A Question of Sport

Watching the crowds captivated by Wimbledon and Euro 2016 has got me thinking about different sports and what makes them popular. Why are these sports adored by so many people, yet more ‘niche’ sports, are not? What are the important features of a popular sport? And is it possible to come up with a ‘perfect’ sport?

Presumably, one factor affecting spectator numbers and the popularity of a sport in general is how easily that sport can be played by ordinary people. Sports which do not require fancy, expensive equipment are always likely to do well, simply because anyone can play them without paying a small fortune at their local sports store before they can do so. Each sport also requires a certain amount of infrastructure – football players need football pitches, golfers need golf courses, tennis players need tennis courts, and so on. If the infrastructure-to-player ratio is low, the sport is, presumably, more appealing. Take football (soccer), for example – all that is needed is a ball, a playing surface and an appropriate number of participants. Even an individual playing on their own can have some fun with a football. Team sports have the advantage here, as the amount of infrastructure required for each player is relatively small. Where i is the amount of infrastructure and equipment needed to play the sport, and p is the number of players needed, a sport for which i/p is low is likely to do well – more people are likely to play the sport and become interested in it, and more investment is likely to be made in the sport, causing more people to get involved, leading to more investment. And the spiral continues.

Another important factor could be the level of enjoyment provided by the sport. Some sports provide what I would consider limited enjoyment – golf, for example, is generally played at a leisurely pace, with most of the enjoyment from actually engaging in the sport coming in small bursts (each time the ball is struck), with long walks in between. Racket sports such as tennis and badminton, however, provide constant action – points are constantly being won or lost. We could express the amount of enjoyment as the product of the number of the number of ‘events’ e occurring in a given time and the significance s of each event in the context of the game as a whole. An ‘event’ will be defined as some occurrence that provides enjoyment or excitement, such as a goal being scored (very significant), a golf ball being struck (possibly quite significant, depending on the circumstances), or a point being won in a tennis match (comparatively not very significant). This idea is a difficult one to play around with, though, as the greater the number of events that occur in a given time, the less significant each event is likely to be. In a sport in which points are being scored all the time, each instance of a point being scored is not likely to get the crowd jumping up and down quite as vigorously as they might do if points were only scored a few times per match. We could even suggest as a rough model that that significance of each event is inversely proportional to the average number of events that occur in a given time (e ∝ 1/s)

Infrastructure and enjoyment levels seem to be important factors in determining the popularity of a sport. Using such factors, how might we go about creating the perfect sport? Football (soccer) has features that might be considered attractive ones – it requires (at least at lower levels) only a trivial amount of infrastructure and equipment. A low infrastructure-to-player ratio seems to work to the advantage of such sports. However, there is one factor that – for me at least – doesn’t seem to work in football’s favour – its low ‘event’ count. For example, an average of 2.77 goals per game were scored in England’s Premier League in 2014. Personally, this is what makes football less attractive – the spaces in between goals are filled with disappointing long balls and seemingly endless passes of the ball. The average set of tennis, however, contains around 60 points. Although each point is admittedly less exciting, the constant flow of excitement provides a reason – for a television audience, at least – to keep watching.

There are many factors at play, of course, which I have not considered. It would be impossible to condense all of these into an equation or other objective way of accurately evaluating individual sports. The task of creating a ‘perfect’ sport is most certainly a difficult one, and although some factors are important in affecting the popularity of a sport, there appears to exist no features that guarantee a sport’s success. The world’s four most popular sports – football, cricket, hockey and tennis – are all quite different from one another. Ultimately, it simply comes down to personal preference. Some prefer constant action, whilst others have different tastes – football’s relative lack of constant excitement in my view has not prevented it from being labelled the ‘beautiful game’. And beauty, after all, is in the eyes of the beholder.