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A Different Ball Game?

A Different Ball Game?

An international break and the transfer window closed.. hmm, let's read a few magazines and newspapers, and see what's going on in other sports.

An event I just can't escape at the moment is the Rugby World Cup.. living in New Zealand escaping any and all forms of rugby is impossible. I'm not a big fan: union in particular just seems one big mess of rules, and international competition is dominated by teams with the best defence.

However, I spotted an interview with All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver - not your average mono-syllabic only-in-it-for-the-money sports star by any means - and he raised some interesting points, echoes of which can be found in the game we footy fans love.

Oliver is 32. He's been an All Black for more than ten years with 64 games under his belt, the rugby equivalent of.. well, maybe Gary Neville, although I don't remember Gary using words like 'intrinsically' and 'commensurable' in interviews. Maybe he did, and I missed it. Forgive me, Gary, if you did. He's an eloquent guy, in a world where the majority of our sporting heroes think of eloquence as grey animals with trunks and big ears. He's into art and ecology and he writes: proper stuff mind, none of your hack-ghosted newspaper column rubbish.

So when NZ Listener magazine asked him this - 'You're probably the last All Black who grew up in the amateur era. Was the game better in the good old days?' - here's what he said.

'Certain things were definitely better, but professionalism was on a steady march that no one could stop, and now you have to accept that there is no way back. The All Blacks now get talked about as a brand, which horrifies me. I don't want to play for a brand! And branding is an ancillary subject of commercialisation and it's made rugby... about entertainment.'

Easy to see where he's going with that one. I don't want football marketed and branded either. I don't want to read an official web site where I can't see the news reports for embedded advertising video, links to gambling sites, official partners for heaven's sake..

'The Official Breakfast Food of the Owls' - what's that going to be, dead mice? I don't give stuff what's official about it, I just want a football team and the match, no added extras. Maybe a home shirt every now and again. No brand. My team.

But there's a further interesting point there.. Oliver talks about it not being a game - but entertainment. Of course, sport has to be entertaining. But where he's going with that is there's no margin any more for it to NOT be entertaining. It has to be so, at all costs, to the exclusion of everything else. Shiny happy people holding hands, you might say. This is how he continues.

It's not so much about winning and losing. It's about people having a 'good experience'. You listen to marketers and promoters and sponsors - clearly they want us to win - but the underlying premise is the entertainment. They want to be associated with something that's positive.

And as every true fan knows, football and supporting a team is only rarely a life enhancing, positive experience. There are ups and there are downs, but to a marketeer or a promoter, downs are not allowed. Take it a step further, Anton..

'They want not only wins but bonus point wins.. And that's been really difficult.'

How familiar are we with that? We as fans are as guilty as anyone else here: I've read it on our forum this very night.. the team wins 3-0 and we instantly want more, we should have had six in the first half and we are crap because we didn't roll over the opposition.. why on earth should we be entitled to think that way? Well, marketeers (to name but one) have told us that everything is rosy: all you have to do is fork out for a ticket for yourself and the kids, food, programmes, merchandise and everyone will be happy, because that's the way it is in glorious TV-advertised football nirvana. Why do we fall for that guff, Anton?

'I think most people come to Super 14 rugby and tests (read: football) as a form of escapism. They're getting away from the important things in their life: mortgages and stresses and pressures and kids and deadlines.'

Is that why we're so disappointed with our lot at the moment, we need Wednesday (or England or whoever) to give us escapism, or.. or what? We'll smash up the town? Other fans? Seems to me if we're that far gone, we need a bit of perspective in all our walks of life, not just sporting ones.

OK, let's get a bit more realistic. The pressure to compete, not necessarily just at the highest level, but all levels, is immense. A club can't manage without marketing (though at times Wednesday seem to be a little behind the game), but when those market-driven activities and promotions get in the way of the sport - let's stop right there. It's not for me.

'Oh, but you have to support your club in any way you can', you might say, 'Buy lots of stuff, get the club credit card, get some shares, get your broadband from our sponsors, bet with OwlsBet, it's all for the good of the club'.

I believe I can manage without it. I'd like to concentrate on the team and the game and the sport. After all, when 49 thousand people turned up at Hillsborough on Boxing Day 1979, a day without public transport incidentally, the team wasn't sponsored by anyone. Those 49 thousand people hadn't had a flutter online at the official web site. One of two of them might have had scarves and rattles. They went because they wanted to see a game of football, not because someone told them it was a 'Family Fun Day' or they were part of 'Team Owls' or it had been widely advertised as 'The Wednesday Experience (TM)'. It's not an ad-man's dream theme park ride.

It's Sheffield Wednesday. It's football. It's real life, and life is sometimes hard. That's all it is. And that's good enough for me, win or lose.



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Writer:Auckland Owl
Date:Sunday September 9 2007
Time: 12:00PM

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