All posts by Jack Martin

John Motson: legendary commentator on his 50-year career and retirement

When legendary football commentator John Motson revealed last September that he would be hanging up his mic at the end of the current season, many would have been forgiven for feeling a touch of sadness and loss.

Indeed, over the last half a century, the 72-year-old has become a national treasure in Britain – as has his signature sheepskin coat.

Having described the action on the pitch in fans’ living rooms every Saturday night on Match of the Day.

The Londoner did his first radio commentary way back in 1969 and, in an illustrious 50-year career with the BBC, has covered 10 World Cups, 10 European Championships, 29 FA Cup finals and countless league and cup matches for Match of the Day and BBC Radio 5 Live.

Hence, it’s no surprise that as his retirement nears ever closer, ‘Motty’ had a lot of memories to share with Elephant Sport in this exclusive interview.

How did you get into commentary?
When I was on a daily newspaper in Sheffield, a local radio station started up. They were looking for sports writers to give news pieces over the radio, so my sports editor put me forward.

That’s where I got my first broadcast experience. Then a few years later I saw the BBC were looking for sports radio assistants, which I applied for and got. And the rest is history.

Was commentary always the goal?
Well, yes and no. When I got into broadcasting and realised I was going places with my voice, I then pursued it.

However, when I left school and joined the Barnet Press, I hadn’t set commentary as the be all and end all. It all just happened.

What would your advice be for aspiring football journalists or commentators?
My advice would be to get in touch with newspapers and media outlets and look for work experience because when you come out of a course, it doesn’t guarantee you a job.

Never take a rejection and be very persistent. I had to try a lot of papers before I got my first job. Getting your foot in the door is the key. It will get easier after that.

You’ve seen so many different players over the last 50 years. Which one was the best?
The best English player would be Paul Gascoigne. He made a huge impression on me. With the foreign players, I’d have to pick three. Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.

What was the best match you commentated on?
That would have to be Germany 1 England 5. I’d never seen England beat a major country by that scoreline away from home. Yes, it was only a qualifier, but it was magical.

And the best team?
I’ve seen many great teams, but the Liverpool team of the eighties was really good.

Which grounds did you most enjoy visiting?
Well, I am London boy and, therefore, liked the old Highbury, Upton Park and White Hart Lane.

Finally, what’s the plan after retirement and will you miss the commentary box?
Oh, I will find somewhere to use my voice, that’s for sure. Probably, some corporate work, speaking at dinners.

The commentary gig has got a lot harder in recent years, I will say that. When I started out, there was only 11 players and one sub, and their shirt numbers would be one to 12. Now they all have different numbers.

To be honest, I don’t know whether I’ll miss it. I’ll just have to wait and see.

Images courtesy of BBC Sport

How Twitter is leading the digital sports broadcasting revolution

When Twitter was launched in 2006, its founders surely never imagined that the platform would end up broadcasting live sport.

However, set up as a social media service, Twitter, in recent years, has made huge moves in the sports industry, signing deals to show live events including tennis from Wimbledon, golf from the PGA Tour and football from the MLS.

On the surface, all of their partnerships have worked extremely well, which has led many to believe that we are now in the midst of a move away from traditional broadcasting to social media platforms in terms of watching sport. But, is it really true?

Shift from television

“It’s possible that there has been a shift from traditional broadcasting in the sense of watching sport on a television,” says Elizabeth Stranges, sports partnerships manager at Twitter UK. “But fans are still consuming sport via broadcaster’s digital channels, as well as on social media, where available.

“Sport remains to be one of the few viewing experiences that thrives in its real-time nature and that unique format lends itself well to continued support from fans while the event is live, regardless of the channel it is streamed or broadcast on.”

As television ratings for live sport decline, one thing, for sure, is that sporting authorities are beginning to anticipate the potential weight digital outlets could hold in the commercial future of their sports.

And, with 319 million monthly users, many of whom are sports fans, and a platform which makes it easy to network with others, it’s not hard to see why Twitter is currently being preferred as sport’s primary digital broadcasting network.

“I think sporting authorities have recognised that Twitter is the perfect companion to their content,” says Stranges. “The largest topic of conversation on Twitter in the UK in 2016 was sport; bear in mind this was also the year of Brexit and Trump’s election.

“So, it’s hard to ignore that Twitter provides them with one of the best ways to reach their fans, grow their audience and join the conversation around their brands.”

World Cup coverage

With the 2018 World Cup in Russia around the corner, social media companies will be all looking to showcase the power and potential of their platforms. And Twitter is no exception.

Indeed, earlier this year, in yet another huge coup, the digital media company announced that it has signed a partnership with Fox Sports to broadcast the sports channel’s coverage of the World Cup. Undoubtedly, it sounds good, but how will it work?

“We’re very excited about the partnerships with Fox Sports,” says Stranges. “They’ll produce a daily 30-minute show on all 27 match days during the tournament, to be live-streamed exclusively on Twitter and available to logged-in and logged-out US users via @FOXSports and @FOXSoccer.

“Rachel Bonnetta will host from Moscow’s Red Square, and the show will include match previews, recaps, Twitter reactions and original segments produced by Fox Sports’ team in Moscow.

“Fox Sports will also provide “near-live video highlights” from every match to Twitter, including every goal scored, as well as videos from question-and-answer sessions with talent, interviews with players and coaches and press conferences.

“Looking at the upcoming World Cup as a topical benchmark, back in 2014, there were an incredible 672 million Tweets sent across the month-long tournament.

“And in fact, back in November we shared that there were already 50K Tweets sent purely about the draw alone at the back end of 2017. So, the momentum on Twitter is continuing.”

Competition

Indeed, the momentum is certainly in Twitter’s favour at the moment considering it has also recently signed a three-year deal with Major League Soccer to broadcast live matches, highlights and features.

However, at the same time, with the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, who already own the UK broadcasting rights to ATP tennis from 2019, all looking to expand their own sports broadcasting portfolio, Twitter could be forgiven for feeling anxious about the rising competition from other digital media outlets.

“It has been, and will continue to be, interesting to watch how various platforms will evolve in this space,” says Stranges. “But I think Twitter has a unique positioning when it comes to sport.

“People come to Twitter to see and talk about What’s Happening and rarely is that more relevant than with live sporting events given the real time nature of the conversation.”

Future

The broadcasting deals Twitter have been able to pull off and successfully implement within their platform over the last two to three years should send a shiver down the spines of the big television broadcasters as it suggests that TV may no longer be king in terms of watching sport.

Clearly, the ability to view sport and interact with others at the same time online is something which appeals to the younger generations and Twitter have shrewdly used that to their advantage.

Whether, Twitter will seek to be the host broadcaster of sporting events down the line remains to be seen, however, it’s evident that sport has now become hugely significant to the brand and its future.

“Sport partnerships are very important to Twitter,” concludes Stranges. “And we’re excited to continue working with our partners on new and innovative initiatives in the coming years.”

Feature image courtesy of Digital Sport

Tiger Woods comeback great for golf, says TPC director Rice

As Tiger Woods finished in the top five of the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational over the last two weeks, the glint was back in the eye of the 14-time major winner.

Normally, anything less than a victory, would rarely represent a good result in the mind of the 42-year-old. Yet, on both occasions, a second and fifth-placed finish, was seen as huge progress for Woods in his quest to return to former glories after a series of back problems over the last four years.

Swinging freely and putting lethally, Woods seems to be close to his best again.

Yes, appearances at the Farmers Insurance and Honda Classic offered encouragement earlier on in the year. However, it’s his performances at the Valspar and Arnold Palmer Invitational, which have triggered belief that the back fusion, undertaken after a failed comeback attempt in 2017, may have finally worked.

Looking on with keenness, golf’s governing bodies, tour executives and tournament officials will have been rubbing their hands together, thinking of the benefits a fit Woods can bring to the sport and their events.

For instance, you only have to look at the huge crowds following the Californian over the last couple of weeks on the PGA Tour to realise the impact he still holds in golf and the sporting world.

‘Unique appeal’

The Players Championship in May, widely regarded as the sport’s unofficial ‘fifth major’, will be on the horizon after the Masters and, with Woods looking fit and driving the ball well, the tournament’s director, Jared Rice, is eagerly anticipating the legend’s return to TPC Sawgrass.

“First of all, I want to say that Tiger Woods is an unbelievable athlete, and if anybody could come here and win after such a long time out, it would be him,” Rice told Elephant Sport.

“For sure, anytime that a player of his stature is in the field and participating in your sport, the sport is better off for it. He has a unique appeal.”

Indeed, at the Valspar, golf broadcaster NBC reported an increase of 181% in their third round viewing figures – their highest-rated Saturday golf broadcast for a dozen years.

It’s clear, similar to Roger Federer in tennis and Usain Bolt in athletics, Woods sparks interest on an unprecedented level when he is part of the field, which is why tournament directors and golf’s hierarchy are hoping that this is a bona fide comeback.

Once in a generation

“We have, in recent years, seen record growth in attendance both from home in America and internationally,” said Rice. “With our prestigious and well-heralded fan experience, luckily we are not reliant on one player.

“But saying that, although we have always had strong fields, Woods is a once-in-a-generation player, and having him added again to what we have already going on here would, undoubtedly, aid the tournament greatly.”

With golf suffering somewhat of a decline in interest, the return of Woods, the sport’s most iconic and influential player, couldn’t have come at a better time as millennials look for inspiration to play and watch the game.

And, although a flurry of talented and exciting youngsters such as Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm have emerged in recent times, none of them yet possess the aura and magnet effect of their elder competitor.

Rightly, a lot has been made of the hysteria around Woods since his return, with current and former golfers berating the lack of focus around other great players in the field.

But, frankly, the truth is that golf and its success, still relies heavily on a healthy Woods. Hence, all those involved with the game will be desperately hoping his latest return is not short-lived.

Feature image courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Badge war with FA puts Wembley FC on the brink

Just two miles from Wembley Stadium lies Vale Farm, the home of ninth-tier Wembley Football Club. It’s where John Barnes began his semi-professional career and where England trained ahead of their historic World Cup win of 1966.

Wembley FC usually play in front of around 40 or 50 people in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division. Yet now the club’s future is threatened by a bizarre legal dispute with the Football Association over the fact the club’s badge contains the word “Wembley” and might be confused with Wembley Stadium.

Wembley FC’s chairman, local builder Brian Gumm, was brought up just down the road in Stonebridge. He has run the club for more than 30 years and holds dear all 10 of the teams he presides over, from the under-eights to the senior side.

Just over a year ago, Gumm was on holiday in Mexico when he received what he terms a “threatening letter” from the FA, detailing why he should sign over the trademark of Wembley FC’s badge, which has the word Wembley above a shield with a lion’s head.

Being a proud man, the 65-year-old refused and what followed has been a drawn out legal dispute with the FA.

The root cause of the issue arises from a 2012 sponsorship deal Wembley FC made with Budweiser, who, at the time, registered the club’s crest.

War over Wembley

The promotion with the beer company saw Martin Keown and David Seaman play for Wembley FC in FA Cup matches, and Terry Venables also came in as technical advisor.

However, when that deal ended, the trademark rights were then passed down to the club.

A few years later when the FA endeavoured to expand its brand in various countries in Europe and the United States, it was restricted due to the outstanding trademarks of Wembley FC.

In response, the FA applied to the European Union’s Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) to cancel Wembley FC’s European trademark.

Legal wrangles

The FA won the ruling in July, but the non-league club claims the application was submitted behind their back and are now appealing against the decision.

An FA statement said: “We have never objected to their use of this logo in the UK or elsewhere.

“This case is about Wembley FC registering their logo in several countries outside of the UK, such as Russia, China and the US, and then refusing to co-exist with us in those countries. We have not asked and will not ask Wembley FC to pay the costs to date.”

As Gumm has no qualms in telling me, this dispute is very much about money and getting a fair deal for his club. He feels that the FA have been difficult to deal with and, from the outset, have never tried to be courteous or reach a sensible solution.

“The FA has spent thousands in legal fees over this,” says Gumm. “Who knows, if they made me an offer, this could have all been resolved.

“As far as I’m concerned, the FA think that we are a little club, so we shouldn’t have trademarks and that we’re not going to get anything from them. They should be trying to look after us, not fight us.”

What price a badge?

Gumm wouldn’t reveal what kind of figure would clinch a settlement. However, the publicity the legal battle has gained is certainly helping his case.

Indeed, along with all the media attention, a petition, with 31,000 signatures, has even been set up online by a mystery supporter, Susan Gale. Gumm has never met the woman who created the page, but says he will thank the campaigner if he ever sees her in person.

The FA believe the petition unjustifiably shows them in a bad light and that, as a non-profit organisation, they shouldn’t have to pay for the trademark of the badge.

Yet the fact remains that Gumm has now lost trust in the organisation who are supposed to protect grassroot clubs like his.

He says that if they are forced to alter the badge, with no compensation in return, the club, which has existed since 1947, will likely go bankrupt as the funds are not there to change all the kits and signage.

“It’s costing me, personally, a lot of money, which I can ill afford,” emphasises Gumm. “I’ve spent £3,000 already. But it’s the principle of it.

“It’s a legacy. If we do go bankrupt, ‘what have I left my grandchildren?’ I’m going to give it the best shot I can. I’m in my sixties but I’m working harder now than I ever have. If it kills me, it kills me.”

Featured image: Paul Grover

Images courtesy of Wembley FC

How Transport for London keeps the capital’s sports fans moving

When it comes to sport, London is a special city. Indeed, each year it hosts hundreds of football, cricket and rugby matches, as well as Wimbledon, athletics events and the odd Rugby World Cup or Olympics.

With each of these events attracting thousands of fans from all over the country and the world, Transport for London (TfL) is primarily responsible for transferring the masses to and from numerous sporting locations.

But, with the potential for chaos and disruption, how does the travel authority prepare to make sure everything always runs smoothly?

TfL’s tactical plans

“There are an awful lot of sporting events in London,” says Stuart Reid, programme director for travel demand management at TfL. “We have 12 league football teams in the capital and they bring their own challenges. You also have cricket matches and the once a year events like Wimbledon and the London Marathon.

“What’s good about stadium events compared to ones on the road like marathons is that we know roughly how many fans will be attending. And then we primarily work with the promoters and police to try to establish where most people will be arriving from. It’s a multi-agency approach.

“We find the more we accommodate an event, the more successful travel becomes and the more the sporting traveller knows what to expect. That makes things a whole lot easier.”

“There are operational plans that we can enact,” says Nick Owen, head of control centre operations at TfL.

“But it does take a lot of thinking. London Underground and bus services are extended if they need to be. And roads will be closed. All, of course, depending on how many people are expected to be travelling and the event.

“For example, with an event like Wimbledon we start planning for the following year’s tournament the day after it finishes. We would have a debrief on what’s gone well and what hasn’t gone well, and then we would plan how to improve our approach and services the next time.

“The key for us is to have as much notice and prior knowledge of the event so we can tailor the works on the network, whether that be above or below the ground.”

Twickenham scrum

With most fixtures scheduled in the summer and the season starting in August, preparing for football games is a rather simple and repetitive task with the help of clubs and police.

However, it’s the one-off events like the Olympics in 2012, which really stretch TfL’s resources.

These require the highest amount of planning and cooperation. As Reid and Owen point out, hosting the recent Rugby World Cup in 2015, demanded years of preparation.

“The opening ceremony at Twickenham was the first full capacity event there in the evening,” says Owen. “Fans were flocking to the stadium, but there was the added pressure of the normal Friday rush hour and people trying to come out of London, so that all had to be navigated.

“It’s quite a contrast. With football, for example, the fixtures are released in June and we can cope with that relatively easily. But the Rugby World Cup takes many months, if not, years of planning.”

“The Rugby World Cup used existing stadiums, but matches were played in locations they wouldn’t normally be, all at different times, so we had an overlay on our networks, “says Reid.

“At Twickenham the stadium operation was revved up. Parking around the stadium was reduced so we had to lay on shuttle buses to the station. That meant the A road next to Twickenham had to be shut, which wouldn’t happen for normal rugby matches. That’s where all the different planning comes in.”

Bigger stadia

With football clubs in the capital all gradually expanding their stadium capacities, the pressure on underground, overground and bus services continues to increase.

Indeed, just in the last 12 years, Arsenal and West Ham have moved to bigger grounds, withTottenham Hotspur and Chelsea planning to follow. So are TfL worried as thousands more fans descend on their services?

“It’s not as big a problem as you would think,” says Reid. “It may seem like a cliché at this point but ultimately it comes down to preparation.

“The clubs help out with stewarding. When Arsenal are playing, we have more staff on the ground at Highbury & Islington station. And at Wembley Park the same when England are playing.

“With White Hart Lane’s expansion, undoubtedly there will be significant rise in demand for services in that location, and it’s something we are working with the club and other agencies on how best to deal with it. It’s taking time but we’re planning for it.”

Benefits to London

Even though hosting sporting events takes meticulous planning and puts a strain on resources, it would be easy to forget that sports fans using transport services only make up a tiny percentage of the total number of users each year.

Hence, as TfL is keen to point out, the priority is always to keep the rest of the city moving and protect the everyday traveller from any inconvenience events can cause.

“Thirty million journeys are made on a typical day in London,” says Reid. “Therefore, it’s important to remember that the number of people you have to manage going about their normal day outstrips the number of people going to a sporting event.

“We’re constantly thinking about how we can keep traffic moving. How we can keep buses running amid a road event. You’ve got to make sure, the rest of the public are least affected as possible and can go wherever they need to go.”

Speaking to Reid and Owen their modesty is commendable. However, it’s clear that sporting occasions couldn’t run as efficiently as they do in the capital, if it wasn’t for the work TfL puts in behind the scenes.

Every year, London’s booming population is making it harder and harder to maintain a good service, but, admirably, those at TfL still recognise the advantages of London hosting sports events and are committed to helping them run smoothly.

“There’s a challenge we face every day,” concludes Owen. “Increased travel demand due to the growing population. That’s why TfL is  investing heavily so we can deal with these pressures. But I don’t think it’s getting harder to accommodate sporting events.

“We absolutely understand the benefits of those events to the economy, to the local councils. The World Athletics Championship, for example, contributed £107 million to the London economy. That just shows how important they are to this city.

“That’s why me and Stuart and the rest of the team spend so much time trying to accommodate these events. They are a part of what makes London a global city.”

Images courtesy of TfL

Phil Taylor ‘arguably the greatest sportsman ever’ says Barry Hearn

Down the years, darts has had its fair share of legends. Eric Bristow, Raymond van Barneveld and Dennis Priestley to name a few. However, nobody has ruled the roost like Phil Taylor.

Over the course of a 30-year career, ‘The Power’ has utterly dominated the sport, winning 216 professional tournaments, including 85 majors and 16 World Championships.

Taylor is retiring 30 years after becoming professional in 1987

On Friday night, however, Taylor will begin his last World Championship and, indeed, last professional tournament at the Alexandra Palace in London.

Being a symbol of the game for so long, it seems scarcely believable to most darts fans that they will never see the 56-year-old play on a live stage again after January.

Not least, Barry Hearn, the chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, who believes the likes of Taylor are from a breed hard to find.

“I think there will be a standard of play higher than what Phil played,” says Hearn, in an exclusive interview with Elephant Sport. “But for someone to dominate the sport the way he did will be extremely difficult.

“You can’t compare him. Look at all he’s won. He’s a unique champion sportsman and I don’t think we will ever see one like him again.”

The growth of darts

The Premier League now sells out arenas in  Germany and Holland

In the 1980s, when the likes of Jocky Wilson, Bristow and John Lowe would down pints of beer while playing in front of World Championship crowds numbering only a thousand at the cramped Lakeside, the idea that darts could rise to be a sport watched all over the world, like it is today, seemed far-fetched.

However, since the split from the British Darts Organisation and the creation of the PDC in 1992, aided by Sky Sports, the game has been transformed to a level where the winner’s share at the World Championship now stands at a huge £350,000, and the Premier League, established in 2005 and played all over the British Isles, Germany and Holland, is watched by crowds some nights totalling 12,000.

The group of 16 top professionals, which included the likes of Bob Anderson and Rod Harrington, could surely not have envisaged development on such a scale when they decided to form the PDC all those years ago.

Certainly, Hearn, who became chairman back in 2001 after acquiring a majority shareholding in the corporation, has no qualms in admitting that darts has exceeded expectations.

And he confirms that Taylor, being one of the 16 to make the breakaway and with his magnet-like pull factor, has been at the heart of its progress.

‘Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil’ – Barry Hearn

“Astonished would be the word,” says Hearn, with pride in his voice. “Beyond our wildest dreams. We’ve taken it in our stride. I’d love to sit here and say I saw this development coming, but I didn’t.

“We’re just at the beginning of something special in darts. It’s a British sport played by ordinary people. Every country wants more darts and more TV coverage. It’s all over the world. Dubai and Australia, the list goes on.

“Phil was the flagbearer for us and he’s done an amazing job. That’s for sure. Nobody dominated or led a sport like he has done for 30 years. Arguably, you could say he’s the greatest sportsman ever.”

Life after Taylor

With athletics facing up to life without Usain Bolt, golf struggling to replace Tiger Woods and tennis fearing the day Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal eventually retire, the golden generation of super champions across the sporting world does seem to be nearing an end.

Looking from the outside in, you’d think darts should be equally worried for the future with its greatest ever player retiring. But, on the contrary, Hearn believes darts is well placed to look forward with optimism.

Van Gerwen has taken over from Taylor as the dominant force in darts in recent years

“Without sounding cocky, I think we’ve been a lot smarter than other sports,” says Hearn. “We’ve built a strong infrastructure within the sport.

“The formation of the Qualifying School gives us a chance of getting good young players continuously coming through. You’ve seen that this year with Rob Cross [who has broke into the world’s top 20 in his debut year on tour].

“Michael van Gerwen [current world No.1 and defending world champion] is trying to step into his shoes but there are others as well.

“Overall I think we are in a good place. Premier League ratings are going up and tickets have sold out already for nearly every week next year.

“Its clear people have bought into darts as a game, and not just for Taylor.”

Grand finale

Taylor will compete for a 17th world title at the Ally Pally

Although, darts has developed tenfold over the last 25 years and is not perhaps reliant on Taylor as it once was, there’s no doubt the legend’s impact on the game and appeal to fans and viewers is still prevalent today.

Whether it is Blackpool, Sydney or London, you only have to be present on a night when Taylor is scheduled to play to realise the unique buzz in the air of the venue.

Hence, you do wonder if it goes without saying that darts will keep the door open for a U-turn in the future.

“Always,” says Hearn. “Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil.”

Having clinched the World Matchplay in Blackpool in July for a 16th time, Taylor can already mark his final season down as a success.

But the chance to go out on an all-time high by winning a last World Championship title on the grandest of stages at Ally Pally has to be on the Stoke-on-Trent man’s mind.

The tournament itself is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month and most in the darting world, including Hearn, would see Taylor triumphing as the ultimate tribute.

“The sport owes him a lot that’s for sure,” adds Hearn. “I’m sure it’s in his mind to win it. It would be a great achievement. Everybody would want him to do it.”

The World Darts Championships start on Thursday, December 14th and will be shown live on Sky Sports. For more details and ticketing information, click here.

Images courtesy of zimbio.com

Golf’s exclusivity is damaging its long-term future

A look at the names on the sponsor billboards, scattered around the European and PGA Tour’s most prestigious events, reveals golf’s underlying issue.

Every week, when Rory McIlroy and the likes tee off, the exclusive brands of Rolex, BMW and Fly Emirates can be seen plastered in the background.

Noticeably, standing alongside them, is their affluent middle-aged target market. 

It’s a reccurring snapshot which reflects the demographics of golf’s audience and why the game is struggling to attract new fans to the sport.

British decline

The decline is particularly obvious in the UK, where, according to England Golf, since 2006, the number of people playing golf has fallen from four million to 2,785,000, and the membership of clubs in England has decreased from 850,000 to 652,000.

Many in the game believe the length of a round puts people off. Others say young people these days are more interested in computer games. Then there’s competition from other sports such as cycling.

But the huge cost and obstacles to being a dedicated golfer today have surely played their part.

With the high price of equipment, course entry fees and strict rules at clubs, it’s not hard to see why the youngest and less well-off in society are not queueing to take up the sport.

In London, especially, the dearth of pitch and putt golf and closure of public courses is hardly aiding the sport’s appeal.

Going to watch live tournaments doesn’t exactly boast inclusivity either. For example, at The Open in July, the cheapest ticket for one day’s play at Royal Birkdale worked out at £75. For an adult earning a relatively basic wage, a sum of this size would seem quite substantial, even if it is the showpiece event of the year.

And although children (under 16) could gain free admission with one adult ticket, the £40 price for youths (16-24) also appeared expensive considering that fans from that age group are supposed to be the target market.

Lack of coverage

Elsewhere, the lack of exposure in the UK is only too evident in TV coverage as free terrestrial screening of golf has become virtually non-existent in recent years.

Indeed, except for the last two days of The Masters, the rest of the European and PGA Tour events, including the other three majors, can usually only be watched live on Sky Sports.

This means that anyone without the right Sky subscription – that is, the majority of the country’s population – can only see two days of live golf each year.

It begs the question: how can people be inspired to follow their favourite players on a regular basis and become genuine fans of the sport when they are struggling to even play or watch the game?

Innovation

Over the last 12 months, the European Tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, has introduced lots of new and innovative ideas with the belief that quicker forms of golf will attract new interest.

GolfSixes, a tournament with 16 teams of two fighting it out in a match play contest over six holes, was staged in St Albans in May to liven up golf’s image and was a deemed a success with newcomers watching on TV and turning up in person.

The field wasn’t amazing, but it was a start in Pelley’s eyes.

Next year will see more modernisation with the new short-formatted Shot Clock Masters tournament and the exciting strokeplay Belgium Knockout competition, hosted by Thomas Pieters.

But, again, with all three of those events being on Sky and available only to those with a subscription, the handicap is that few people will be able to see golf’s latest innovations. This is the major issue.

Whilst, undoubtedly, Pelley and the European Tour’s efforts to shake up the game are leading the way and should be seen as progress, it’s clear they and others in power across the golfing world still seem to be missing the point.

Making the sport more exciting and faster may be the way forward but it is meaningless if the audience you are looking to attract cannot access the product.

Hence golf’s problem is not necessarily the format of the game, but, more so, its exclusivity. The sooner golf’s hierarchies realise that, the better.

Images courtesy of zimbio.com

Europe primed to reclaim Ryder Cup in ‘iconic’ Paris, says Pelley

Golf’s European Tour boss Keith Pelley believes Paris will be a fantastic host for the 2018 Ryder Cup and says he fancies Europe to regain the trophy on home soil.

2018 captains Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn in Paris
2018 captains Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn in Paris

Speaking exclusively to Elephant Sport, Pelley said he was impressed upon his visit to the French capital last month for an official ‘year to go’ Ryder Cup dinner, and is eagerly anticipating next year’s event.

The 42nd edition of the Ryder Cup, between the USA and Europe, will be played at Le Golf National in southern Paris from September 28-30. It will be the first time France has hosted the biennial tournament.

Paris

“If the ‘year to go’ dinner was anything to go by, where the captains were hitting golf balls off the Eiffel Tower, then I believe it’s going to be an absolutely brilliant Ryder Cup,” said Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour since 2015.

“I think we’re in for a right treat. Paris is an iconic city. France as a country is really behind it and tickets sold out in less than two hours.

“I think it will be an incredible competition. It will be unique, for sure, and be very interesting to follow. I couldn’t be more excited for it.”

European talent

Pelley is backing McIlroy to rediscover his best form

Remarkably, the USA haven’t lifted a Ryder Cup in Europe since 1993, when they won 15-13 at The Belfry in Warwickshire.

But with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson all claiming major victories in recent times, many in the game are tipping the US as strong favourites to break their long drought on European soil.

Pelley, however, feels that Europe have their own fair share of top players and believes the continent shouldn’t be too wary of their American counterparts.

“I think the likes of Jordan (Spieth) and Justin (Thomas) are great players and of great quality,” said Pelley. “They’ve shown that this year. But we have top young players ourselves.

“When you think about Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrell Hatton, Thomas Pieters, Jon Rahm, you know, the list goes on and on.

“Also, Rory (McIlroy) is a world-class athlete. He’s proven over and over again that he is a champion at every level.

“I have every belief that McIlroy will come back and rise again in time for the Ryder Cup, and that could prove pivotal.”

Woods

Woods – can he get his career back on track and play in Paris?

With Tiger Woods scheduled to make another comeback from crippling back injuries at the Hero World Challenge in December, the 14-time major winner’s huge fan base will be hoping he can finally stay fit and make a lasting bid to regain his supremacy.

Pelley, likewise, would also love to see Woods, 41, return to his best and try to qualify for the Ryder Cup as a player again.

But, at the same time, he doesn’t think his absence would be disastrous to the event or golf going forward, and reiterated his confidence in Europe’s rising stars to set the game alight.

“I think Tiger has been a terrific ambassador for the game,” added the 53-year-old. “The players just love to have him around. It would be great if he could return to his lofty heights. Everybody wants that.

“However, in Hazeltine at the Ryder Cup in 2016, his presence, as a vice-captain, was felt greatly. Regardless of whether he’s playing or not, I hope that he is involved in the Ryder Cup next year with the US team.

“But, still, I believe the game is in great shape with so many young players. I’m so optimistic with the talent we are producing in Europe.

“Only the other day I wrote down a list of 15 young players who could make the European team and that’s pretty exciting.”

Images courtesy of zimbio.com 

New tech, please: How Wimbledon is upping its digital game

Wimbledon is synonymous with tradition. The lush green grass of its courts, players wearing all-white, strawberries and cream.

Originally located in Worple Road, before moving to its current site in Church Road in 1922, the All England Club hosted its first tennis tournament in 1877, when Spencer Gore won 12 guineas for defeating William Marshall in the final.

Today, when the men’s and women’s champion now receive £2.2m prize money, Wimbledon continues to uphold its tradition, history and values and remains at the pinnacle of the game.

However, how does the All England Club manage to maintain its grandeur against the test of time? Put simply, the answer is: by continuously striving to be a leader in innovation.

Tradition and innovation

Centre Court at Wimbledon
Centre Court at Wimbledon

“Tradition and innovation are two pillars at the core of what the Wimbledon brand stands for,” says Alexandra Willis, head of digital, communications and content at SW19.

“Getting the balance right between the two is something that you see all over the grounds.

“If you take the Centre Court’s retractable roof for example. An amazing piece of engineering innovation but done in a very seamless way so that it’s understated.

“With the whole digital strategy, we’ve tried to follow the same ethos – celebrating Wimbledon’s traditions and preserving those traditions through the use of innovations.”

Website and social media

With tennis now a global sport, there are millions of fans all over the world who are unable to visit the grounds in person during the Championships. Therefore, Wimbledon and their partners IBM endeavour every summer to make them feel a part of the event using advanced technology.

For instance, during this year’s tournament, for the first time ever, mixed reality 360-degree view was used on the practice courts via the mobile app. Willis believes that development was the perfect example of how Wimbledon makes sure it doesn’t fall behind in appealing to all its fans far and wide.

The famous men’s singles trophy

“There are three core pillars to our development for each Championships,” says Willis. “One is a new platform. Two is incremental improvements. Three is an innovation test.

“Mixed reality is something that has been talked about a lot in sport. The idea of being able to bring people to a place they’ve never been to before.

“Truly experiencing it and immersed in what it’s like. I think we will see it again.

“Overall, the ability to leverage technology to better tell the story of different places around the grounds is definitely something we’re focused on.

With hundreds of million website views during the Championships, three million Twitter followers, four million Facebook likes and a three-year running deal with Snapchat, the appeal of the internet and social media is distinctly something which Wimbledon not only uses to its advantage but are keen to keep developing on into the future.

“It’s huge,” says Willis about social media. “One of the things that’s really important for the Wimbledon brand is its global reach.

“Yes, it’s a British event, held very proudly in Britain. However, it’s very important that we try to service our fanbase all around the world.

“Technology allows you to message different audience groups. This year we launched content in Spanish on Facebook. We’ve been doing that in China, Korea and India as well.

“Next year we are rebuilding wimbledon.com and we are hoping that fans will be able to track and monitor their favourite players. That will be a big step.”

BBC

After the Championships ended in July, the All England Club revealed that from next year, the newly-formed Wimbledon Broadcasting Services would take over from the BBC and control all cameras on the grounds.

It was a surprising move considering that the BBC have been the primary domestic broadcaster of Wimbledon for over 90 years and are currently celebrating the anniversary with a special exhibition at the Wimbledon Museum.

A vintage BBC camera on display in the Wimbledon Museum

“The reason for that decision was to enable us to deliver the best possible coverage of Wimbledon all over the grounds in pace with the change in technology in broadcast and to be able to deliver that to a truly global audience,” says Willis.

“The BBC have been, and will continue to be an excellent partner, and it’s no reflection as to how they covered Wimbledon.

“But we hope this will take some of the pressure of them in terms of introducing technology innovations such as 4K (television coverage in higher resolution).

“We celebrated 90 years with the BBC this year; 80 years of television; 50 years of colour TV. What’s so impressive about the BBC is the way they are also striving for innovation and change and to broaden their audience.

“The way we’ve collaborated together through social media has been great and will continue into the future. We can’t speak more highly of them.”

With the tournament itself running for only two weeks every summer, you would be forgiven for thinking that Wimbledon spends most of its time in lockdown.

Determination

However, contrary to common belief, plans, across the board, are constantly being drawn up to improve the brand.

Indeed, the ongoing three-year construction of a new retractable roof on Court One epitomises this spectacularly.

It’s clearly at the forefront in the minds of everybody who works at the Club to leave no stone unturned and that’s what keeps Wimbledon ahead of the curve.

“It’s at the heart of the Club that there is always something you can improve,” Willis adds.

“Whether that’s fixing a squeaky chair or bettering an app, there’s always something more we feel we can do and that’s what makes Wimbledon special.”

Feature image courtesy of wimbledon.com

London ideal for World Tour Finals says ATP’s Chris Kermode

Men’s tennis boss Chris Kermode says London will remain the home of the World Tour Finals because no other city’s sporting fans can provide the same level of enthusiasm and support for the season-ending event.

Speaking in an exclusive interview, ATP president Kermode said tournament organisers had considered offers from other cities to host the illustrious event, but London’s ability to sell out tickets made signing an extension until 2020, with the O2 Arena, host since 2009, a no-brainer.

This year’s men’s tour finale, featuring the top eight singles players and best eight doubles partnerships, takes place from November 12-19.

London partnership

“It’s a tournament which has a tradition of being moved around [the Tour Finals were hosted in Shanghai and Houston in the mid to early 2000s],” said the ATP chief.

“We looked at where we could go to, but we wanted to make sure that if we moved it would better than London.

“We had offers from three big financial cities. We weighed up the benefits and negatives and decided to stay in London.

“For the reason being that there’s no other city in the world that would sell 250,000 tickets for two sessions a day.”

The standing of the World Tour Finals has elevated hugely since its move to London eight years ago, so much so, that it is now considered the unofficial ‘fifth major’.

Yet, in the early years at the O2 Arena, many questioned whether the tournament would be a success.

“Very few people thought this tournament would work in London at the level it is now,” said Kermode. “Many doubted that the O2 Arena would work as a host, too.

“People said nobody is going to travel out there to watch tennis. It was a risk. It’s primarily a west London market, Queen’s and Wimbledon, it’s a summer sport. ‘Can tennis work in the winter in the UK?’ was a question that was frequently asked.”

Federer and Nadal

Incredibly, veteran pair Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will head to the season’s finale in London as the world’s top two after a year which has seen both players return to dominate the game’s premier prizes.

Ominously for the sport, the duo are still the main attraction for tennis fans, despite being now in their 30s.

Kermode, however, doesn’t think the game needs to worry about their eventual retirement.

“I was in Australia at the start of the year and there was nobody there who would have thought we’d get a Federer/Nadal final [Federer won the Australian Open over five sets],” said Kermode.

“Everybody was shocked by the final and the level they were playing at. It’s incredible that they’ve continued play like that for the whole season. To do that is astonishing.

“They’ve been huge icons for tennis. They’ve transcended the sport. Clearly the game will miss them. But I’m old enough to have seen quite a few generations of equal standing. Our sport has this uncanny ability to produce another superstar. There will be one after Federer and Nadal.”

Big names missing

Elsewhere, some other big names like reigning ATP champion Andy Murray, Career Slam holder Novak Djokovic and three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka will be missing from the O2 this year after suffering long-term injuries earlier in the season.

But Kermode believes the tournament’s attraction itself and the emergence of exciting youngsters like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev will make up for the high-profile absentees.

“In the early years we would have missed them in the finals massively,” said the 53-year-old.

“But now the tournament has established itself, I think we can cope. Ticket sales are at the same level as last year.

“With the likes of Zverev qualified this year we are in a good place. He’s very young but he’s incredibly focused and driven. Wants to be number one. Wants to win multiple Slams and leave a legacy.

“So the new storylines we have got with exciting new faces like him will make up for the absence of Murray and the others.”

For more information about the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, visit the ATP website.