In Mr Alton’s absence, I thought readers might want a column about sport. The problem is that I’m largely indifferent to most sports.
But I will berate the All England Club for cancelling the Wimbledon Championship. Fair enough, I can see that tennis might be a problem what with all the loud, virus-spreading grunting, but I think it’s time we reminded them they are the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Shockingly, last time I went there on a corporate jag, I could see no evidence of the superior game being played.
Yet croquet is a game where social distancing poses no problems. If you sold the rights to Sky and brought in new technology (‘We now go live to the hoop-cam to see Fothergill attempt the triple peel’), you could turn an unfairly neglected sport into something big — just as the need to sell colour TVs prompted the BBC to rekindle interest in snooker.
I do welcome the absence of football, though. In particular, the assumption that we must all share the belief that it is a particularly fine sport. It isn’t. At a physical level, behind the glitz, football is to rugby what Riverdance is to Rogers and Astaire: a self-imposed disability disguised as a skill. At a philosophical level, there is no sport where the line between intention and luck is more blurred.
Here’s how I rank sports. At the top are sports where players make decisions at their own pace in their own good time. These are generally games of pure ability, untainted by the need for physical fitness: snooker, darts, chess, Train Simulator 2020, Scrabble, golf, poker, croquet and, of course, bowls. These are also sports where you can drink while playing.
In the middle are sports where, though you must respond instantly to the actions of others, there is a civilised break in proceedings for viewers to catch their breath. Tennis, cricket and baseball sit here. Moments of high tension are interspersed with languorous periods of low excitement where the audience can fix itself a snifter and have a nice chat.
At the bottom are sports which involve endless running about. Strangely, the best (and first codified) of these sports, Australian rules football, seems the least popular.
What you’ll notice from this list is that my top sports are unaffected by the need for self-distancing. And, as with poker and snooker, new broadcasting techniques could transform them into something watchable. Indeed the best sporting event of all — the Vendée Globe single--handed round-the-world yacht race, in which 12 lugubrious Frenchmen spend four months trying to avoid all human contact, is effectively self-distancing as a sport. With live-cam broadcasting, it will be enthralling.
So the solution to the woes of Premiership clubs is easy. They need to change sports for a few years. Manchester City, with a few personnel changes, could relaunch as a Scrabble club. There is a tradition of this overseas. AC Milan was founded as the Milan Football and Cricket Club. Bayer Leverkusen started as a gymnastics club. And my own favourite team, Anorthosis Famagusta (‘Give me an Alpha, Give me a Nu…’), began as a library and reading rooms.
Never mind Wimbledon, though. What about the Tokyo Olympics? There was no need to postpone it. Instead of having 906 senseless varieties of cycling, jumping and running, they could have re-invented the event around self-isolating sports. Pool, pétanque, fly-fishing, bar-billiards and perhaps Boggle. ‘But people don’t watch those sports,’ you’ll say. True. But most Olympic sports are only watched during the Olympics. How many hours have you spent watching handball in the past three years?
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.