Premier League juggernaut is crushing life out of other sports

Owen Slot - Chief Sports Writer

The inexorable rise of the Premier League means we are missing stories about the likes of Tanfield

A lot of people these days are kicking Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, and it’s a wonder that he has become a punchbag everywhere from the back pages to parliament, because really he is the winner. In the unsparingly competitive world of sport, victory belongs to the Premier League and he is the triumphant leader. The case of Charlie Tanfield helps to explain why.

You may not have heard of Tanfield, but when you hear his story, you’ll wish you had.

Tanfield can tell you what it’s like to come off a track bike going at 68km/ h. He starts with understatement: “I banged my head pretty hard.” Then he starts to describe the friction burns from the velodrome track. “Category three burns, the sort of thing you see on people in hospital after a house fire.” Ouch. “But you don’t feel anything, because you’ve burnt all the nerves off your wounds. It’s the next week, when your nerves start to recover, that you start to feel that burning sensation.”

Yet Tanfield dismisses all that. “It wasn’t so much the physical pain,” he says, “it was the fact that I’d let down my mates.”

The reason his conscience pained him more than his physical injuries was because the crash in question was in the qualifying round of the team pursuit in the Track World Championships in Glasgow last year.

The moment he hit the deck, his team were finished. “We dedicate a large proportion of our lives to going faster,” he explains. “I just felt guilty.

It was pretty difficult to deal with.”

There is more to this, though. Two years earlier, at the Tokyo Olympics, he’d had a late call-up to that same GB team pursuit team but he wasn’t sufficiently experienced or prepared, and in the first round he was unable to hold on to his team-mates, dropped off the back wheel and was then in a crash as the Danish team caught him.

So that’s two crashes. He said he had used Tokyo “as a motivator” but then crashed again in Glasgow.

Here’s the good bit: in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands last week, at the European Track Cycling Championships, Tanfield didn’t crash.

Indeed, in their heat the British team beat Italy, who are the world record holders, and in the final they beat Denmark, the world champions.

Imagine the pressure on Tanfield before those rides.

He was so elated from winning gold that the next day, in the individual pursuit, he beat both Danes and Italians in qualifying and took silver, behind his British team-mate Daniel Bigham, in the final. You would struggle, now, to find a happier man.

Really you should have read this story last week when it happened, but you didn’t because we, The Times, didn’t send a reporter to Apeldoorn.

No one did. There was not a single representative from the UK media.

It was no different, say, at the World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, last summer. That was one of GB’s best major swimming championships. For the first time, GB won medals in the women’s diving; two of them. Good story. Yet that might have passed you by too, because the BBC could not agree a deal to buy the rights to show any of it. For the first time, there were no British media there either. Not a soul.

The point we’re getting to is that while the Premier League gets ever bigger and stronger, it is consuming the rest of sport as it goes.

There was a time, pre- 1992, when sport was a vast range of different competing activities.

Then, from its inaugural season, it became the Premier League and the rest. And since then, the Premier League’s footprint has gradually grown to the point when we hardly notice the triumphant moments when Charlie Tanfield stays on his bike or a British diving team make history.

A few weeks ago I was on a speaking panel discussing the prominence (or lack thereof) of women’s sport in the media.

My position was that decades of discrimination is lifting and that coverage of women’s sport is gradually growing. The point I should have made was that it’s not so much a gender thing now, it’s an everyone versus the Premier League thing.

Every sport is competing for space. Remember rugby league? We haven’t had a full-time rugby league correspondent here on The Times for more than a decade.

The weak are therefore struggling. No one wants to host the next Commonwealth Games — and they are only 2½ years away. The Commonwealth Games may be done for good.

Athletics in the UK is similarly struggling to stay alive. Recent financial figures posted by UK Athletics show losses of £3.7 million.

UK Athletics is still feeling the pinch of the loss of its £3 million-a-year BBC deal. Think about it: for two-and-a-bit Gary Linekers, the BBC could bring you a whole other sport.

But this isn’t about Lineker or the BBC, it is about the impact of football’s success. With the Paris Games pending, then, this is a massive year for the Olympic sports to win hearts and convert young minds. But has there ever been an Olympics dawning with fewer superstars and household names? Go on, try naming them.

It’s not the athletes’ fault. Charlie Tanfield can’t help it if we don’t come.

It’s not only Olympic sports either.

It’s not as though anyone was fighting over the TV rights for the England cricket team’s forthcoming Test series against India; only at the last minute was a complete blackout avoided.

Last weekend we saw the last byline of the Daily Mirror’s rugby correspondent, a really magnificent journalist, his career cut short by redundancy. That means that not one of the Mirror, the Daily Express or The Sun have either a cricket or a rugby correspondent. These are big sports now suffering a shut-out from a huge part of the market. And all the time the Premier League thrives.

This is all a comment on and product of the Premier League’s bruising success. It is about many other things too: about the direction in which society is turning, the gradual movement away from traditional organised sport; it is about our national broadcaster’s lack of sufficient funds to show what the nation’s best sportspeople are doing; it is about other broadcasters getting better at working out exactly which sports are worth buying and which are not (Amazon+ has suddenly started to pull out altogether, they don’t want football or tennis any more); and it is about us in the mainstream media being able to identify, down to every click, what it is that our readers want to read, and therefore sending reporters to Burnley v Luton Town rather than Apeldoorn.

It is self-perpetuating too. If we don’t encourage an audience for track cycling, say, then that audience will naturally dwindle, there will be even less reason to court it and the cycling will go, like other sports, to in-house streamers and niche websites which pay less (or nothing), and which the floating voters will never find.

This is the inexorable direction.

It is not as if the Premier League ever set out to achieve this, though of course it helps to keep the opposition at bay. When he appeared before the cross-party parliamentary select committee on Tuesday, Masters was asked about Article 48, which prevents football matches being broadcast live at 3pm on Saturdays.

The women’s game is desperate to have it lifted for Women’s Super League matches; it makes sense to make the WSL exempt, to give it that special slot. “An appointment to view” is what they call it. Even the sports minister has raised it.

Yet Masters dismissed the idea.

“You can’t divide Article 48 into different bits,” he said. Nobody asked: why the hell not? Maybe because it may make the tiniest of dents on the men’s game.

Maybe a rival growing is a threat.

Yet nothing will stop the Premier League. It is one hell of a success story and way ahead of the field. But do not be mistaken, we are losing the Charlie Tanfields in the process.