While their dodgy expense claims rightly dominate news headlines, it’s fair to say that our politicians can, occasionally, work together for the common good.
Admittedly, it doesn’t happen nearly often enough and even when our elected representatives undertake projects worth shouting about, their attempts to inspire voters rarely makes for engrossing copy.
Nevertheless, last October, the Premier League, Lawn Tennis Association, Nike, the British Heart Foundation, Sustrans and the Young Foundation accepted an invitation to support an All-Party Commission on Physical Activity, an eclectic group chaired by MPs from across the political spectrum.
The commission’s report was published on Tuesday, its most publicised line being the one which called for radical changes to “turn back the toxic tide of inactivity,” a disappointing call to action considering the nation’s inherent love of sport.
Despite staging an enormously successful Olympic and Paralympic Games, much to the surprise of most Britons, the evidence suggests that today’s children are the least active in the nation’s history.
Sebastian Coe, erstwhile chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, expressed his disappointment in the starkest terms, suggesting that our army of inactive youngsters “might be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
The statistics appear to show that as a nation, we’re 20 per cent less active than we were in 1961 and by 2030, that figure is scheduled to rise to 35 per cent.
There are enormous economic repercussions arising from raising a generation of sedentary, television-obsessed, computer game-playing youths. For a start, lethargic, inactive children tend not to perform as well as they might at school and are, therefore, less likely to go to university.
This means that as adults, they’ll earn less, be less productive and as their sedentary ways continue, they’re more likely to die prematurely. The estimated cost of inactivity is a staggering £20 billion a year.
What, then, will it take to encourage our youngsters to get involved in sport, or simply play in parks, or even just walk to school?
It could be argued that the professional sport most of us experience, either live or on television, increasingly fails to engage youngsters who, as a consequence, may no longer aspire to be a professional footballer, or a tennis player, or an Olympic athlete. Being blessed with natural talent is only the start.
The years of dedication required to reach the very top of any sport today is enough to discourage all but the most determined youngster and, as we have no tradition of broadcasting or publicising an intermediate level of sport, a halfway house to which our youth could aspire, it’s easier to embrace an iPhone or update a Facebook page…
Over the course of the past two decades, the UK has witnessed a massive, and not always successful, expansion of higher education.
Any educational establishment worth its salt is now a ‘university’ and, as this process has continued, so university sport has grown exponentially.
However, despite a marked increase in the number of students becoming involved in sport, written or televised coverage of their activities remains haphazard. The Boat Race, Varsity Match and one or two other traditional contests are screened, but with mainstream organisations such as Sky Sports and BT Sport crying out for content to fill 24-hour schedules, the absence of university sport from our screens is a strange omission.
Many moons ago, as a decent-in-the-air, ‘enjoys-a-tackle’ centre-half, I went on a four-week tour of the north eastern USA as a member of Bristol University’s football team. Naturally, we had a great time, but the point is that even though ‘soccer’ was way down the list of US university sports in terms of participation, the coverage we received in cities such as Boston, Montreal and Toronto was phenomenal.
We played at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; three of our matches were televised live and in every city we visited, we received back-page coverage worthy of a professional football club.
Americans love watching their college sport on television. Their sons and daughters, or even the kid from down the road, get to feature in big games; in other words, because there’s so much of it played, university sport enjoys a connection with Americans that elite professional sport never can.
Moreover, the value of US college sport is staggering.
Each year, Forbes magazine produces a report which itemises the most valuable university football (ie, gridiron) team. The magazine weights its scoring system by apportioning various degrees of importance to several different factors.
For example, it takes account of football’s tangible value to its university, ie the profits used for academic purposes, including sports scholarships. A value is also apportioned to a university’s athletics department by calculating the net profits generated by the football team and retained by the department.
Forbes also calculates the value of a successful football team to its community, detailing the amount spent by visiting supporters.
It notes that last year, Notre Dame University conducted an economic impact study which concluded that its football team attracted an average of 62,000 visitors for every game. These visitors spent, on average, $153 apiece, or $9.5 million at every match.
Heading Forbes’ list of most valuable university football team is the Texas University Longhorns, which, says the publication, has an economic value of $139 million. Last season (2012-13), the Longhorns generated revenues of $109 million, including $30 million in sponsorship and $15 million in television receipts.
In 2011, the university created the Longhorn Network, partnering with ESPN and IMG to develop a sports network which screens all of the university’s sports teams. The 20-year deal is worth $300 million.
On a broader level, longer-term television deals exist between CBS and a broad collection of US universities in a contract running between 2008-2023 and worth $825 million, while Fox Sports’ cable TV deal with a large group of universities, which runs between 2011-2024, is worth $90 million per annum. Granted, the figures quoted above are always going to surpass anything that British universities could generate from broadcasters, but this is not quite the point.
Many US universities are dependent upon the money generated by their successful football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball teams for their funding. At this juncture, we have no need to advocate such a development.
Yet if British university sport, let’s call it ‘intermediate-level, organised sport’, comprising undergraduates watching youngsters knew, were to be televised on a regular basis by one of the broadcasting giants, who knows how this could inspire the nation’s youth to participate in sport.
The broader economic benefits for all parties would accrue almost immediately, while the savings for the economy could be colossal.