How Did Sport Get So Big?

Tim de Lisle in Intelligent Life:

On a long July afternoon in 1966, in north-west London, England’s footballers won the World Cup. By the time they beat West Germany, after extra time, with the help of a dubious goal, it was too late for the early editions of the Sunday papers. Only on the Monday was Fleet Street able to register the moment in its full glory. The Mirror, then the most popular daily ever published in Britain, with sales of 5m, knew a piece of history when it saw one. Its front-page splash proudly announced: A BOUNCING BABY GIRL FOR PRINCESS ALEX. Winning the World Cup was not as big as the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen’s first cousin once removed.

The Sun didn’t lead with the football either, preferring a story about a pay squeeze; for weeks there had been a sterling crisis, and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had loomed far larger than any footballer. Even the two papers’ sports pages, which in those days were tucked inside, went less than crazy. The Mirror had two pages reflecting on the final, the Sun a little less. In the broadsheets, two-thirds of a page did the job, as it had done throughout the tournament. Three months earlier Timemagazine had run its famous cover on Swinging London. And yet, even as London swung, and Britain’s bright young things, led by the Beatles, conquered the Western world, it was as if the national mood was still being dictated by Rudyard Kipling: if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those twin impostors just the same…

Forty years later, the World Cup was held in Germany. The England team had known only frustration in the meantime, yet they somehow loomed much larger. Every match they played was a front-page lead for both the Mirror and the Sun, and the fever had spread. The Times ran a 16-page World Cup supplement every day for three weeks. By now most of the papers were much the same physical size, and the definition of a quality title could be this: one that gives sport only second place on its front page. When England, as expected, beat Ecuador in the second round, it was the lead item that night on the main BBC1 news, on BBC.co.uk, Guardian.co.uk and Telegraph.co.uk. When David Beckham resigned as England captain, the story led the BBC1 news, eclipsing the deaths of two British soldiers in Afghanistan—a decision that drew withering comment from the then MP and former BBC reporter Martin Bell. In France and Italy the upmarket papers treat sport with more of a sense of proportion; but then both countries have entire dailies dedicated to it.

If the hype is extraordinary, so is the ambient presence. The last World Cup was all around us, on billboards, drink cans and cereal packets, on garage forecourts and millions of flag-bearing cars, in the windows of Boots the chemist and McDonald’s the burger joint (“Want tickets? Win tickets! Buy any large meal to play”). The cup-winning captain from 1966, Bobby Moore, was on every KitKat wrapper, despite having died 13 years earlier; his team-mate Geoff Hurst, now Sir Geoff, was appointed director of football for McDonald’s and had columns in two newspapers. The boys of 1966 were bigger in 2006 than they were in 1966.

The 2006 World Cup generated thousands of hours of television time, countless phone-ins and fan forums, endless blogs and eight hit records. It’s not just football: something similar happened in rugby with the 2003 World Cup and in cricket with the 2005 Ashes. And it’s not just Britain: each World Cup or Olympics makes more noise around the world than the last. American sport, in its different way, self-contained and tightly regulated, is getting bigger too: the television audience for the 2010 Super Bowl, 116m according to Nielsen, was the biggest ever recorded in America for any programme. With another World Cup starting on June 11th, half the nations of Europe have been strafed with giant images of the Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in Armani Y-fronts, muscles rippling like a Greek god. Which raises the question: how did sport get so big? Whodunnit, and where, and when, and why?

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