Every decision that the FIE has flung down from on high in recent years has had the same basic pitch:
This will make fencing look better on TV.
There’s a desperate cargo-cult logic happening here. All those people out there, giving their eyeballs and fat advertising markets to those Other Sports, they could be ours if we get this broadcast thing right.
In this logic, The Average Viewer is a simple creature who needs lots of hand-holding and colourful amusements and for everything to look like it does in Star Wars. If we get the right flashy staging, the right slow-mos, the right commentators gently explaining the game every two minutes for those just tuning in, the right rules to make all fencing actions that look like they do in movie sword-fights, then we’ll be in the money, baby. If we can only dangle the right shiny things in front of the camera, suddenly there’ll be millions of fans watching fencing and we’ll be the new FIFA and countries will be throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at us for the privilege of hosting our tournaments.
Here’s the thing: I’ve introduced a lot of people to this sport. I also follow a bunch of other sports. And I’m absolutely sure that nobody is sitting around flipping channels one day, sees a random sports broadcast of a thing they’ve never done before and know nothing about, and becomes a superfan because gosh, it looks so cool.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a challenge: Go pick a major “broadcast” sport you’re unfamiliar with. Cricket or rugby will do well for North Americans, gridiron or baseball for everyone else, or failing that Aussie Rules football if you’re really brave. Sit down, and watch a game.
See how much of the commentary is based around spoon-feeding the rules to you, or how much of the camera work is based around making it look pretty to outsiders. See how much of it is even remotely comprehensible without looking up some Wikipedia articles, or calling in backup from a friendly native.
Now go look up their viewership numbers.
Establish a real connection
All commercial broadcast sports have one thing in common: a large base of people who have some personal experience with the activity. Even Formula 1 fits in here: most people have tried to make a car go fast at least once in their life.
They don’t have to be serious, they don’t need to be competitive, they don’t even need to have done it more than once. But they do need to be able to look at a bike race or a ball game and think “Oh hey, I know that thing!”, because they’ve done it.
The broadcast sports are things people do for fun.
The pure “Olympic” sports fall down here. They’re too weird, too intimidating, too exotic, and they revel in it, playing up their difficulty and exclusivity as part of their image. They’re activities for people with Talent, people who are prepared to give up decades and vast sums of money and their future health to chase the glorious golden dream. The rest of us normal humans watch them for a few hours once every four years, ooh and aah a couple of times, and get on with our lives.
Right now, fencing falls squarely in this category. It doesn’t have to.
Forget dangling shiny things in front of the camera.
Get people to play the game.
- How to break down the barriers to entry and get people playing the game
- How to pitch broadcasting to the existing fan base as it grows
- How to improve the ruleset and design of the game itself
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