weekly exploits of football players during their breaks. The mass coverage of football will always see the majority of boys play, and perhaps prefer, football before any other sport. The accessibility of the sport, and its dominance of media coverage, hinders any chance of long-standing and consistent interest in any of the Olympic sports.
If Great Britain is to build on its third place in the medal table, the USA presents the example of sporting success in a variety of Olympic sports that are in contention with the more popular professional sports such as American Football and Basketball. And for the USA, participation starts at a high school and collegiate level with national competitions even at this level garnering media coverage. The development of athletes through schools and college means nobody falls through the net and each student is afforded the best opportunity to realise their potential with the help of bursaries and sports scholarships.
Moreover, the collegiate system in America, which is recognised as the tier below professional sports, allows Olympic sports to coexist with the more popular ones. New Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III participated in American Football as well as the 400m Hurdles. He broke numerous intercollegiate records in the event and would have been eligible to compete in the Olympic Time Trials had he not chosen American Football.
For Britain’s youngsters, with little sport development within schools, a similar situation will force them to pick between the two sports. British sprinter Adam Gemili was with Chelsea before spells with Reading and Dagenham & Redbridge and only adopted sprinting full-time earlier this year. For 20-year-old British discus thrower Lawrence Okoye who competed in the London Olympics, he is this summer faced with the decision of committing himself either to Athletics, Rugby with London Irish or Law at Oxford University. A similar talent residing in the US would be able to pursue all three.
And this is why football’s popularity will mean ‘Legacy’ never truly materialises. The accessibility of football will make it a boy’s, and often a girl’s, first sport. For the promising sportsman the compulsion to opt for one sport will only leave them with the more popular one. So long as football dominates media coverage, so will it dominate the sport participation numbers of Britain’s youth.
image: © pahudson