World sport embracing change as it rips off its once stodgy cloak
WHAT would happen if you parachuted Pierre de Coubertin, Walter Wingfield or William Webb Ellis onto planet earth for a look around?
Chances are these pioneers would scarcely recognise the sports they bequeathed to the world. Change is everywhere in this age of fast food, social media and instant downloads.
Sport isn’t immune to this transformation, with rugby, hockey, tennis and cricket having embraced radical change. It’s not so much dumbing down as staying relevant.
Last weekend, golf tore off its cloak of stodginess and introduced “golf sixes”, which is about as far removed from the Masters or traditional golf as you can imagine.
Hosted by the European Tour at the Centurion Club in England, it was an undisguised attempt to sex up the famously rigid sport.
No tea was spilled, no stiff upper lip quivered.
The big crowd roared its approval as some team matches were played over as few as six holes with a shot clock on one of the holes. During the first day of round-robin group matches, players were allowed 40 seconds to play their strokes. This was reduced to 30 for the second day, a long overdue innovation given how slow play infuriates spectators and golfers alike.
In addition to amphitheatre-style stands around the tees and greens, there was music on the first tee and at various points around the course. Players even wore microphones – T20-style – to help bring fans closer to the action.
It got stranger still. Players were encouraged to interact with fans during play and later took part in Q and A sessions in the fan zone. You can’t imagine Tiger Woods high-fiving the fans and none of the superstar golfers took part. But this is a start.
The point is that golf – this was a sanctioned European Tour event, remember – has cottoned onto the reality that evolution is vital if it is to appeal to a millennial audience.
Rugby did so a few years ago and although Sevens has been with us for a while yet, it was only Olympic participation that really put a fire under the blazers’ backsides. We now have a slick world series that is long on excitement and short on that most valuable of commodities: time.
It’s designed for quick consumption and if matches aren’t as thunderous or as memorable as Tests, they are explosive and captivating.
One look at the youthful audience and you can see how world rugby is winning hearts and minds.
Cricket, of course, had its first fresh incarnation when Kerry Packer rolled into town 40 years ago. Since then, oneday cricket has been usurped by Twenty20, a wham-bam affair that is as far removed from Test cricket as WG Grace is from Chris Gayle.
Cricket was headed down a dead-end until the rise of Twenty20.
Few sports are as wedded to tradition as cricket, so it’s been curious, and entertaining, to see how the greybeards have had to come to terms with this strange new phenomenon where pom poms, dancing music and loud music are de rigueur.
It’s not for everyone, but the format has converted millions who love the spectacle.
Even tennis has entered this brave new world. Tennis Australia has pioneered the development of Fast4 tennis.
Two years ago Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer became the first professionals to play a format that has four points, four games and four rules. There are no advantage scores, lets are played, tie-breakers apply at three games all and the first to four games wins the set.
It’s marvellously simple and designed to meet the changing demands of consumers.
Soccer is doing interesting things with technology and other sports like athletics, hockey and mixed martial arts work hard at becoming more fan-friendly through various innovations. These are all rooted in the need to entertain and to stay relevant when there is so much else vying for our attention.
Obviously, the trick in modernising is that respect for the contest must remain sacrosanct. Fans won’t tolerate farce or anything overly contrived.
There is nothing wrong with tradition and its virtues, but in a world of constant flux it’s a case of adapting or dying. Sport, to its credit, knows this.
The old way is dead.