OPINION - Sport is no more respectable than scripted reality TV

·2-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Once it was pointed out to me — and it had to be pointed out to me — I couldn’t unsee it. Sport is everywhere. On TV, online, strewn across the back pages. Yesterday it was the Champions’ League draw, the first day of the second Test and the launch of a “high-tech”, stadium-based golf league. And that was a quiet Thursday.

Grown-ups, dentists, justices of the peace, they can spend a wedding standing slightly too close to you debating the finer points of any one of 16 sports and this is considered if not high culture then a perfectly sensible way to spend a life.

My partner, on the other hand, has no interest in sport. It was only mid-way through a conversation following the death of Maradona that I clocked that he had no idea who I was talking about. Henry is more interested in scripted reality.

For the uninitiated, this is reality TV where some or even most of the plot is pre-scripted. Think Selling Sunset or Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

I would sooner watch a compilation of Tottenham’s greatest European victories (how long could it be?) than a scene from any of these shows. But I concede: in reality they’re two sides of the same trillion-dollar coin.

Theoretically, anything can happen in sport. Except it doesn’t. Man City will win the title but somehow contrive to lose in the Champions’ League semis after Pep Guardiola plays with three inverted fullbacks. England will fail to score enough first innings runs. Golf inside stadia will not take off.

Both sport and scripted reality are formulaic but leave just enough jeopardy to maintain a frisson of unpredictability. They are packaged and repacked to the edge of existence, reduced to 90-second clips for the Twitter and YouTube algorithms. Both exist largely to make money for rights holders and have spawned an ecosystem of play-by-play analysis and stars to follow on Instagram.

The core difference, as far as I can tell, is that sport is a respectable pastime. Scripted reality is not. Why?

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Welsh writer Raymond Williams wrote that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. What is less arduous to untangle is the reason for this imbalance. It’s about who consumes them.

In his book And The Sun Shines Now, Adrian Tempany found the average fan age in the Stretford End at Old Trafford rose from 17 in 1968 to 40 in 2016.

Middle-aged men don’t dictate what goes viral on TikTok but they still hold multiple levers of power, not least when it comes to deciding what our society values.

Real Madrid versus Man City and the Real Housewives of Miami have far more in common than either would like to admit. Sport is scripted reality. It just got there first.