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The game’s just not the same

IF you had been stuck on a desert island for the past 20 years, or maybe taken a Forrest Gump-like approach to ultra-marathons, you would hardly recognise the world of sport in 2003.

The human contest remains, ostensibly, the same, but an industry has grown up around it.

Where the VFL was an hour on Sundays, when families sat down to The Winners over their chicken dinner, Australian Rules is an exhausting seven-day cycle of news-driven build-up to a weekend of spectacular telecasts.

Sports stars are paid millions and their personal lives are really important, apparently.

Even in the ‘amateur’ sports the dollar rules. It’s no longer about players and membership but, rather, spectators and sponsors.

In the Western world this has been driven by sport’s ability to successfully adapt to changing demographics.

The strict leisure time of Saturday afternoon neatly bracketed by five-and-half days of work and then the family-oriented Sunday has expanded to fill every nook and cranny of our lives.

Stockbrokers follow sport all day on the Internet and evenings can be spent climbing rock walls in a suburban ‘outdoor’ centre.

Participation has evolved, too.

Footy fans regularly go a season without going to a game, let alone playing in one.

Instead, they are training for the City-to-Surf, working out in a gym or going skiing at Perisher.

More leisure time and more choices have fractured participation from a handful of traditional sports to a vast array of new-age choices.

But for spectators, arguably, the field has narrowed, as television has picked winners and applied its technological advantage where it can.

This concentration has funnelled fortunes into a handful of successful sports, which have used the leverage of TV to pry open the treasuries of corporate Australia – offering access to thousands of viewers and their tribe-like loyalties.

But where is it all heading?

If a desert island existence beckoned you for another two decades (with some new CDs to relieve the loneliness), what could you expect to see in 2023?

My guess is more of the same, although that shift will completely alter the sporting landscape – again.

As you may read in the following pages, we have concentrated on the leading clubs in Western Australia, which preside over the top codes and tend to grab the profile in this State.

Yet not one of them would say the money to pay their bills and fund their expansion plans comes easily. In fact, several are appealing for government assistance as they face the fury of competition from old and new rivals.

State codes with national aspirations now face international pressure from global players who can make David Beckham a household name in households that used to hold soccer in contempt.

And television, which loves the personality cult, is helping to further the consolidation of the past 20 years as world cups replace season finals as the big events on the sporting calendar.

At the bottom end, the fragmentation will continue as both new and traditional leisure activities spawn hybrid options for people hungry to test their skills at something fresh.

Whether it is kite surfing, aerial skiing, night lawn bowls or even PlayStation contests, it’s attacking the participation bases of other sports and competing with the hospitality and entertainment industries.

And these new activities are often created with television in mind, potentially creating new competitors for sport leaders of today.

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