There is plenty wrong with modern sport in Britain. We hear about it every day: doping, tax dodging, corruption, £100,000-a-week wages, crazy debts, mismanagement, barely any big events on “free” television, ticket prices, and on and on and on.
But there is plenty right with it too. Just ask the paying public. Just look at last weekend. It was party time at Twickenham, Wembley and football grounds all around the country. More than 81,000 watched the Army v Navy rugby match at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon, a fixture from another era that has grown in popularity in recent years.
It is as much an excuse for a day on the booze as it is a sporting event, as anybody caught up in the messy aftermath will attest. But that is true of so many of our enjoyable sporting occasions, and has been so for more than 150 years. Long may it continue.
Perhaps as many pints were consumed by the 90,000 big-fight fans who saw Anthony Joshua beat Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley a few hours later. The pay-per-view audience was reckoned to be more than a million, too.
Then there were the huge crowds at football matches all over England – from the Premier League to non-league. There are some remarkable numbers this season. The all-games average crowd across English football’s four elite leagues will exceed 15,000 this season for the first time since 1960. The average in the second tier, the Championship, will pass 20,000 for the first time since 1954.
It’s not just the presence of Newcastle that has done it in the Championship. Huddersfield’s crowds are up 59% on last season. “We have created a new generation of football fans,” said Brighton’s chief executive Paul Barber, a Football League director. Improvements in stadiums, atmosphere, fan engagement and quality of football are the main factors.
Down in the eighth tier of English football, the Evo-Stik Southern League Division 1 South & West, Hereford have a season’s average of 2,821. That is more than the all-games turnout at 30 elite leagues whose teams are chasing places in the Uefa Champions League. Hereford draw bigger crowds than the top leagues in Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Romania.
What we have in this country is special, and while there are still many who like to harp on about the good old days it’s time somebody started speaking up for the here and now. We have the world’s No1 tennis player, long-distance runner, jockey and heavyweight boxer, a multiple champion in Formula One and some of the best gymnasts and cyclists. But our fans are better than all that lot put together.
The best Olympics, best Commonwealth Games and best Rugby World Cup ever were in Britain in the past five years and the paying public played as big a role as anybody. The best fans in sport are here, no contest. Was the “golden age” of British sport really in the early postwar years? Or is it now?