The lesson of the Lions: the value of scarcity in sport

Posted by Rowland Jack on 11 juillet 2013

As rugby union fans will be aware, the British and Irish Lions have just completed a successful series against Australia which enjoyed tremendous fan support and media coverage. The key to the significance of the Lions tours is that they take place only every four years.

Fans look forward to Lions tours avidly and, critically, players are desperate to be involved. It helps that there are over 100 years of history involved and that many players have become legends through their Lions exploits.

International sport ranging from the Olympic Games to the FIFA World Cup and world cups in sports such as cricket and rugby is mostly organised in four year cycles. This gives the prime events scarcity value – sporting history in the making.

Unfortunately, in many sports there is too much of what happens in between.

The great annual events – anything from the Super Bowl to the Tour de France, Grand Slams in tennis and the Opens in golf – plus leading club leagues and series have deservedly earned their place in the calendar. Depending on the sport, continental championships and regular matches between classic rivals can have great value for fans, athletes and sponsors.

Junior championships and second tier competitions play an important role in producing the next generation of champions. In many cases, national and international sporting bodies subsidise junior competitions and receive less credit than they deserve for doing so. However, these events serve a different purpose and do not realistically aspire to large-scale sponsorship and mass media coverage.

The problem rests with endless fixtures and competitions which are added to pad out the season, events which become an unwelcome burden for athletes and are soon recognised as meaningless by fans and media, who are not easily fooled. On the Lions tour media commentators (for example, Simon Barnes (£) and Robert Kitson) criticised the one-sided nature of the early warm-up matches – fixtures which belong to a tradition but no longer fit into the calendar.

It’s plain to see that a combination of excessive demands on athletes and meaningless fixtures could increase the risks of doping and match-fixing.

I recognise that the issue of a packed calendar is not easy to resolve, for several reasons. National and international sporting bodies seek to promote their sport and to maximise their revenue, not least to support junior athlete development.

Clearly, regions of the world which are emerging in international sport have every right to a place in the sporting calendar – no countries or regions should have a stranglehold on top events. Sports which are growing similarly should have the opportunity to develop and evolve new events.

Arguments and difficult decisions are therefore inevitable as somebody is going to lose out. Resolving differences calls for leadership and good governance, with the opinions of relevant stakeholders properly taken into account.

But when sports bodies review their elite competition calendars, I hope that they will remember the lesson of the Lions: while sporting history is worth paying for, meaningless internationals are not.

The lesson of the Lions: the value of scarcity in sport

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