David Owen

The world is witnessing a resurgence of nationalism, putting many of us on edge.

Sport, though, appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

While competitions whose rival teams are labelled as countries are in some cases finding the going a bit hard at the moment, those structured around private clubs or franchises are in many cases thriving and generating huge excitement.

I am thinking of cricket's Indian Premier League, whose media rights value has gone through the roof at the same time as traditional Test cricket is struggling to retain its audience.

Or football's England-based Premier League, whose growth record over a quarter of a century has been little short of astonishing and whose hold on fans has become such that more and more of us, I am convinced, have come to see the international breaks which punctuate the season at irregular intervals as a rather tiresome distraction.

Yes, okay, I am generalising; I am sure we can all think of exceptions: rugby union's Rugby World Cup - in the news this week because of the 2023 host selection process - would be one.

But now the #TakeAKnee protest in American football makes me think that the use of sport by athletes to make a political point may be heading off along the same trajectory.

Indian Premier League cricket has become big business at a time when Test matches have struggled ©Getty Images
Indian Premier League cricket has become big business at a time when Test matches have struggled ©Getty Images

After all, the global appeal of these big leagues, which advancing technology has done so much to facilitate, ensures their stars of the same sort of worldwide exposure as attained by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their black power salute in 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

I hope and trust that governing bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee, whose models are based most heavily on contests between teams and individuals in national colours, have been contemplating this trend and what it might signify.

One thing which I think it does point to is a marked diminution of the value of scarcity in the modern world - for consumers, if not athletes.

Part of the huge sense of anticipation with which we looked forward to the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in the last century when I was growing up was linked to their rarity: they only came along, as now, once every four years.

But that was a time when we accepted (we had little choice) that our entertainment diets were rigidly rationed and timetabled. Episodes of Top of the Pops or Kojak came along at the same time each week and if we missed them, well, that was that until next time.

Now we live in an entertainment world of video-on-demand and box-set binges, enabling us to immerse ourselves in what we like whenever we choose and in super-sized quantities.

If there doesn't happen to be a World Cup or an Olympic swimming competition in progress when we turn on our smart TVs or other device (and usually there isn’t), well, we can dip into the Game of Thrones archive or, more than likely, rustle up some live action from one of the top football or basketball leagues.

Part of the big football leagues' response to the entrenchment of this 'I want it now' culture in the entertainment sphere has been to spread matches far and wide throughout the week, breaking with the Saturday 3pm kick-off tradition.

Nowadays, a European football fan with deep pockets can find live action to watch pretty much every evening and most of the weekend from late August to the end of May if she really sets her mind to it.

Meanwhile, social media enables said fan to spend the rest of her free time talking about her favourite teams with like-minded individuals, or even chatting, at least in appearance, with her favourite players.

While this has been going on, World Cups and Olympic swimming competitions still take place no more frequently than in the 1930s, when Bugattis and Bakelite were all the rage, but leisure-time wasn't, except for the monied few.

Of course, it is much easier for a slick, no-nonsense, perhaps recently-formed, private commercial entity to react quickly to public demand than a global sports federation, hidebound by tradition and run according to democratic principles.

Focus could be shifting away from the international arena towards clubs and franchises ©Getty Images
Focus could be shifting away from the international arena towards clubs and franchises ©Getty Images

Nonetheless, with the number of young people with no experience of the old days when we were programmed to be prepared to wait for what we wanted increasing minute by minute, I wonder for how much longer this relative dearth of fundamental structural change in international sport will be sustainable.

It is interesting to compare the limited ways in which some of the big players in nation-on-nation sport have reacted to the transformations in the scope and pace of life going on around them.

FIFA have tried to gain a foothold at the pinnacle of the club game via an (annual) Club World Cup. So far, it has not really worked, but talk of expansion has been in the air and its time may yet come.

The organisation is also benefiting to a degree from spiralling interest in women's football, and was a relatively early embracer of esport.   

UEFA, the European football body, which has a foot in both club and international camps, is about to try and replace most international "friendlies", often justly criticised as lame, with a new construct, the Nations League.

The IOC seems to be hoping to use its new Olympic Channel to lift interest in the many competitions which unfold, often to mainstream indifference, in the long intervals between its infrequent but gargantuan flagship events.

I do not think we are witnessing the death throes of international sport or anything like them.

There is still nothing like an international match that truly matters to captivate the attention of an entire nation - witness last year’s Olympic men's football final in Brazil.

It is also possible that today's nationalistic zeitgeist will feed through into a resurgence of quotidian passion for international sport.

But I do think it likely that, unless something major changes, the commercial power and perhaps even political influence of bodies whose eggs are most or all in the international sports basket will begin more noticeably to ebb away.

Notwithstanding spiky distractions like the Russia conundrum, this ought to be starting to stimulate some serious blue-sky thinking in Lausanne.