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Is this sport?

31 March 2015 | Posted in Magazine Features | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

Is this sport?

Definitions and perceptions vary but for all the arguments about what constitutes a sport and what doesn’t there are a growing number of activities, pursuits, events and competitive pastimes searching for sponsors, broadcasters and a slice of people’s time. SportsPro picks out six and then unpicks their sporting credentials.

By David Cushnan

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sport as ‘a game or competitive activity, esp. an outdoor one involving physical exertion’ and as ‘amusement, diversion, fun’. Meanwhile SportAccord, the umbrella organisation for international sports federations, defines sport based on a set of carefully worded criteria. A sport, it says, should include an element of competition, not rely on any element of luck specifically integrated into the sport, not pose an undue health or safety risk, should not be harmful to a living creature or rely on equipment provided by a single supplier. It splits its members into one of five groups: primarily physical, primarily mind, primarily motorised, primarily coordination and primarily animal-supported. It currently boasts 92 full members and 17 associate members.

Beyond that, the definition of sport is almost entirely personal: to some, Formula One’s reliance on machinery precludes it from ever being classed as a sport; for others, darts, despite its recent surge in popularity, will forever be classed as a pub game. Geography is a factor, too; activities regarded without debate as sport in one place may be completely alien to those living in another.

History plays its part, too. “In a country like the UK, our sport act dates back to 1936 and it really relates to when we were in wars and sport was linked purely to physical activity,” suggests Patrick Nally, a veteran of the international sports industry and a man with a keen eye for future trends – as will become apparent. “If you go back to early Olympics, they weren’t defined just as physical activities – art and literature was as much a part of the early Olympics as the physical. Is the definition of a sport purely of a physical nature or does sport include activities of a mental nature?”

In determining what is and isn’t sport, there is also the blurring of the boundaries of what might best be described as traditional professional sport and entertainment to consider: in a world where live sport is one of the last drivers of audiences and advertising, reality television shows around the world have taken cues from professional sport by introducing elements of competition, rivalry and peril. Similarly, sports are well aware they are competing for eyeballs and dollars in a cluttered world of entertainment, hence the increased use of music, made-for-television events, and the occasional use of dry ice.

The rise in 24 hour sports networks has also stretched and confused the definition of sport: World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) programming fills hours on channels such as Sky Sports in the UK, while in the US, NBC Sports Network has a deal in place to broadcast car auctions.

What is clear is that there are many activities and pursuits on the cusp of being grouped as professional sports, some actively positioning themselves as such and others that have drifted towards it in a more organic fashion, almost by accident. SportsPro has selected six such activities in this grey area – they are all activities that the magazine has not covered in any great detail before and some have been the subject of feisty internal debate as to whether they should merit greater coverage – with the aim of answering a single, straightforward question: is this sport?

This feature appeared in the April 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine.

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