Lineker row offers the BBC a chance to reflect on how it does sport
National treasuredom isn’t codified. It is a status that creeps up on individuals, usually as they enter their twilight years. It does not reflect universal approbation, but certainly requires dissenters to be in a dwindling minority. Gary Lineker is clearly too divisive a figure to be considered a national treasure just yet, but the past week has surely seen him take a further sizeable step in that direction.
If you think the footballer turned presenter has only entered this gilded sphere in the Twitter age, think again. Think back indeed to the 1990 World Cup and England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to West Germany in the semi-final. Only a year later one character in a West End play bearing his name likened Lineker to the Queen Mother. Another asked whether his farts smelled of perfume. All in the name of comedy, but playwrights Arthur Smith and Chris England were tapping into an enduring zeitgeist. What say you a stage revival of An Evening with Gary Lineker soon – or ITV rebroadcasting its small-screen version to cock a snook at the BBC?
Whatever side you took in the stand-off between Britain’s state broadcaster and the frontman for its football coverage that disrupted last weekend’s programming, or how you view the hurried rapprochement between the two, we can probably agree that the BBC’s handling of its stars is dysfunctional at best. Beyond the immediate ramifications for codes of conduct and the like, the episode may lead to a fundamental reappraisal of the style of the Beeb’s sports coverage.
Spend any time up close to BBC Sport and you’ll hear the phrase “the talent” used to describe the broadcaster’s front-of-camera presenters and on-air pundits; not so much the commentators. This is not an epithet unique to the BBC, but its usage is so frequent that even the talent can become prone to use just the same phrase to describe themselves. To an outsider it is jarring to hear, but inside the bubble it simply trips off tongues.
In a competitive market for successful TV performers, it is unsurprising that an atmosphere of reverence can develop. Little wonder that egos inflate. The risk, however, is that the employing broadcaster leans too heavily on the input of its expensive recruits in crafting its productions. When this comes at the expense of the sport itself, I’d argue that the overall quality of the output is diminished. Less chat, more action is my preference.
Disagreements after Lineker row
BBC insiders disagree. Their focus groups show that casual sports fans derive disproportionate utility from the talking heads. That’s why you see so much of them wrapped around live sport – and why when you are watching multi-sport competitions, or sports that break down into bite-sized action such as athletics, gymnastics and swimming, you might find yourself screaming at the screen for a producer to switch away from the studio and back to the venue.
The roster of sports that the BBC owns coverage rights for continues to diminish. The cost-versus-viewership equation for sport is often deemed unfavourable compared to other programme formats. Subscription broadcasters continue to build their pay-TV models around live sports rights and the BBC’s licence fee simply can’t stand up to the competition.
Before the Beeb throws in the towel, however, it might like to extend the pundit-lite experiment forced on it this weekend to see whether there is scope to operate a leaner model that simply concentrates on the action. The WSL game on BBC2 last Sunday using the international commentary feed and devoid of pundits might be a first example to put before the focus groups.
For the good of the game
A couple of days before the Lineker furore began, I enjoyed a presentation by the Premier League’s community team to the Crystal Palace FC charity that I chair, Palace for Life. With all the noise that continues to swirl around football’s finances, structure and regulation, it was a welcome reminder of the collective good that the game does day-in, day-out.
I’m obviously very aware of what Palace for Life does for the disadvantaged young in South London, but the aggregate effort and impact of the 92 league clubs in England is staggering. The League’s last workforce survey in December showed 6,216 people employed by the clubs’ charities plus a further 2,309 volunteers – and there are also staff at 48 charities associated with the National League. This total workforce dwarfs the numbers employed by many of the largest names in the wider charity sector, but is often overlooked by virtue of the club-by-club structure and the hyper-local work that each does.
For every tale of footballer misdemeanours in the media, there are many more of players engaging with the communities that their clubs are rooted in, sprinkling their stardust to elevate the impact of the charities’ work. Worth looking up your own team’s initiatives and giving them your support if you haven’t done so already.
500 not (entirely) out
Before the start of every ParkRun there is a roll-call of those who have hit milestones, from youngsters at their 10th run up to those adults running their hundredth. At Horsham last Saturday the run director even announced someone reaching an “unofficial milestone” of a 200th run. I think the unofficial bit was that they wouldn’t be getting the customary milestone T-shirt.
I spotted a runner wearing a 500-run shirt at the start. How long must that have taken to acquire, especially given Covid disruption? The runner pulled away from me on the run, but I looked him up in the results after. It was none other than Paul Sinton-Hewitt, founder of ParkRun, who completed his 526th event.
I met Sinton-Hewitt way back in 2007 or 2008 in my UK Athletics days. I’m pleased that we were then able to grant ParkRun insurance coverage under our umbrella policy for a trivial fee. At the time athletics clubs were chuntering about the threat that this free run organiser posed to their own revenue-generating races, so our decision was not without controversy.
History shows that ParkRun has since been a force for good for running clubs, to the extent that many now organise the free weekly runs, so helping spread awareness and grow their own membership. The structure of the ParkRun charity and its subsidiary operating company is still a source of some grumbling within athletics, however. And perhaps with some justification it seems.
“The Board undertook a full investigation involving external solicitors and independent auditors. This included exploring both criminal and civil action,” said Gavin Megaw, chair, ParkRun Global.
The ParkRun chair’s statement in last year’s accounts suggests a lively year on the governance front (to say the least – you can find the accounts on the Charity Commission website here). This was subsequently reported by media outlets who focus on the third sector here and here.
Funnily enough, T-shirts were at the heart of the matter. One outcome is that Paul Sinton-Hewitt has stepped off the ParkRun parent charity board as a trustee but remains an employee.
Whatever the ins and outs, though, I can’t help concluding that ParkRun remains a work of genius.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com