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Technology unlocks the history of sport. It is also the key to understanding sport’s future.
Modern sport has been driven by three overlapping aspects of innovation: participation technology, spectatorship technology and media technology. Today’s digital era unites all three.
In Victorian England, “participation technology” allowed sport to move beyond pockets of parochial play and settle into national systems and leagues.
In 1830, Edwin Beard Budding patented the first lawnmower, a symbol of sport’s industrial revolution. It looks remarkably like the ones that cut the grass on Centre Court today. The lawnmower (replacing the sheep and the scythe) permitted a flat playing surface and a reliable bounce of the ball.
In 1844, vulcanized rubber was patented by Thomas Hancock in Britain and Charles Goodyear in America. Instead of pigs’ bladders, footballs could now be made of inflatable rubber. Cricket bats became “sprung” – replacing the unforgiving wood-only planks that jarred batmen’s hands.
“Lawn tennis” – an adaptation of “royal” or “real” tennis, with its leather or cloth ball stuffed with horsehair – relied on vulcanization. The new rubber balls could be used on lawns, not just on hard indoor courts.
A third technology changed participation and spectatorship: the railway. Professional leagues in cricket, football and baseball all relied on rail travel. By the 1880s, as teams became symbols of local identity, fans began to travel to watch their heroes. In 1901, 114,815 turned up at the FA Cup final. The sports mega-event had been born.
Sport grew symbiotically with another emerging technology: the press. Newspapers needed stories, sport needed publicity. In the 1920s, radio changed the game: sport was brought into the living room. The radio sold sport, and sport sold radios. Events like the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney fight led to surges in radio purchases.
When television arrived in 1939, team owners initially disliked the medium: if people could watch at home, why bother buying tickets? In fact, television led the second wave of sporting globalisation (the British Empire was the first).
Today’s sporting paradigm shift is digital. The business of winning is getting smarter as data analysis debunks myths. The best defenders, for example, do not make a lot of tackles. Paolo Maldini, the Italian defender, averaged one tackle every two games.
Secondly, digital technology is changing “live” spectatorship. The Levi’s stadium in San Francisco has 400 miles of cabling, serving 1,200 Wi-Fi antennae. The aim is to give fans the same quality of replays they get at home: not in the place of but as well as.
At Wimbledon this year, spectators can share experiences by posting videos on the tournament’s digital platforms: the fan as co-creator of content. This updates an established tradition. The 1901 football fan reading the local paper before shouting from the stands was joining the conversation using the tools available to him. As the tools have expanded and adapted, so has that conversation.
A smart phone in the living room increasingly provides similar information to that available to the coach in the dug-out. Cricket fans can download an app called CricViz, providing a snapshot of “who’s winning” based on algorithms developed by Nathan Leamon (who is the England team’s analyst). I use CricViz when I’m commentating for the BBC.
Conversely, social media is transforming how athletes communicate. Ronaldo was the first person to achieve 100 million Facebook “likes”.
Be cautious about dismissing the digital age as an affront to sport’s beauty and values. That’s what they said about radio and television.
Ed Smith is a writer, broadcaster and former professional cricketer. He is now Course Director of a new MA in Sports History 1800-2000, part of the University of Buckingham’s London Programmes