Once, it was only a game. Now sport is a never-ending drama, a soap opera watched all over the world. Tim de Lisle works out how it happened

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010

On a long July afternoon in 1966, in north-west London, England’s footballers won the World Cup. By the time they beat West Germany, after extra time, with the help of a dubious goal, it was too late for the early editions of the Sunday papers. Only on the Monday was Fleet Street able to register the moment in its full glory. The Mirror, then the most popular daily ever published in Britain, with sales of 5m, knew a piece of history when it saw one. Its front-page splash proudly announced: A BOUNCING BABY GIRL FOR PRINCESS ALEX. Winning the World Cup was not as big as the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen’s first cousin once removed.

The Sun didn’t lead with the football either, preferring a story about a pay squeeze; for weeks there had been a sterling crisis, and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had loomed far larger than any footballer. Even the two papers’ sports pages, which in those days were tucked inside, went less than crazy. The Mirror had two pages reflecting on the final, the Sun a little less. In the broadsheets, two-thirds of a page did the job, as it had done throughout the tournament. Three months earlier Time magazine had run its famous cover on Swinging London. And yet, even as London swung, and Britain’s bright young things, led by the Beatles, conquered the Western world, it was as if the national mood was still being dictated by Rudyard Kipling: if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those twin impostors just the same…

Forty years later, the World Cup was held in Germany. The England team had known only frustration in the meantime, yet they somehow loomed much larger. Every match they played was a front-page lead for both the Mirror and the Sun, and the fever had spread. The Times ran a 16-page World Cup supplement every day for three weeks. By now most of the papers were much the same physical size, and the definition of a quality title could be this: one that gives sport only second place on its front page. When England, as expected, beat Ecuador in the second round, it was the lead item that night on the main BBC1 news, on, and When David Beckham resigned as England captain, the story led the BBC1 news, eclipsing the deaths of two British soldiers in Afghanistan—a decision that drew withering comment from the then MP and former BBC reporter Martin Bell. In France and Italy the upmarket papers treat sport with more of a sense of proportion; but then both countries have entire dailies dedicated to it.

If the hype is extraordinary, so is the ambient presence. The last World Cup was all around us, on billboards, drink cans and cereal packets, on garage forecourts and millions of flag-bearing cars, in the windows of Boots the chemist and McDonald’s the burger joint (“Want tickets? Win tickets! Buy any large meal to play”). The cup-winning captain from 1966, Bobby Moore, was on every KitKat wrapper, despite having died 13 years earlier; his team-mate Geoff Hurst, now Sir Geoff, was appointed director of football for McDonald’s and had columns in two newspapers. The boys of 1966 were bigger in 2006 than they were in 1966.

The 2006 World Cup generated thousands of hours of television time, countless phone-ins and fan forums, endless blogs and eight hit records. It’s not just football: something similar happened in rugby with the 2003 World Cup and in cricket with the 2005 Ashes. And it’s not just Britain: each World Cup or Olympics makes more noise around the world than the last. American sport, in its different way, self-contained and tightly regulated, is getting bigger too: the television audience for the 2010 Super Bowl, 116m according to Nielsen, was the biggest ever recorded in America for any programme. With another World Cup starting on June 11th, half the nations of Europe have been strafed with giant images of the Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in Armani Y-fronts, muscles rippling like a Greek god. Which raises the question: how did sport get so big? Whodunnit, and where, and when, and why?


“The reason sport became a worldwide phenomenon can be summed up in three words,” says Professor Joe Maguire. “The British Empire.”

Maguire is the author of “Power and Global Sport” (Routledge) and head of sports sociology at Loughborough University. He pinpoints five spurts in the growth of sport. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, “the principal English pastimes of cricket, fox-hunting, horse-racing and boxing emerged as modern sports,” with codes and rules; but only one of them, cricket, involved a ball. In the 1860s and 1870s, “soccer, rugby, tennis and track-and-field assumed modern forms, and school sport developed”. Around 1900, “modern sport rapidly diffused globally along the lines of the formal and informal British Empire”. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, America piled in. And then there are the past 45 years, which have been the age of “media sport”.

There are few things less British-looking than Brazilian football, which is sinuous, super-skilful and highly successful, with a record five World Cup wins. Yet it began as an import from Britain. “The growth of football in South America was driven in three ways,” Maguire says. “By sailors of the Royal Navy, merchants and proselytising Christian groups.” Wherever sport grew fastest in the 19th century, Maguire argues, it was because either the British exported it or influential people had visited Britain. The Olympic games were revived in 1896 by a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who had been to Britain a few years earlier. He toured the public schools, admired the ethos of fair play and muscular Christianity, and visited Much Wenlock, a town in rural Shropshire, where for 40 years “the ancient Olympian games” had been organised by a local doctor, William Penny Brookes. “It is safe to say”, de Coubertin wrote, “that the Wenlock people alone have preserved and followed the true Olympian traditions.”

After 1945, the only empires left were the American one, informal but pervasive, and the Soviet one, formal and invasive. Communism helped to inflate sport by turning athletics into an industrial process, systematically doping runners, oarsmen and weightlifters in order to win medals, which in turn led Western nations to pour in government money. The United States, unlike Britain before it, failed to engage the rest of the world with its team games, but colonised individual sports like tennis and golf, in which about half the major tournaments are now held on American soil. In 1960 a young American lawyer, Mark McCormack, shook hands with an American golfer, Arnold Palmer, agreed to represent him, and invented the profession of the sports agent, which has led almost all modern sports stars to moonlight as corporate marketing tools.

When communism fell, capitalism motored on. These days, imperial might lies partly in the hands of global commerce, and while the American football team are still relative minnows at the World Cup, plenty of big American fish are in the water. At the German grounds in 2006, the green of the pitch was often framed by the red of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Germany has 1,200 breweries, but none of them supplied the official beer of the tournament: for the sixth World Cup running, it was Budweiser, made by Anheuser-Busch of Chicago, which paid $40m for the alcohol rights.


What empires don’t explain is the way sport has taken off financially, like a long-delayed rocket. For the 1948 Olympics in London, the broadcasting rights went for somewhere between £1,000 and £1,500—about £40,000 ($60,000) in today’s money. For the Olympics’ return to London in 2012, the rights (in a parcel with the 2010 Winter Olympics) went for £2.5 billion.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out where the fuel has come from: television. First, most people in the developed world bought a TV set, allowing big sports events into our living rooms; then the space age brought satellites into play, making the pictures live and sharp; then broadcasting was deregulated, adding hundreds of new channels and creating—in certain markets, in selected fields—fierce competition for rights. “We have the long-term rights in most countries to major sporting events,” Rupert Murdoch told News Corp shareholders in 1996. “We intend to...use sports as a battering all our pay-TV operations.” And he has.

The rocket shows no sign of falling to earth. Even in the short history of British football’s Premier League, launched in 1992, Sky has gone from paying £38m a season for its package of live matches to £367m a season (from 2010-11 to 2012-13), while the BBC now pays £57m a season just for delayed highlights. These vast sums have clear consequences: players are paid more, and viewers are charged more. Murdoch and his fellow satellite barons have made sport richer, and it has returned the favour.

Whether they have made sport bigger is more debatable. Even now, most people don’t have satellite television. In Britain, just over a third of homes have Sky, so no live Premiership match reaches as many people as a live international on the BBC or ITV. When live coverage of Test cricket in England switched from terrestrial to satellite (Channel 4 to Sky) in 2006, it lost about two-thirds of its viewers. But the satellite companies promote sport hard, making it look bigger and whipping up a sense of occasion for something as humdrum as a league match between Blackburn and Stoke. And they have turned football from something that happens once a week, with few games shown live, to something that happens at three different times on Saturday, two on Sunday, and once most other nights: if you’re hooked on football, you can get ten hits a week just from your own country. And then they import other countries’ domestic games as well. The space that football occupies has spread like a cloud of ash.

When other things remain equal—terrestrial or satellite, live or highlights, weekday or weekend—viewing figures for sport are strikingly consistent. England’s opening game of the 2006 World Cup, against Paraguay, peaked at an estimated 12.8m viewers in Britain; their opening game in 2002, against Sweden, attracted 12.5m. But then many viewing figures are on a downward trend, as our entertainment options proliferate. And the figures leave out the hordes who watch at the pub, or the sports club, or with the in-laws who can afford Sky.


In 1924, in a small Bavarian town called Herzogenaurach, two brothers set up a business that started an industry. Adolf Dassler was a cobbler and amateur athlete, his brother Rudolf was a salesman, and their business was making sports shoes, using leather and nails. Later they fell out, implacably, and their company, Gebrüder Dassler, split in two—forming Adidas and Ruda, which was soon renamed Puma. Both brothers were card-carrying Nazis and at the end of the war, each brother accused the other of trying to shop him to the Allies. Their story is told in “Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport” (Allen Lane) by a Dutch reporter, Barbara Smit. She shows how Adidas ran on craftsmanship and love of sport to begin with, but came to run on rivalry: the fraternal battle with Puma, and then an Oedipal one, as Adolf Dassler’s son Horst moved across the border to set up Adidas France as a de-facto rival to the parent company. The story is Greek tragedy with trainers and tracksuits.

Adidas grew and grew, to the point where its latest recorded turnover, €10 billion, is about 25 times that of the world’s richest football club, Real Madrid. But it didn’t just get big: it acquired power. “Horst Dassler created sports marketing,” says Andrew Jennings, a British reporter and author of “Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals” (Harper Sport). Jennings feels too much of the credit in this area has gone to Mark McCormack. “Horst was a visionary. He understood the importance of strategic alliances years before Harvard Business School started teaching it.”

The elder Dasslers had been the first to get sports stars to wear their kit. Horst Dassler continued that, but also saw the advantage in buying up rights. “In the late Sixties he realised that you could do marketing, you could do branding, you could have advertising boards all around your pitch.” Sport became much bigger business when football woke up to the value of its television rights. To sell them, football’s ruling body, FIFA, engaged a Swiss marketing company, ISL, owned by Horst Dassler. ISL eventually went bust (how on earth did it manage that?), leaving a Swiss magistrate looking into allegations that ISL had bribed FIFA officials. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, strenuously denied the allegations, and remains in office, as he has been since 1981, when he became general secretary.

Horst Dassler died in 1987, and Adidas has changed hands twice since. What hasn’t changed is its grip on the World Cup. This year it is, as ever, one of the major sponsors, now known as partners. Adidas has kitted out the German (or West German) team since 1954, but it doesn’t stop there. Its three stripes, running from neck to wrist, will be sported by 12 nations this time, making an ass of the rule limiting logos to a patch on the chest. When Zinedine Zidane of France provided the defining moment of the 2006 tournament by head-butting an Italian opponent in the final, he was wearing Adidas kit; so was the referee who sent him off. The prize Zidane won as the best player was the Adidas Golden Ball. In its World Cup advertising, Adidas used Franz Beckenbauer, the regal German defender from 1966. He was also chairman of the World Cup organising committee.

The 2006 World Cup had one glaring flaw: a shortage of goals. Shots from a distance kept flying into the stands, and the big matches at the end were almost goalless. Partly this was due to defensive coaching. Partly it was the fact that the players had to use a revolutionary new ball, with moulded panels replacing the stitching. This was the +TeamGeist, produced by Adidas, who said they hoped to sell 10m such balls to the public, 4m more than in 2002. The ball was a microcosm of modern sport: highly styled, commercially driven, lavishly branded, exorbitantly priced (£75), and ultimately disappointing. Adidas ended up making £1 billion in extra revenues, and duly retained the ball contract for this year’s World Cup.

Big business used to have little to do with sport. Football clubs were owned by rich individuals who tended to be self-made men, from the world of property or used cars, rather than bosses of multinational companies. Rugby and cricket clubs, and German football clubs, were owned by their members and run by committees. Shirts carried no lettering apart from badges and a discreet manufacturer’s logo; business brands were confined to the hoardings round the side of the pitch.

Within a generation, nearly all that has changed. Arsenal’s stadium is called the Emirates, after the airline that sponsors the team. Manchester United have just come to the end of a £56m four-year shirt-sponsorship deal with AIG; when AIG fell apart in 2008, United moved smoothly on to Aon, who will pay £80m for the next four years. The England cricket team’s shirts carry three lions and one mobile-phone company. National teams have their designated suppliers, their “official beer” and even “official cider”. Tennis players and racing drivers have become human billboards, festooned with branding.

Andrew Jennings, scourge of FIFA, has a theory about this. “When we’re enjoying sport, we’re all open, we’re vulnerable, we’re small children again. And that’s how big capitalism likes us to be. Antonio Gramsci said: ‘How can you have a revolution when the enemy has an outpost in your head?’ Well, sport gives the corporations that outpost in our heads.”

Sport is certainly inclined to infantilise us. For the duration of the match or tournament, fans care more about the result than almost anything. It hurls us into the moment and reduces us to despair or euphoria; Kipling is no longer in the picture. Replica shirts, which used to be for children, are now worn by grown men and women, all around the world. And along with an impressionable audience, sport offers business a priceless air of health. The food and drink brands that loom largest at the Olympics and the World Cup are the unhealthy ones—cola, hamburgers, fried chicken. Companies that grow oranges don’t get a look-in, even at half-time. “The link to corporate industry is far greater than it was in the past,” Joe Maguire says. He goes so far as to talk about the sport-industrial complex. “It’s a real-time, 24/7, billion-dollar industry.”


One summer afternoon in 1981, Rupert Murdoch called Harry Evans into his office. Murdoch was the new owner of the Times, Evans its new editor. Murdoch had a simple message: “Four pages for sport, every day.” That, Evans replied, was going too far. As he relates in his book “Good Times, Bad Times” (Weidenfeld), he agreed that there should be more sport, but not that much more. Six months later he resigned, citing “differences between me and Mr Murdoch”.

Four broadsheet pages would now be considered hopelessly meagre. Sports coverage has ballooned to incorporate ghosted columns from players, ghosted columns from ex-players, graphics about tactics, betting columns, gossip columns, sport-on-television reviews, podcasts, vodcasts, and even columns from comedians. “The sports section bulged with personality columnists,” Max Hastings wrote in “Editor” (Macmillan), a memoir of a decade spent modernising the Daily Telegraph. Hastings’ own idea of sport involved guns and blood, but he grasped the supremacy of ball games: “I tried to give our sports editor anything he wanted within reason. In 1987, we had a sports staff 38 strong. By 1995, this had grown to 67. We had to defend our supremacy in this area at almost any cost.” Since then, another form of expansion has come along. The players still appear on stage only once or twice a week, so equal billing in the soap opera has now been given to the managers, who make decisions, and comments, and mischief, most days. The 2010-11 Champions’ League was viewed largely as another chapter in the saga of José Mourinho, the Portuguese manager of Inter Milan.

Newspapers change fast, yet space for sport never seems to shrivel. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if someone were to launch a paper called the Daily Sportophobe, it might do rather well, but it is now decades since any general-interest national paper in Britain has been brave, or rash, enough to play sport down. Again, it’s not just Britain. Since Barcelona in 1992, the athletes the world sends to the Olympics have been outnumbered by the people reporting on them.

This trend has been accentuated by the internet, which gives written journalism endless space, greater reach, more urgency and more readers. The web brings fans together between matches; it smuggles sport into the office, as television often cannot; it distributes news—and non-news, rumour and speculation—at lightning speed; it reaches the Manchester United fan in Seoul as fast as the one in Salford; it gives the punter a pulpit, and lets clubs be publishers, pushing out their own spin. Online sport is immensely popular. At, the 2006 World Cup drew 399m page impressions, twice as many as in 2002 (191m); the final even made the top ten pages on the New York Times site. This time there are even newer media: Twitter, Facebook, phone apps. Every time a new medium comes along, sport effortlessly annexes it (“Get behind-the-scenes news from the England camp straight to your iPhone”). Fans are addicts, and sport on the computer, or the mobile, is addiction squared.


In the 1960s and 1970s, the cinema kept up a steady supply of man-sized heroes: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson. In the 1980s, it provided human cartoons like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and likeable everymen like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. Since the 1990s, it has favoured pretty boys (Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio), smiling scientologists (Tom Cruise) and more everymen (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington). With the odd exception like George Clooney, the leading men are not pitched at grown-ups.

A similar transition took place in rock music. Its male superstars tend to be either elderly (Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney), earnest (Bono of U2, Chris Martin of Coldplay), neurotic (Robbie Williams), scary (Eminem) or baby-faced (Justin Timberlake). The last regular guy to reach rock superstardom may have been Bruce Springsteen, 35 years ago.

This gaping hole has been filled by sportsmen, from the basketball star Michael Jordan to the cricketer Andrew Flintoff. The artist Andy Warhol, who knew virtually nothing about sport, saw it coming 30 years ago: “the sports stars of today”, he said, “are the movie stars of yesterday.” The singer and poet Leonard Cohen made a similar point when I interviewed him in 1988: “In the Sixties, music was the mode, the most important form of communication. I think today it’s sports. The sports figures in America are much more attractive and interesting and their lives are much more dangerous than the rock figures. They are in the traditional heroic mould.”


Sport would never have got anywhere without transport. The growth of the railways in the 19th century allowed teams to play matches that were not just local derbies, and thence to form leagues. International tournaments were slow to get going because they relied on sea travel: when the first football World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930, the European teams arrived by boat—all four of them (England didn’t enter). Nowadays tennis, golf, cricket and motor racing are global merry-go-rounds, running on aeroplane fuel. But these may be necessary conditions rather than sufficient ones. A more decisive factor, Andrew Jennings argues, was industrial reform. “The trade unions [reduced] the ludicrous hours that our grandparents worked, so people had time to go to matches. And they got wages lifted, so there was disposable income.” A more right-wing view would be that productivity rose, and took earnings with it.

Organised football had started as an amateur sport, verging on upper-class. In the first 14 years of the FA Cup, the Old Etonians were finalists eight times. By the second world war, football belonged largely to the working man, while the middle classes leaned more towards rugby and cricket. By the end of the 1980s, British football was in a bad way, blighted by hooliganism, run-down stadiums, and the disasters at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough. These prompted the Taylor report, which did away with the terraces and—in league with Murdoch’s millions—paved the way for the game to become more classless again. Snobbery towards football had been fading since the 1960s, when middle-class boys, whose fathers may well have looked down their noses at the game, were just as excited by the World Cup win as anyone else. Those boys are now middle-aged and some of them are making decisions in the media. The process was defined and extended by Nick Hornby, whose bestseller “Fever Pitch” took genteel football mania into the mainstream. Sport has been described as drama for people who don’t go to the theatre. These days, it also grips many of those who do.

Wider social currents have lapped at sport too. Some of the sports lover’s less attractive tendencies have been in retreat for 30 years: racism, sexism, nationalism. They are all forms of tribalism, which still lurks in the stands. After moving to the Emirates, Arsenal began hosting international friendlies, starting with Brazil v Argentina. It was a rare chance for Arsenal fans to enjoy a game as neutrals. And still the ritual cry went up: “Stand up if you hate Tottenham”. George Orwell said sport was war minus the shooting. Often it is civil war: Manchester V Liverpool, Madrid V Barcelona. Orwell didn’t mean it kindly, but perhaps this acts as a vital valve. Sport has become the last refuge of the unreconstructed.

Feminism has given sport a boost in another way: women now go to watch matches more than they did. In old photographs, football crowds seem to consist entirely of stolid men in hats and ties. Now the grounds have family enclosures, and at the Emirates or Old Trafford, the inevitable person effing and blinding in the row behind may well be a woman. If you stop making half the population feel unwelcome, you don’t half expand your market.

As life becomes more atomised, people yearn to be part of a crowd. Live music has boomed even as record sales have slumped. For decades it was assumed that if football was live on television, attendances would fall; instead, total ticket sales have grown almost every year since the Premiership was formed, and live broadcasting allowed, in 1992. Even those who don’t have a ticket show the urge to gather in large numbers. At the 2006 World Cup, the authorities laid on a four-week Fan Fest in Berlin, creating a shadow stadium where as many as 22,000 could watch on big screens. We don’t just like being there; we even like not quite being there.

Sport has infected other fields with its values. Everything from hairdressing to accountancy now has its own awards ceremony, making mere workers into winners and losers. The recent British election was dominated by televised debates between the main party leaders, which turned a four-week campaign into a three-set match. Heavily previewed and then exhaustively dissected, the debates were sport without the drama, the athleticism, the crowd reaction or even the scoreboard. In the messy aftermath, the place to find out what was happening was not the lead stories, which were often bland and clueless, but the minute-by-minute updates, supplied by deskbound reporters—a trick imported from sport.

A winner-takes-all culture, which would have been abhorrent a generation ago, has spread outwards from banking, with its eight-figure bonuses. It is harder to protest against that when we swallow the extreme economics of sport. Cristiano Ronaldo is paid an estimated £11.3m a year by Real Madrid, or £217,000 a week. And that’s before he slips on his Y-fronts. Tiger Woods was still valued at $82m as a brand by Forbes in February, even after 14 mistresses’ worth of dirty laundry.

As a whodunnit, this is “Murder on the Orient Express”. Every suspect had a motive: they all dunnit. And we have let them. Sport, more than most things, is what we make of it. It plays on a screen not just in the corner of the room but in our heads. Its significance largely consists of what we project on to it. We may be watching in much the same numbers, but we are doing so with greater intensity, and inside a wider penumbra of collective consciousness. We all dunnit.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life, rock critic of the Mail on Sunday and former editor of Wisden

Images Richard Rockwood, BSKYB, IsakAronsson (via Flickr)