The fast food industry is big business. The scary fact is the speed at which is growing. In 2014 the industry generated over USD240billion. In India the industry has grown 41% in recent years. In Australia the industry is said to be worth AUD4.6billion a yearend over 1.5 billion meals are served each year.
Fast food may be convenient and there may be healthier options available now than there used to be but fast food comes with a whole set of problems. Concerns have been raised in relation to fast food having a negative impact on health, in particular with obesity. There have been allegations of alleged animal cruelty, cases of worker exploitation, and claims of cultural degradation as people’s eating habits move away from their traditional diets.
So what has this to do with sport? Sport has followed the fast food model. It has looked at ways to deliver “bite size” games that do not take as long, that are full of “non-stop entertainment” and that see the paying public’s thirst for action, speed and drama condensed into a shortened version of the traditional sport.
Cricket has done it with T20. Rugby Sevens is now becoming the flavour of the month and with Olympic inclusion will soar into yet another stratosphere in terms of popularity. Hockey is looking at Hockey-fives as a shortened version, Football has Futsal and five-a-side, which have been around for a while, but again the skill and the excitement is seeing this area of the game grow and gain more media coverage than it has in years.
Every sport is looking to find a way to pull in consumers with a short attention span. Cricket has done a great job with T20, but it is now paying the ultimate price, it has reached a point where it has lost the purists, the traditional fans and no longer is able to attract fans to the longer versions of the game. It has finally admitted the folly of its ways, and is scrambling to find an answer, but to many the horse has already bolted.
As we wrote back in 2010 in Twenty/20 Not Perfect Vision there was a danger that Cricket administrators would view T20 as a cash cow rather than a way to grow crowds in the traditional formats of the game. Even the founder, or the man credited with founding T20 Stuart Robinson sounded a warning that to overdo T20 cricket with have a lasting effect on the game as a whole.
Cricket Australia invested heavily in its Big Bash League in 2011. CEO Cameron Sutherland claimed that the Big Bash League would be bigger than World Series Cricket, and he may well be right on that count. Yet has the Big Bash League achieved what it was intended to do, which was draw new people to the game. Sutherland was quoted at the time as saying cricket was regarded as being “time consuming and burdensome by parents.” Yet has the Big Bash helped change that perception? Has it increased interest at grass roots level. If it has how many of those starting off in the game simply want to go out and thrash the ball to all corners of the ground a la Big Bash cricket? Has the T20 version helped draw people to Test cricket and One day internationals? The word is that it hasn’t, and viewing figures on television for these formats of the game are still at an all time low. At the launch of the Big Bash League the Players Representative body warned that too much T20 could ‘kill the golden goose.’
Rather than looking at the problems cricket now faces, and questioning how the sport will win back fans to the traditional formats of the game, other sporting codes are looking to go down the same path and offer their “fast food version” of their sport.
Rugby Sevens originated in Melrose in Scotland in the 1880’s, but only really came to the fore in the 1970’s. Scotland held an international seven-a-side tournament as part of its centenary celebrations in 1973, and then the now world famous Hong Kong Sevens started in 1976.
As with T20, Sevens was always played in a more relaxed atmosphere. It was taken seriously but was a bit of fun, and was often played at the end of a long hard season. In fact the following statement from the 1976 Encyclopedia of Rugby Union Football explains it best stating that it gained “popularity as an end of season diversion from the dourer and sterner stuff that provides the bulk of a normal season’s watching.”
Rugby Union turned professional in 1996 and three years later so too did Sevens. In 1999 the World Rugby Sevens Series started. For the first ten years four teams were dominant, New Zealand, South Africa, England and Fiji. Only Samoa and Argentina broke into the top four in that period of time, Samoa three times and Argentina once, that is how dominant the other four nations were.
In that period the Hong Kong Sevens event was one of the few to always be sold out. Now as the party atmosphere amongst the fans has become almost bigger than what takes place on the pitch, – like T20 – sell out crowds are becoming more regular at other events around the world.
With Sevens making its Olympic debut in a few weeks time the sport could ramp up another few notches. The concern for many purists is that, like T20, Sevens is taking away fans from the traditional formats of the game. Young players want to play Sevens as it is perceived as more glamorous. Look at Quade Cooper and Jarred Hayne both trying to win Olympic selection, they knew the financial benefits to their personal brands if they came home with Olympic Gold. Was it about playing Sevens? Was it about promoting rugby? That may well be the reason why they were neither selected.
Whereas in T20 there are accusations of match-fixing and players throwing their wickets away or bowlers ‘feeding batsman’ balls to hit, rugby now has a cloud of accusation hanging over it as the lesser nations have suddenly lifted and challenged the major sevens players. The likes of Kenya and the USA are suddenly medal contenders in Rio. Have these teams taken performance enhancers to match the top teams? Let us hope that is not the case, nothing could be worse for the game than a series of players testing positive at Rio as the sport makes its debut.
Yet would it really be a surprise? Just like fast food there will be side effects from serving up ‘fast food sport.’ The traditional formats will in the long term be harmed, and equally some undesirable elements will come to the fore. Some that will make traditionalists sick in their stomach; just like a dodgy kebab or under-cooked burger on a Saturday night.
Fast food is here to stay. It has been around since the 1950’s. ‘Fast food sport’ is also, one feels here to stay. However, just as fast food outlets have had to change the way they operate following criticism, and now offer more ‘health-friendly’ items on their menus, so too does sport need to adjust.
Those who have not yet sold their souls to the fast food concept should look and learn from rugby and cricket. They would be wise to tread cautiously and ensure that the shortened versions are never a key focus. That they are as rugby Sevens was, a bit of fun. In 2007 the Chief Executive of the ICC Malcolm Speed was quoted as saying “We want T20 primarily to be played at the states, counties and provinces.” Now the T20 World cup, is their biggest earner.
Yet that may well have been more luck than good planning. The 2007 50-over World Cup in the Caribbean was an unqualified disaster. Ticket prices were ridiculously high, there were security issues which saw cricket mad spectators kept out of cricket grounds as fun was not part of the agenda. Then there was the long-drawn out schedule that bored everyone to death. The initial T20 World Cup in South Africa was everything that the 50 over version had failed to be. Ticket prices were at a level that people could afford, a shorter fixture list, and throw in some other side shows and suddenly cricket was appealing again.
Based on that tournament Cricket believed it was moving forward. Yet now the top players are retiring from the traditional formats of the game simply to play T20. They travel the world picking up the money that people are prepared to pay them. Yet they have been lost to the traditional formats. So why, when your best players are not playing the traditional formats of the game will the public shell out hard earned money to come and watch?
Cricket thought it had hit on a formula that would carry it forward, but is is in fact one that hat has taken the game backwards. Other sports who simply look at the accounting ledger are in danger of heading down the same path. Some have already started on that journey. If they continue, and others follow, the traditional sporting events, as many of us know them, could well be consigned to history.
Tradition, something that is handed down from generation to generation, and on which so many sports are founded, may well become outdated. If that happens it will be a very sad day, and sport may lose far more than it gains.