What is a sport, anyway, and who gets to decide?
A real barroom standard, right there – which is fitting enough, given how often it gets applied to games played in bars, like darts or pool or poker or, more controversially, dominoes.
The conventional wisdom on the topic has shifted over the past decade or two. And the consensus on the kind of activities the sports business should be interested in, or vice versa – think esports or chess – has moved even further. Yet it is still a determination that can have material consequences.
The definition of sport – do not all go running for your dictionaries at once – is an argument that has animated that most infamous of pedantic drinking societies, the British legal system. In 2015 the UK’s High Court declared that bridge is not a sport, ruling against the English Bridge Union in a case it had brought against grassroots funding distributor Sport England.
This week the umbrella group for sports federations, GAISF, granted observer status to the governing body for teqball – a challenging version of the old soccer training exercise head tennis, played on a kind of warped ping-pong table. There’s a chance you won’t have heard of teqball, not least if you haven’t attended an international sports industry event in the last five years. Those who are on the conference carousel will likely have seen it played by former soccer pros on paid junkets, sales execs who once had trials for the county under-15s, and anyone still around on the last day of Sportel when the skilful and confident types have gone home.
Teqball’s federation, Fiteq, will now bid for full GAISF membership and voting rights as it pursues a long-term goal of Olympic status. The list of GAISF members is quite the cohort, where the likes of Fifa, World Athletics and basketball’s Fiba rub shoulders with organisations representing tug of war, orienteering, and fistball – not to mention arm wrestling, whose inclusion may be a little over the top.
One for the Stallone fans.
GAISF recognition can be a real boon for smaller entities, creating a network, a source of guidance and support, and a route into multi-sport events. Nonetheless, the speed at which things are moving is going to challenge this framework as never before. One federation that has been regularly frustrated in its efforts to join GAISF is mixed martial arts’ IMMAF, which threatened legal action after its application for observer status was rejected last year. But the development of MMA is a case in point when it comes to how the sports ecosystem has already changed.
Proper recognition for IMMAF in the federation world would have its benefits, helping it establish new talent pathways and giving it a firmer basis for its dealings with public authorities around the world. Still, its experience in those corridors of a certain kind of power has done little to harm the relevance of Bellator, the ONE Championship or, of course, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
All the signs are that the sports of the future are ones that will evolve more like MMA, which owes its existence to promoters, than more established disciplines. The commercial model of sport is heading for a real shift. If the last generation in the industry was one of extraction, where partners sought to take what value they could get from the existing environment, the next few years could be about creation. Financial backers are interested in assets they can wholly own and control, from the intellectual property to the terms of competition.
The evidence of this is familiar by now. Last year’s Ineos 1.59 Challenge followed a template already set by Red Bull and followed with increasing frequency elsewhere. The interest of venture capital is unlikely to come without some demands for real authority. And those are only a few of the trends that will be consequential.
Urbanisation, the pace of working life and the availability of facilities have been widening the gap between sport and exercise for years and the activities that emerge from that are only going to have more influence. The feedback loop with entertainment is getting faster. Virality in media and economic trends, shared content and memetic communication: these are all factors that Generation Z, the oldest of whom are now in the workforce, have been comfortable with for as long as they can remember.
In short, new sports could now spring up from anywhere. Brands will play a role. Technology will, too, and perhaps not in the way we expect: last year, the digital agency AKQA used artificial intelligence (AI) tools to help develop 'speedgate', a distinctly lo-tech team sport now recognised in the US state of Oregon.
Several rights holders have recognised all of this to an extent and are trying to reflect it in formats like basketball’s 3x3. The addition of sports like breaking to the Olympic programme is another response. Still, the structures that govern sport are facing a serious test. Discussing the Olympic movement’s esports strategy last week, the veteran International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound warned that the body was “a 19th century organisation trying to deal with a 21st century phenomenon”.
Nothing is as permanent as we tend to think. The thing that gets forgotten about sport is how new it all is, in its current form, and how powerful social trends were in shaping it. Our odd collective habit of referring to any team, or incident, or achievement or individual as the greatest or most notorious ‘of all time’ obscures the reality that codified, organised sport is a concept around 150 years old – an idle blink in the history of civilised culture.
It’s enough to make you wonder what you would miss with your eyes closed.