Counting the cash cows

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

As I contemplate getting up at 4.45 on a Saturday morning to watch Bayern vs. Chelsea I not only question how I get my kicks, but also the status of the European Super Cup, and where it sits in the pantheon of recurrent non-events on the sporting calendar. After roughly two and a half minutes of concerted thinking time, it makes it into my top five.

What follows is a shortlist of damp squibs. To qualify it has to take the crème de la crème of professional sport in a particular discipline, and then make them perform in an event so devoid of meaning that it renders their efforts – and those of the watching public – almost futile.

European Super Cup

We begin with this annual fixture between the previous season’s Champions League and Europa League winners. Staggeringly, the Uefa equivalent of the FA Community Shield has been running, in one shape or form, since 1972.

Last year, Chelsea – as Champions League winners – treated the game against Atletico Madrid with utter contempt, lazily going 3 nil behind to a Falcao hat-trick in the first half, before saving a modicum of dignity in the second stanza and coming away with a 4-1 loss.

This year, the only reason I’m contemplating the early rise again is because of the José and Pep element. In popular folklore, José is the villain and Pep is the shining white knight. But, I’m an avowed follower of the cult of José; his prickly charm and insolent attitude trump Pep’s holier than thou persona for me.

That doesn’t hide from the fact that the event itself is a virtual dead rubber. Yes, there’s a trophy up for grabs, but the main baubles are handed out in May. At least the World Club Cup has an intercontinental edge to it. This is just an inconvenience to clubs whose attentions are now focussed on their domestic league campaigns.

NFL Pro Bowl

Can’t say I know much about this event but any game that ‘borrows’ elite sportsmen to play for a team they have no real affinity for, in what is essentially an exhibition match, has to be pretty prominent in this list.

Indeed, the annual match-up between the best players from the two NFL Conferences is in danger of being seen as a bit of a farce. Every year the biggest concern of teams is to avoid injuries to the star players. The Associated Press wrote that players in the 2012 game were “hitting each other as though they were having a pillow fight”, which can do little to aid the spectacle.

Other examples of all-star games can be found in the MLB, NHL and NBA. Thus this is what happens when obscure sports are propagated within national borders; there’s no foreign foe to vanquish (the presence of Canadian teams in the MLB and NHL doesn’t seem to provide that source of rivalry) so the deep well of nationalist fervour lies untapped.

All of which brings us nicely to the next event on our shortlist.

International Rules Series

Nice try, Tadhg. I'm still not buying.

Nice try, Tadhg. Still don’t care.

If no-one else in the world plays your sport why not just find the nearest equivalent, create a hybrid of the two, and manufacture a showcase event? That’s what the Australians and Irish did in the sixties when their own unique brands of hand-football were stewing in their own domestic juice.

To the uninitiated (99.9% of mankind), this bastard of a game takes representative players from the disparate worlds of AFL and Gaelic football and creates a mash-up which at least has the benefit of being as violent as it is meaningless.

It’s played twice every three years and, despite dwindling interest in the game, has been stubbornly propped up by the AFL in direct response to the success of the representative competition of their local football code arch-rivals, the NRL; whose State of Origin series is vastly more popular (and lucrative), sustained as it is by the mutual hatred between Queenslanders and New South Welshmen.

2005 ICC Super Series

This event at least has the virtue of having been recognised as a failure and has been scrapped. The ‘Super’ Series pitted the undisputed world champions Australia against a Rest of the World XI in three ODIs and one Test match.

The principle behind the event was that the Australian side had become completely dominant in world cricket, and had a reputation of being unbeatable. This basis was undercut somewhat as it was staged one month after the Aussies were beaten in the 2005 Ashes.

Suffering from a noticeable lack of intensity, the drab matches were played out in the half empty MCG and SCG and were all won comfortably by the home side. The Rest of the World XI, featuring stars such as Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Muttiah Muralitharan and, er, Steve Harmison, were a model of disunity.

Geoffrey Boycott described the series as a “bunfight” and said that there was “nothing that resembled cricket” in it. Wisden summed up the Test match as: “a terrible game of cricket. It had a small crowd, little meaning and was forgotten quickly.” Its first-class status has since been revoked.

The World XI players seemed to be there more for fun than anything else. Freddie Flintoff came up with some refreshingly honest opinions amidst all the bullish official statements: “I’ve got the Super Series in two weeks’ time. I can’t think of anything worse,” he said, adding on arrival; “I’m only here for the food.”

Presidents Cup

Suffering in direct comparison with the passion of the Ryder Cup, this event too struggles with the lack of pride that comes in representing a ‘Rest of the World’ (minus Europe) team. Worse, as any get-in-the-hole enthusiast will tell you, it’s not as if the Americans themselves are often galvanised by representing their country. This truly is a dead duck tournament, though you wouldn’t know that if you spoke to a South African or Australian golf nut.

Inaugurated in 1994, the Yanks have won seven of the nine tournaments, losing once and tying on the other occasion. But, really, who cares?

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Give me something I can sell

Give me something I can sell

Branding. It’s a word heavy with meaning in sport. To those in club boardrooms it’s the lucrative differentiation of their product. For fans, its invocation evokes a weary response laden with the growing detachment many feel with the teams upon which they invest so heavily (emotionally and financially).

When Luis Suarez was caught in his race storm with Patrice Evra last year, Liverpool FC instinctively rushed to his defence. Kenny Dalglish stated it was “bang out of order” to suggest he had done anything wrong. In the aftermath, it was recognised by the American owners that the club had botched their response, resulting in significant PR damage. Dalglish was fired a few months later. When Suarez lost his head against Chelsea this season, Liverpool’s support for their player was notably more nuanced.

In the pursuit of more fans – and more of their disposable incomes – teams will go to great lengths to appeal to the masses. Every Premier League team has a community foundation funding local projects and arranges copious hospital and school visits by its players. They hire ex-pros as “Ambassadors” to tour the globe reciting the virtues of their great club. These initiatives undoubtedly have an impact on the balance sheet. The clubs’ commercial departments must be telling them so.

But, in an arena where everyone’s looking for an edge, are there any shortcuts to success?

It was instructive to hear one ABC sports reporter this morning lament why his young son had turned his back on his local AFL team. Who doesn’t think supporting the Lions is more exciting than cheering on the Magpies? Whereas Collingwood won the flag in 2010, the lad still chose mediocre Brisbane to barrack (or should that be roar?) for.

The ‘4 Ps of Marketing’ are Product, Price, Promotion and Place. Get these four elements right, the marketing gurus will tell you, and you can watch the profits roll in. In sport, perhaps ‘silly nicknames’ should be added to the mix. To call the Australian national football/soccer team the ‘Socceroos’ seems to make absolutely no sense unless a highly paid FFA suit has robust data stating it will attract more young fans to the sport.

I’m talking about official team names rather than individual’s nicknames. Though, it has to be acknowledged, in a highly competitive field, darts has produced some standouts in this regard*: Mark “Frosty the Throw Man” Frost, Scott “Scotty 2 Hotty” Waites and, who could forget… Steve “The Bronzed Adonis” Beaton.

An unlikely villain

To my mind, this whole sorry business is the fault of Emilio Estevez. The National Hockey League had teams boasting some great nicknames – New York Devils, Los Angeles Kings and the Montreal Canadiens – then, in 1993, on the back of Disney’s hugely successful Mighty Ducks movie (one that genuinely made me cry at the end), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. The ridiculously-monikered Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild subsequently joined the league. It’s almost enough to remove all the credit Estevez had in the bank for Young Guns.

If there’s any semblance of moral integrity to that episode it is that the Mighty Ducks venture occurred after the release of the film so at least it wasn’t predicated on hawking cinema tickets (I’m conveniently forgetting about the disappointing sequel, D2: The Mighty Ducks, as anyone who’s seen it must). Sadly, there are examples of sports teams who have merrily adopted a new name so as to promote the wares of a third party. The New South Wales one-day cricket side are now known as the ‘Speed-Blitz Blues’, and the New York MetroStars MLS team now only answer to the ‘New York Red Bulls’ (but, like the F1 team, as a result of a takeover).

If you’re finding this all a bit disheartening, fear not. To find evidence of the enduring Corinthian spirit that draws us to sport in the first place, one must look, as ever, to the grassroots. Look, for example, at Centennial Park this Sunday to find the CACC Metrosexuals continue their unstoppable march towards the Sydney Morning Cricket Association winter title (Division 6)!

*It’s almost as if the less athletic the individual pursuit is, the more likely its protagonists are to adopt an entertaining nickname. See also, golf and snooker. Perhaps this correlation can be explored in another article, thereby providing a simple means of categorising ‘games’ and ‘sports’. For instance, the International Olympic Committee could employ a simple formula when deciding upon the merits of a sporting body’s application for membership; if, say, over half of their professional players have stupid nicknames: no dice.

The murky world of Bodybuilding

I'm free!!!

I’m free!!!

In response to recent events Ball Control has been wondering which sports can be deemed most felonious. Luckily, as ever, Wikipedia is a treasure trove of information, backed up by trusted sources such as the BBC and, er, Femalemuscle.com.

Amongst all the data on convictions I only pulled out those offences which attracted custodial sentences. Most of the convictions were for current professional sportspeople, though some were retired at the time of their imprisonment. For the purposes of comparison, life imprisonment means 25 years (as per the English jurisdiction). Ball Control accepts the accusation of being an Anglo-centric news hub.

The comparisons between many sports are undermined by the small pool of data each of them has. Any sport with fewer than 10 convictions clearly isn’t trying hard enough to push its protagonists towards a life of crime.

The list is also notable for those who were spared prison sentences. To escape the clink, it would appear that sports prowess would be as helpful as a skilled defence attorney. The likes of Phil “The Power” Taylor (indecent assault), Guus Hiddink (tax fraud) and Patrick Kluivert (death by dangerous driving) all escaped doing porridge while similar crimes resulted in lengthy cell time for lesser-known sporting crims. And let’s not even go near the whole OJ murder charges…

Shining like a macabre light from this already gloomy list is one Leslie George Hylton, a West Indian fast bowler who played in six Test matches between 1935 and 1939. In 1955, he was hanged for the murder of his wife, Lurlene. During his trial, Hylton claimed he had been trying to shoot himself but missed. It’s not known whether she was cowering behind a bathroom door at the time.

Sport Famous ne’er-do-wells (and their crimes) No. of convictions Average length of custodial sentence (months)
Bodybuilding Bertil Fox (murder), Sally McNeil (second-degree murder), Craig Titus (second-degree murder) 3 553
Gridiron OJ Simpson (robbery, kidnapping), Michael Vick (dog fighting), Darryl Henley (drug trafficking, attempted conspiracy to commit murder) 32 213
Boxing Mike Tyson (rape, road rage), Floyd Mayweather Sr. (drug trafficking), Bernard Hopkins (robbery) 20 207
Diving Bruce Kimball (death by dangerous driving) 1 184
Martial Arts Evangelos Goussis (attempted murder, two counts of murder) 6 140
Motorsport Bertrand Gachot (assault and use of offensive weapon) 40 136
Greco-Roman Wrestling Otari Kvantrishvili (rape) 1 120
Baseball Ugueth Urbina (attempted murder), Darryl Strawberry (drug possession, solicitation of prostitution) 17 120
Skateboarding Mark Rogowski (rape and murder) 5 115
Basketball Allen Iverson (maiming by mob), Tom Payne (rape) 15 70
Cricket Salman Butt (conspiracy to accept corrupt payments), Leslie Hylton (murder), Terry Jenner (embezzlement) 10 62
Rugby Union Tony Neary (fraud) 1 60
Athletics (track and field) Marion Jones (perjury), Tim Montgomery (fraud, drug dist’) 5 52
Ice Hockey Mike Danton (conspiracy to commit murder) 6 43
Sumo Wrestling Futatsuryū Jun’ichi (murder) 2 41
Figure Skating Tonya Harding (DUI) 4 36
Snooker Silvino Francisco (drug smuggling) 1 36
Association Football Graham Rix (underage sex), Lee Hughes (death by dangerous driving), Joey Barton (assault, affray) 45 30
Horse Racing Lester Piggott (tax evasion) 4 30
Australian Rules Football Brett Cooper (drug offences), Neville Linney (burglary) 6 26
Tennis Bernard Boileau (drug use, assault and dangerous driving) 4 21
Darts Chris Mason (ABM, burglary) 2 20
Swimming Nick D’Arcy (assault) 2 9
Cycling Tammy Thomas (perjury), Missy Giove (drug dist’) 2 6

Tip of the iceberg

Fake Sheikh

We’re going to need some more fake sheikhs

Professional sport is a ruthlessly competitive, win-at-all-costs endeavour. It’s also played by young people who have a relatively short window in which to extract as much financial security as they can for the rest of their lives. It’s these two undeniables that makes the recent ‘revelations’ of match-fixing and doping in football all the more disturbing.

To believe that cricket alone is subject to the pressures exerted by Asian gamblers in illegal betting markets is grossly naïve. To hope that doping practices are confined to endurance cycling is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Football, the biggest sport of all, has, for the most part, been able to brush off the murmurs around these twin sins for generations. We all laughed at the dodgy Italians for their misdemeanours exposed in Calciopoli (not related to betting practices, admittedly) and positive tests for nandrolone in the noughties. These were merely cases of blasé southern Europeans up to their old tricks.

Perhaps more accurately, these were examples of a culture used to corruption in public life weeding out (some of) the bad apples.

Athletics in the 1980s was hideously drug-fuelled. When these practices were exposed they led to damage to the sport from which it is arguably still recovering. New controls were put in place to catch the dopers; some got caught, some didn’t. The sport continues to be dogged by accusations and clouds hang over every podium place.

But why would these practices have been exclusive to athletics? And, after witnessing the damage wrought by such scandals, is it not inconceivable that other sports administrations would seek to avoid such controversy in their own backyards? (that elephant in the room is the International Cycling Union).

If even a niche sport like Australian Rules Football is now starting to grapple with the consistent practices of doping, then we can truly expect a cavalcade of sports to belatedly come clean as the media and public finally wake up to what’s been going on for so many years.

As for match-fixing (or even petty old spot-fixing), I can think of no urine test to discover the veracity or otherwise of sportsmen and women. If it were not for the News Of The World we wouldn’t have known about Pakistanis bowling no balls to order (one of whom had previously been banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs). The International Cricket Council launched investigations into other suspicious games featuring Pakistan, which were implausibly given the all-clear.

We can surmise that the authorities don’t want to know about the problems in their sports. I’m not sure I want to know either. Can we all please go back to a time when Lance Armstrong inspired a lot of people to cycle to the shops?

Sporting Polygamists

We should have seen this coming

We should have seen it coming

We’ve recently witnessed Freddie Flintoff make his first bold step into the boxing ring, defeating Richard Dawson (not the off-spinner) on points. Ball Control confesses that the whole build-up to this event passed us by; the post-bout reports thus came as a bit of a shock.

The surprise was amplified by the caricature of Freddie that had been readily subscribed to; that of an inherently undisciplined very-ex-cricketer who had never shown the inclination to train hard for success, preferring instead to rely on God-given ability (or other shortcuts to fame – i.e. celebrity reality TV). These are traits that won’t get you very far in the brutal, pure sport of boxing, where chinks in the armoury are ruthlessly exposed. Though perhaps Dawson was not equipped to do that. Still, it’s more common for retired cricketers to try and eradicate a golf hook rather than hone their right hook.

It is not, however, uncommon for any generic sportsperson to cross codes, for there has been, and continues to be, many instances of this. Including in the world of boxing. Contemporaneously, Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper has announced his planned professional boxing debut, scheduled to appear on the undercard of his friend and fellow rugby union player Sonny Bill Williams’ next fight. Sonny Bill, indeed, has three sporting mistresses; having previously forged a professional career in rugby league too.

The testosterone-powered world of Australian winter football codes is notoriously incestuous. For instance, as of next season, Israel Falou will become a professional rugby union player, having turned his back firstly on league and, most recently, Australian Rules football.

But while boxing and rugby are incredibly physical endeavours, they hardly suggest themselves as requiring similar skill-sets in the same way as do the oval ball sports. The same is even more true of boxing vis-à-vis the genteel sport of cricket, regardless of their shared dependency upon hand-eye coordination and (for bowlers) explosive strength.

Does Yuvraj still look cool when you find out he is a former national roller skating champion?

Does Yuvraj still seem so cool when you find out he is a former national roller skating champion?

BC’s first awareness of an ‘athlete’ making a foray in a new sport was the legendary ex-Spurs striker Clive Allen, who made the ill-judged step into Gridiron as a placekicker with the London Monarchs. The novelty value of this move was compounded by the bizarre razzmatazz which accompanied the doomed attempt to embed a European competition for the most American of sports. Allen was not alone in swapping an Anglo form of football for the American version, the legendary former rugby full back Gavin Hastings played for the Scottish Claymores in 1996, with comical results – missing 4 of his 27 extra point attempts, and failing with his solitary field goal attempt.

Regardless (or perhaps because) of the litany of failed crossovers in sport – see Michael Jordan – Ball Control greatly admires those that try. Where admiration crosses over into concern is in cases where the sportsperson appears to be motivated by an attempt to prolong their time in the spotlight, rather than in pursuing a new sport out of a competitive thirst for the challenge. To this bracket can be added retired sportspeople who return to their sport when they are clearly past it, i.e. Michael Schumacher, Ricky Hatton and, er, Michael Jordan.

Flintoff’s motives remain unclear but it is hoped that now he has proven his all-round sporting ability – and amply demonstrated that should he and Ricky Ponting disagree over a mulligan on the 18th hole then he would comprehensively win the ensuing fist fight – his boxing gloves will be hung up beside his cricket spikes.

Not what Kenneth Wolstenholme had in mind

Role reversal

By now we’ve all seen last Friday’s shocking images from Hillsborough, where Chris Kirkland was brutally felled by a gentle shove to the face from a Leeds United supporting-thug. This act of workplace bullying got me thinking of other notorious overzealous spectator participation from the annals of sport. The inevitable conclusion is this: a poorly-researched subjective sample of The Top Five Pitch Invasions… Of All Time!

1. While he’s spending four months at Her Majesty’s pleasure, Aaron Cawley can at least consider himself lucky his drunken decision making didn’t lead him to seek out a more physically robust opponent than Kirkland to accost or, even worse, the referee.

For this is what Danish fan Ronni Noervig decided to do in June 2007 after German official Herbert Fandel awarded a late penalty to Sweden in a Euro 2008 qualifier, with the game level at 3-3. Spooked by the near assault, Fandel called the game off and gave Sweden a 3-0 win. Uefa – ever eager to crack down on fan misbehaviour, of course – ordered Denmark to play their remaining two home qualifiers away from the national stadium, at a projected loss of over £200k in gate receipts. After his release, Noervig was pursued for damages by the Danish FA and commanded to cough up £120k. Noervig took the decision to the appeal courts. And saw the fine doubled.

2. No list of pitch invasions would be complete without a token streaker. This particular gentleman naturist has well-earned his place in the Top Five by also getting a little too close to the action. The action was cricket but the sporting lines become blurred somewhat as the inebriated Robert Ogilvie came bounding up to a padded-up Andrew Symonds. Ogilvie was promptly and unceremoniously floored by a hefty charge of the batsman’s shoulder that wouldn’t have been out of place in Aussie Rules Football.

The event was summed up beautifully by the Sydney Morning Herald, who also had a reporter stationed outside the cells for Mr Ogilvie’s release the next day:

Asked what it was liked to be hit by Symonds, Ogilvie said: “It was great, actually. It was just like playing football.”

Was he embarrassed? “Oh, nah, not really, no.”

Did he regret it? “You only live once, don’t you.”

Would he do it again? “Nah, nah. Done it once.”

3. In rugby – a game for hooligans’ played by gentleman, lest we forget – very few instances of crowd trouble spring to mind. The most famous instances took place in the 1970s and 80s in protest at the participation of teams from apartheid-era South Africa. All very worthy. Sadly, professional rugby is a slightly different beast to its aristocratic amateur days.

That much was evident last year when Lucien Harinordoquy – father of the France and Biarritz No8 Imanol Harinordoquy leapt to his son’s defence during a mêlée in the Basque derby against Bayonne. Monsieur Harinordoquy (senior) made his way onto the pitch and tried to punch a Bayonne player in the maw. He didn’t get that far and was tackled to the ground by the Bayonne fly-half Benjamin Boyet, who later gave his version of events:

I tackled him because he was attacking one of my team-mates… I put him to the ground and [the Biarritz hooker] Benoît August told me to stop, because it was Imanol’s father.

4. Sometimes, in fact often, pitch invasions are occasions of shared ebullience. The sight of football fans streaming onto the pitch after a goal or victory fill the memories of those who grew up watching the game before the Hillsborough disaster change everything forever. The sepia-tinted perspective of these events is of over exuberance, though of course the spectre of crowd hooliganism loomed large at the time.

The Wembley pitch invasion by Scottish fans after England lost 2-1 to the Auld Enemy in 1977 is an example of how the perception of crowd trouble has changed over time. Though denounced in Parliament and the media at the time as thuggery; a symptom of the blighted society of Britain, today the act is seen more as a patriotic outpouring by oppressed Scots against the yoke of tyranny south of the border. Framed pictures of the pitch invasion are for sale on eBay, and those who dug up the pitch take to football fora to boast that they were there on that special day when the English football citadel was shaken.

5. As we’ve seen from the work of Messrs Symonds and Ogilvie, down in Oz they do things rather more facetiously. Australian rules football, in particular, attracts dedicated followers with a quirky sense of humour. The most famous example of this took place in 1993 at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the Swans’ game against St Kilda.

In an apparent bid to wind up star opposition forward Tony “Plugger” Lockett some still-unidentified Sydney fans released a pig onto the field (of play) bearing the misspelt moniker “Plugga” on its side. It took three minutes to tackle the porker. While Plugga hogged the limelight, the real Plugger was in the stands after missing the game through injury. St Kilda won 155-118.

The story doesn’t end there. In 2006 the legendary tale was hammed up further after ex-Swans player Scott Watters went squealing to the press. His testimony states that some Swans players had been approached in the pub the week before by a man claiming to be a pig farmer. The ensuing discussion, fuelled by beer, seems to have led to the most famous pitch invader in Australian sporting history. That’s if Watters’ story is kosher, of course.