Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Closer: Sport Ideology of Great Britain

This essay was written during my British Culture class while studying abroad in London, England this summer. Its topic is Sport Ideology of Great Britain.

The first thing that everyone thinks about when prompted with the word “sport” and the “United Kingdom” is football. There is a lot more to the sport culture of the UK than what is going on in the Premier League; the make-up of sport in the United Kingdom roots back much further than the creation of football in 1863. The history of sport culture has made sport in the United Kingdom a fascinating subject to study as it has shaped so much of what is seen today on the field and in everyday life. Not unlike any other nation, the United Kingdom clings onto their stars in particular sports and rides with them until they fall off, but it is interesting to follow where people’s allegiances are while taking club affiliation into the equation. By looking at two of the largest sports in the UK, football and tennis, this essay will compare how these sports, teams, and stars are portrayed and followed by the media and the general public. Using small comparisons to sport figures and organizations in the United States, some differences and similarities will become clear. Those comparative points can be attributed to cultural differences between the two nations, which will also be mentioned throughout the essay. Football has always been the international figure of British sport, as it is the most popular sport in the world.

Today’s football landscape and culture has been sowed by years of history and growth of the sport. “The starting point for the modern game of football can be pinpointed back to October 26, 1863 at the Freemasons Tavern, Great Queen Street, London. This was the inception of the Football Association and the blue print for all future organized football administration.” [1] This creation of the “Football Association” revolutionized the game, taking it from a small, local game with a lack of rules and plenty of fights to a scheme that could be copied, pasted, and edited not only over time, but also anywhere in the world. Thanks to that original structure composed by 13 teams at the Freemasons Tavern over the course of six different meetings 150 years ago, the sport of football is now a “multi-billion pound business watched by millions and used as a common language between different people and cultures.” [1]

The players today are beloved by fans of their club and their home country, but what makes these relationships that much more interesting is the bitter rivalries between clubs and how they affect the national scenery of the game. As mentioned above, the sport of football was previously very uncivilized. That disorder, though not common on the field anymore, is still shown and practiced by fans in the stands. In the United States, many cities and fan bases are considered “wild” or “radical”, most commonly Philadelphia, but the passion and love showed for certain clubs in the United Kingdom is unmatched in the states. A figure to compare fans loyalty is to compare attendance figures between the Premier League and Major League Baseball in the US. The comparative number used will be average attendance capacity, meaning the average amount of fans in the stadium compared to the amount of tickets available. The average attendance capacity for the Premier Leagues worst 10 teams for the 2012-2013 season was 91.46%, with the leader being Norwich City, who finished in 11th place but lead the entire EPL in percentage with 102.4% per game. [2][3] For the MLB, the average for the worst 10 teams is a dreadful 68.34%, 23% lower than then the EPL. [4][5] This statistic proves the English fans support their teams no matter what their record is. A few things support this argument, but the primary one is that football is the largest sport and is more followed than any other sport in the UK. I think another thing is the desire to support your local club and hatred for its rivals is so strong that people buy tickets and show up no matter what.

Looking at one such rivalry, possibly the greatest in English football, can show us how much support the club and players get from their fans. Manchester is an urban area covering approximately 45 square miles and has a population of about 3 million people, when you include the surrounding boroughs. [6] This large metropolis is split in two by two Premier League clubs, Manchester City and Manchester United. The fans are affectionately named “blues” (Man City) or “reds” (Man U). [7] In the recent ESPN commercial featuring two fans, one blue and one red, the rivalry is demonstrated with the two men tearing apart the other’s team, saying things like “if I had been born a red, I’d be a right muppet” and “if I had been born a blue, I’d be a proper fake.” [7] There are sport rivalries in American sports, but nothing can compare to Man U and Man City because of the geographic and success similarities. This is a microcosmic relationship for all of English football. Because of the compact nature of the country and its people, fans of different clubs are forced to live in close quarters, making the rivalries that much more heated. Football is the best example of team sport in the world and how it can polarize a nation. During certain times of the year, though, all of the United Kingdom come together to celebrate and support individual athletes, no matter what club they play for. This is also represented in how athletes in individual sports such as tennis are supported. A major reason for this national support is the desire to be considered a world leader in the sport created here, something Britain has lacked greatly.

Tennis is a sport that is never considered a “major” sport, but has incredible popularity among its niche market compared to soccer which has such a wide market that athletes are followed much differently. Also, because of the fact that it is an individual sport, athletes are judged solely on themselves rather than being associated with a team. For example, Andy Murray is Scottish which also makes him British, but does not make him English. All of England coheres to Murray as he is a successful British athlete who is never forced to play against their “home” athletes. Whereas, an athlete such as Gareth Bale, who is Welsh, making him British, footballer is hated by anyone who doesn’t like Tottenham, his club. This individual sport versus team sport complex represents a greater desire of British sports fans to have a success story they can align themselves with. Of course Englishmen will accept Andy Murray when he wins, but if he were to be a failure he would be “just another Scotsman”. The fanfare that Murray has in the UK is comparable to that of Tiger Woods in the US, the only difference is that Murray is the Brits only tennis hopeful. On the PGA Tour in 2012, 24 out of 41 tournaments were won by Americans. [8] Golf, like tennis, originated in the United Kingdom. The only thing that can match the passion that Brits have for their soccer clubs is the appetite they have for their country’s success. This desire is shown in the media by how they cover major athletes, which is much different than in the US.

Yes, London did host the Olympics in 2012, so naturally their Olympic sport athletes will have had some good media attention. But, now nearly a year later, those stars are still in the papers and all over TVs. Athletes like Jessica Ennis, Olympic Heptathlete, and Sir Bradley Wiggins, Olympic Gold Medalist and 2012 Tour de France winner, are treated just like professional athletes from the four major sports are in the US. This time last year, Sir Bradley was in the final stages of winning the Tour de France, first time a British Cyclist had done so in 46 years. [9] His face was all over every TV station and on the front of every paper. Wiggins, or Wiggo, is still getting considerable media coverage even while another British cyclist, Chris Froome is leading this year’s Tour. I think this coverage is due not only to Wiggin’s great personality and recognizable face (sideburns), but also due to the British media recognizing that his success at the Olympics and his knighting makes him an easy face to sell papers and attract attention. A lot of this is thanks to the terrific branding the British Olympic Committee did of their athletes, focusing on those sports that don’t often get media coverage. This investment in Olympic athletes will hopefully improve the outcome in future Olympics for the Brits.

Overall, British sport is one of great passion and specificity, but it is also on a relatively small scale compared to the United States. Sport idols and big name athletes are treated differently for a lot of different reasons in the UK, primarily based on the sport they play and the club they are a part of. This situation makes the sport environment in the UK very unique. Big name athletes and their teams are followed more devoutly than any one sport entity in the US, and the media covers athletes from all kinds of sport, not just the major ones. This coverage promotes a great future for British sport on an international level as kids are exposed to these sports at a younger age than ever before. All of these reasons make the UK sport culture and how it is portrayed in the media one of the most distinctive in the world.


Kevin Murray is a sophomore Sport Management Major at Drexel University. He is originally from Havertown, PA, a small suburb of Philadelphia. He worked in the Drexel Sport Management Department as a Research Assistant focusing on the Penn State scandal, equity in collegiate sports, and Title IX.  Currently, Kevin is the SMTSU Treasurer and Drexel Athletics Marketing Intern.  You can follow Kevin on Twitter@kevinj_murray

Connect with Kevin Murray on LinkedIn.



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