Last week I thought sport should be entertainment. This week I might have changed my mind

SPN_England_Greece_01
International Table Tennis, At Fenton Manor SportsCentre Stoke on Trent 1st Nov 2016 Pic Steve Parkin England’s Sam Walker in action with Loannis Sgouropoulos

Sports purists turn away now. This is not for you. Actually, wait. It is. It really is.

Last week 2.2m people tuned into a live stream of a table tennis international between England and Greece. If that doesn’t sound a big deal, it is.

For the sake of comparison, an average peak of 200,000 watched Champions League games last season on BT Sport. And 1.9m streamed the BBC to watch Andy Murray win his 2016 Olympic gold.

For the vast majority of these 2.2m table tennis viewers none of the following reasons for watching applied:

·     Because they had followed every twist and turn in the careers of its star players

·     Because the players were household names

·     Because of weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage preceding the event

·     Because marketing and advertising tie-ins with big brands had told them it was on

·     Because it was part of a high-profile tournament involving the continent’s biggest clubs

·     Because of a specific loyalty to a club or player.

They watched because, like in the old days, it was on (they found it where it was being streamed, on the SPORTbible’s well-visited Facebook page).

And they watched it because it’s a fast, familiar and exciting sport to follow, with no complicated rules and few breaks in the action.

So what does this tell us?

At first, I concluded that the ratings were a triumph for entertainment. Put table tennis in front of an audience and they will be entertained. Make the show bigger and better and glitzier next time around – make it more like the darts or a T20 – and people will keep on coming back.

But as the week has gone on, my thoughts keep returning to the fact that 2.2m people watched table tennis despite the fact that there was no glitz and no glamour. After all, this was a match played in Stoke (joke – it is my beloved home county’s capital).

In the end, it was the purity of the sport that provided the entertainment. The mesmeric skill of strangers. No build-up needed, no narrative required. No big tie-ins or beer brand endorsements. No player or coach soap opera. Not big cash prizes. Not on down the pub. Not taking place under floodlights in Barcelona. Just some really good athletes smashing a ball at one another.

And it reminded me that no matter what the bells and whistles are that we attach to sporting events – betting markets, fan apps, experiential brand tie-ins – that it’s the sport that provides the engagement.

Strip away all the baubles and the experience of watching two strangers smash a 2.7g ball at each other over a table is sometimes all you need. Something we in sport would all do well to remember.


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