I was pondering the other day just what it is that makes watching sport so compelling for us all, the majority of whom have neither the time nor the talent to be actively engaged in it to any great degree. This train of thought, of course, has been driven by the arrival of a new kid on the block in the world of golf, namely the LIV Golf Invitational series.
This week sees the playing of the third event in an opening series of eight tournaments and, so far, golf nerd though I am, I can summon up not a jot of enthusiasm for logging on to watch the action. I did tune in to see just who would win the obscene amount of money in the first event (Charl Schwartzel and $4million) but the whole spectacle failed to ignite any real interest. And I wondered why?
For the moment, if we can, let’s park the whole moral, sportswashing, human rights issues’ conundrum that has everyone taking entrenched positions. After all, there is hardly any sport or global business not intricately bound up with some regime or country that has questionable human rights records.
Just what elements does sport need to contain to engage us, capture our undivided attention and mean we clear the diary of everything else?
I have realised that, for me, friendly matches don’t cut it. Football friendlies, warm-up rugby matches and the like, even when it’s “my” team, are only useful/of interest to me as a fan as a barometer of where said team might be performance-wise at a given time. It’s a practice for the real thing. I am only interested in how we perform when it really matters. That’s an important phrase – “when it really matters” – and is critical to this fan’s enjoyment. The contest has to mean something. It’s the difference between a pre-season friendly and a cup tie.There is also something massively tribal about sport and it’s embedded in our DNA as far back as gladiatorial times in ancient Rome. The thumbs up or down from the emperor would either spare a man’s life, or not, so the consequences for failure or under-performing were dire. Sport stirs something in us that harks back to those times from centuries past. It allows us to enjoy conflict in a controlled and more civilised manner (one hopes) than in the Coliseum, containing as it does a raft of rules within a set format.
We like to see a team or individual pitted one against the other, pushed to their limits of skill, guile and endurance. We see the people and teams we support as part of our tribe and we passionately identify with them through their success and failure. I know several footie fans who, in years gone by, have retired to bed for several hours or days, pulling the covers up and shutting out the world, completely devastated by a defeat to a rival. As Bill Shankly, legendary manager of Liverpool FC famously said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
An individual pursuit like golf, which sometimes seems pedestrian and slow moving in comparison to other energetic, rapid-fire, team sports often jostles unsuccessfully for column inches, soundbites and notice. However, every other year, it positively explodes in popularity and global reach when the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup matches are played. We see the best from Europe and the USA pitted against each other in fierce rivalry and this platform of sport at its most pure produces the most remarkable, unforgettable shotmaking skills under the severest pressure.
That’s because the players are playing for so much more than themselves and simple remuneration. We, the fans, can sense it. They are playing passionately for their tribe with every fibre of their being and they frequently can raise their games to unprecedented levels in the adrenalin-filled cauldron of gladiatorial competition. This is the arena in which legends and legacies are formed and the evidence thereof is enshrined in the archives of our sport.
The majors are another arena in which an individual can shine in golf. It’s an opportunity for a sportsperson to cement his/her name in the annals of the game and have great performances recorded for posterity and spoken of down the decades. That’s why they are the most watched and most eagerly awaited individual championships of the year for the fans. It takes something special to win a major.
So, in sport it’s quite obviously not the prize money on offer nor the amount a person is paid contractually that drives fan interest. It’s so much more complicated than that and unless the LIV Golf model can capture the elusive criteria required it’s unlikely its business model will generate the interest and support needed to succeed. They say their new format “has been designed with fans as the #1 priority”.
If they fail to understand and capture the essence of sport, this fan, for one, will not be watching.