Should golf speed up? Probably not what Bob Dylan was thinking about when he wrote the lyric, but golf is one of many sports looking at itself now and wondering what changes it should make to its format to make itself more attractive to Generation Z, and the iGeneration coming next. Should golfers be required to speed up their time between shots? Should tournaments be reduced from 72 holes over four days to something shorter and more snappy? Is Mickelson v Woods in the $10 million winner-takes-all Thanksgiving duel the gateway to a new “golf-matchplay-shootout” format?
English domestic cricket is experimenting with a shorter faster format called The Hundred (100 balls per side) to try and get in step with the younger generation. Even soccer, a hugely successful global product, wonders whether it should speed up, with the ball only being in play for 60 minutes of the total 90, but at the same time worries whether to introduce VAR (video-assist-referee), to make its refereeing calls better, but at the risk of creating a stop-start game and losing its famous frenetic intensity.
All these changes are to try and tackle the fact that the younger the audience, the shorter the attention span (congratulations to those of you who have read this far). But is that the right way to go? Two standout highlights of the sporting summer: the World Cup, a month-long festival of football with matches of 90 or 120 minutes, plus build up and analysis. Did anyone suggest it was too much? We gloried in the excuse to follow games at length, and map our teams’ progress towards the final. Its rival for sporting contest of the summer? The English cricket test series against India, with five matches of four or five days (help!) resulting in some extremely tight games and moments of high drama as both teams seemed to follow a script involving snatching victory from the jaws of defeat - highs and lows, ups and downs, and nothing in between.
Test cricket is followed in lots of ways. Being at the match, or watching it live on screen, are not seen as essential to cricket fans. Cricket can be followed in a myriad of ways: the much-loved Test Match Special on long wave radio, internet commentaries where passages of play are described alongside jokes, pictures and humour with every moment of drama available as a video clip, apps where followers silently receive ball-by-ball commentary in real time, live pod casts which discuss the day’s events. Each match had its own story, its own cast and its own ending.
Sport is feeling very challenged by the digital era, just as television was ten years ago. But television didn’t survive by ever shorter programmes. Instead, executives came up with the box-set concept – dramas stretching over hours and hours, series-by-series, allowing complex characters and story-lines to develop, leaving the audience to invest themselves deeply in plots and asking for more. Perhaps the answer for sport is not to speed up. Perhaps we want more depth, more information and analysis, and more ways to follow events in detail as they unfold. The box set collection of the England v India cricket series will be available soon. But maybe the box set is where things should start for sport, not finish. Perhaps sport executives should take a lesson from television, and focus on longer narratives and greater depth. What is the right answer here? As Bob said, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.