Ahead of tonight’s shortlist announcement for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Jim Dowling, managing director at Havas SE Cake, gives his views on the divided nature of the voting public and the sportspeople that can unite them…
A Sunday night in December. Wayne Rooney rocks from foot to foot, releasing neck pressure from his collar and tie. Jess Ennis-Hill beams a smile on a red carpet. Clare Balding looks down the lens and reminds us just how emotional it’s all been, flanked by some sheepish Brownlee Brothers. The ghosts of Frank Bough, Bruno and Princess Anne look down from the eaves.
It’s the annual conversation amongst the over 40s in the Home Counties, about what a wonderful year of sport it’s been - just like the last one and the one before. We’ll debate who is deserving of the title ‘sport personality,’ and will dial 0845-something for Helen Glover. Inside this particular bubble, there’s a warm glow.
Outside we’re divided and excluded by two factors that will define the next generation of the sports business: tech and Brexit. These two issues highlight just how fragmented a market faced by those of us in the sports marketing game.
Few people under 20 are watching network TV – let alone SPOTY. As interest amongst televised sport plunges amongst 18-24s, we can assume they’ll be upstairs watching FIFA videos on Spencer FC. Their best guess is that Joe Root 655 is a YouTuber they’ve not stumbled across yet.
And Brexit is a shorthand for other societal divisions of far greater importance than sport, but which shape their relationship with it.
So how about a SPOTY short list that genuinely captures the imagination of ALL of the UK? In the absence of any specific criteria, I offer up the term ‘personality’ as someone who has engaged a bigger, newer or wider audience; by dint of this thing called “personality.”
#1 Conor McGregor
The pin-up boy for a sport that – if eyeballs on fights is the measure – is now bigger than boxing. McGregor represents a sport described as an ‘online phenomenon’ – code for a sport that doesn’t fit the traditional commercial model and narrative. As a result, you won’t be seeing him on many other lists at this time of year.
#2 Moeen Ali
English cricket’s paying public remains white, male, middle class, middle aged and hammered after 3 o’clock. Moeen, alongside Haseeb Hameed and Adil Rashid provide a fresh opportunity for English cricket to bring the UK’s South Asian communities back into Test grounds. On his day, a beautifully ripping off break, and with three sumptuous Test centuries this year, Ali has lit up English cricket. His admonishment for wearing a ‘Save Gaza’ wristband back in 2014 hints at a persona beyond the trudge of the Test match treadmill.
#3 Sarah Hunter
England captain, World Rugby Player of the Year, and a World Cup winner – Hunter is at the forefront of one of UK sport’s most successful teams. The Red Roses re-branding places Hunter at the heart of an initiative that is increasing participation in rugby amongst young women. They’re a year ahead of schedule.
#4 Andy Murray
Aside from the outstanding on-court achievements – let’s recognise how he’s done it and to what effect. Apolitical, independent, hard working, loyal to his mates and his family, personable and honest – the man and his family are an island amongst the torpor of British tennis administration and - certainly in his early years - an unsupportive British media.
#5 Mo Farah
“You won’t find your Mo Farah story round here” is a phrase that jumped out of Ben Judah’s acclaimed book, ‘This Is London;’ which delves deep into the layers that make up the great city. Farah is a fabulous conundrum seemingly designed to confront the prejudices of the Union Jack waving Daily Mail readers of middle England, who seek to glory in all things British but are oddly reluctant to do so in the face of one of the greatest athletes we have ever produced.
#6 Gary Anderson
If a debate about the UK’s status in the European Union can’t unite us, then it falls to Darts. Barry Hearn calls it: “the home of the millennial market,” and both Stephen Fry and Prince Harry manage to find their way to Alexandra Palace each January. On the Sunday before we all went back to work after Christmas – Anderson brings us all together with exquisite dartmanship, to be crowned the King Of Darts.
#7 Hannah Cockcroft
A triple gold Paralympian, and two cardiac arrests under her belt before she was 48 hours old; Cockcroft is, as they say in Yorkshire, “not behind ‘t’door.” She hasn’t been shy in taking on the trolls of social media, or the sportswear manufacturers who ordinarily would be signing endorsement deals with her.
#8 Alistair Brownlee
There will be moments when Ant & Dec, would just like to be Ant or Dec. Individuals in their own right. Similarly the Brownlee Brothers. So let’s call out Alistair, for his beautiful act in sacrificing victory to carry his brother, and reminding us of the context of sport: the world’s greatest distraction.
#9 Nicola Adams
A second gold at Rio for the first openly LGBT person to win an Olympic boxing Gold medal. Adams is one of the most influential figures in the LGBT community, and a source of inspiration to millions, through her actions in the ring and her quiet, cool personable demeanour out of it.
#10 Anthony Joshua
A British, World Heavyweight Champion. Joshua has his head down and gloves up. Joshua is waking up a younger audience to boxing, through a combination of style and credibility. His ringwalk with Stormzy has amassed 1.5 million views on YouTube and counting, and offers the sport an opportunity for further regeneration.