Spectator sport

Sport will not survive if it keeps being sold to the highest bidder

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

It’s just too hot and too early to get worked up about football, so the two highlights of the late-summer calendar are the US PGA golf tournament, in St Louis this time, and the US Open tennis from Flushing Meadows. Both compelling, vivid spectacles and — unless you have a lot of money and free time — best enjoyed from the sofa.

But not this time. The PGA is being screened online by something called Eleven Sports, with the first two rounds also free on Facebook. Eleven Sports was founded by the Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani, who I’m sure is a thoroughly splendid fellow. It has already bought La Liga, Serie A and the Chinese Super League among others. But you try finding your way round its bloody website.

The US Open has been bought for £30 million by Amazon in a five-year deal and will be streamed to Prime subscribers. Amazon also has a £50 million five-year deal for the UK rights to the ATP World Tour, an endlessly thrilling showcase for the best of world tennis. I don’t like Amazon much: I don’t like its white delivery vans clogging up the streets of our cities because people can’t be bothered to go to the shops; and I don’t like the way its vast warehouses and predatory pricing are killing our high streets; and I don’t like the brutal way it treats its warehouse workers. But perhaps that’s just me…

And now I really don’t like it, because I can’t watch my beloved US Open. OK, the market is a fabulous thing, I get it; but sport will run into problems if everything is sold to the highest bidder. The consumer has to come into it somewhere. Will anyone argue that Test cricket has got better or more popular since it was hoiked off terrestrial TV? I don’t think so.

Edgbaston, however, was a fabulous advertisement for the sport, though only a couple of England players could bat, and just one Indian, and hardly anyone could catch. The bowling was brilliant, though, throughout. So far the national selector Ed Smith hasn’t put a foot wrong, even if it’s been a bit tight at times. He has boldly gone for youth, with three players under 20 (Dom Bess, Sam Curran and Ollie Pope), two of whom have already performed brilliantly, with Pope getting his chance at Lord’s. Smith has resisted the dour complaints of the Yorkshire traditionalists, who seem to want Adil Rashid to have a few outings with Yorkshire 2nds rather than go from playing white-ball cricket straight into the England Test team. Anything but that! Meanwhile, stand by for Virat vs Jimmy, part two. This is going to be the biggest subplot of the summer.

We all agree that Test cricket is best, a cry that has been amplified massively by the twists and turns of Edgbaston. But I am an old buffer, and most people who comment on Test cricket are old buffers, too, who all churn out the same bufferish message. Even the ever-astute Simon Hughes chuntered on dismissively about the ‘sixes that rained down on a packed Kia Oval’ and the ‘£1,000 on offer for every clean crowd catch’ at the explosive, raucous T20 game between Surrey and Middlesex when Surrey chased down 221 for the loss of just one wicket.

But hang on a bit, Simon, it’s precisely because of all those sixes — 27 in all, the third highest in an English T20 — and the grand-a-time catches that the grounds are full for T20 games, and we buffers can chunter as much as we like about T20 not being proper cricket, but that’s not what the vast majority think. In fact it’s absurd: people who have played the game at the highest level are in awe of the standard of skill that T20 demands, particularly in terms of tactics, stroke-making against top-class bowling and the athleticism of the fielding.

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