Why does sport matter? It’s so much more than just a game.

This post is a much extended version of a 500-word assignment on why football is “more than a game”, written for an online course.
It has been edited to take account of some helpful comments from reviewers, and to include some slightly more coherent conclusions than could be accommodated in the original word-count.

I have just completed an online course with FutureLearn — Football — more than a game?, with University of Edinburgh. History, finance & governance, community engagement, just a little politics…fascinating!

The course provided lots of data on revenues and TV viewing figures, and reports of the social, economic, diplomatic and philanthropic activities delivered by, or in the name of, “football”. But I don’t think this evidence of the global reach of football really captures the essence of why football, or sport in general, matters to fans.

For me, the question seems to be more about “ownership” of the game, and that sense of “belonging” to a “tribe” — beyond being a fan of a particular team or national side, this is more to do with those who “get” sports, and those who don’t.

It really is so much more than just a game.

Sports fandom and opposition to “the wrong countries” hosting major events

A topic that came up time and time again across the discussions on the course has been the morality of awarding major sporting events to countries with questionable human rights records.

“These “corrupt” countries should not allowed to be host “our” sport” vs. “It’s better to draw these nations into the global community than to create pariah states”.

Sportswashing vs. Sports diplomacy

This tweet from Danny Kelly, a UK music and sports journalist, so perfectly encapsulates the anguish of the sports fan when “their” sport displays questionable moral judgements.

“How dare “they” do this to our sport?”.

I started writing my end-of-course assignment with a rather vague idea around football being about more than the numbers, but it was Danny’s outrage about what was being done to “our” sport, not just football, that gave my assignment its direction.

Sports fandom — more than the team

But why does sport matter so much to so many people? Why does it matter who hosts the next World Cup, or the UEFA Champions League final?

Or that fans of Somerset and Gloucestershire County Cricket Clubs have been told that they are now expected to travel to Cardiff and support Tân Cymreig? (Nothing against Sophia Gardens, or the Welsh Fire…but it’s not “us”.)

I am no philosopher, to address questions of ethics or logic. Nor a sociologist, to probe the motivations of human behaviour.

But as a fan myself, I see my connection with sport running far deeper than the result on a Saturday afternoon, or the new signings, or even the club’s global presence. (Does anyone really take pride in knowing that their club has a million fans in another country? Surely not.)

That “true fandom” has more to do with the team’s position (geographic, ethical) within the community.

The East End diaspora and supporting “my” team

I’m sure someone has studied the enduring links between sports fans and the teams where they (or their parents) used to live. But a couple of facts illustrate the point.

My brother, with his son, travel in regularly from south west Essex to the new London Stadium, built for the 2012 London Olympics, and now home to West Ham United. Last weekend, with overground train services disrupted by scheduled engineering works, they repeated their regular visit “home” to see the Hammers, travelling in on crowded replacement services via the Tube.

And they returned to watch the Hammers just as soon as COVID regulations allowed, taking their tests, wearing masks.

I wish I could find the reference for this, but I recall reading how a very high proportion of season ticket holders at Leyton Orient (heart of the East End) live not in the immediate vicinity of the stadium but in semi-rural Essex.

These are fans who have moved out of the East End over the years, some who have been born to parents who migrated, and still retain a connection with “the old town” and the club they (and their fathers…mostly fathers…before them) have supported for years, when they could catch a bus, or walk around the block, to the old Upton Park ground.

It’s a strong bond, and a valid one. And the Tebbitt Test misses the point. You don’t have to support the local club to have local loyalties. These links to the old home are vital, and need not be exclusive.

When sports fandom goes wrong

Why it matters who owns the club

Club sides that become the playthings of global multi-millionaires are just one step away from the franchise life — if the money goes, so do the players…and the club, and the fans, just might be able to salvage some pride from the wreckage.

It’s one reason I don’t particularly warm to franchise sports where that is the only option on offer. The Spirit, or Superchargers, could play anywhere in the world, and be worth watching as a sporting spectacle, but not be worthy of the true support of a sports fan.

Holliganism, and the return of transgressive carnival

And this connection isn’t always a force for good. Football hooliganism, so often appears as a manifestation of misplaced local “pride”. Violence at “derbies” was a common feature of professional football, perhaps still is is some cultures.

In a wide-ranging recent article in the Guardian, Paul MacInnes identified an alarming trend in the rise of disorder at football in England, as the latest round of COVID restrictions are lifted. Some of it local, tribal, even, MacInnes even attributes some of the misbehaviours to the return of the transgressive medieval “carnival” experience. (Do read the article!)

Sports fandom — what is it worth?

One of life’s intangibles — “if I could bottle that, I’d make millions” — but that fierce loyalty is an asset that commercial investors, such as the Glazers at Old Trafford, are looking to capitalise on.

It probably matters less to the “franchise” owner — it maybe helps to buy into an existing fanbase, but they know they will be able to “buy” a new fanbase if they can just be successful on the pitch. And, ultimately, they can take their money and walk, at any time.

Sports fandom — what is it, then?

One reviewer of my online assignment commented on my “passion” for football — it is there, I hope, but if you had asked me beforehand if I was passionate about football, I would probably have denied it.

Cricket is my game, as anyone reading this post on my blog will see. I couldn’t resist a little dig at The100 in my assignment — the pseudo-franchise structure, not the 100-ball format, nor even the concept of a faster, more accessible, game.

I used to play football on Saturday afternoons, but I watch relatively little football on TV, couldn’t tell you where “my” team (West Ham) are in the league (except my brother does remind me, when the Hammers are doing well…or flirting with relegation), and take little interest in the international game.

But I will stop to watch a Sunday morning game in the park.

And I feel the outrage, the anguish, in Danny Kelly words.

Fandom goes far beyond loyalty. It includes pride in the team’s success, but also shame when the club or national team, or one of the players, or the hooligans associated with the team, behave reprehensibly.

Perhaps it is “shame by association”.

Sports fans might not be able to articulate the specific charges against a host nation. They might not even care that much about the harm (potential or actual) that. But they do experience the moral degradation of supporting a corrupt regime.

And that is not what sport is for.

With thanks to Danny Kelly, whose tweet yesterday captured the anguish I had failed to articulate.

And to everyone who has contributed to the conversations on FutureLearn.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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