Sports and reality television have often combined, whether it’s The Games on Channel 4, ITV’s Dancing on Ice or fellow ITV show Splash!. But what impact do these types of shows have on sports? Does public interest in watching or participating in the sport increase, or is it just a flash in the pan moment, and when the show ends, people forget all about it?
For anyone that might not remember The Games, it was a Channel 4 reality show that was broadcast between 2003 and 2006 and based in Sheffield. It pitted five male and five female celebrities against each other in a series of events including the 100m sprint, gymnastics, sumo wrestling and diving. There was no mistaking that it was an entertainment show, and it was very watchable, not least for the sight of Liberty X’s Kevin Simm trying to put on a Mawashi in training for the sumo wrestling, actor Philip Olivier’s wardrobe malfunction during one of his dives, or Bobby Davro suffering a more painful fate during his dive when he belly flopped off the 10m board.
In 2006, ITV launched Dancing on Ice, which was their answer to the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Strictly… was making headlines, as dance classes up and down the country were oversubscribed with people wanting to jive like Jill Halfpenny and tango like Vincent and Flavia. However, it is not as easy to learn how to perform a Salchow or a toe loop as it is to dance a bachacada or a fleckle, because all you need to ballroom dance is a big enough space, whereas to ice skate, you need a pair of skates and an ice rink. Dancing on Ice may have inspired viewers to take up ice skating, but how many would have been able to even give it a try?
The same could be said for Splash!. It has been the surprise hit of the year so far – although fair enough, it’s only February - and has been winning the ratings battle on Saturday evenings. Tonight sees the final of Splash!, with Linda Barker, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and Jake Canuso competing to be crowned the winner. As the show has progressed, more and more people have become diving ‘experts’, with comments of who ‘over-rotated’ in their dives.
Splash! has consistently drawn in over six million viewers, despite receiving poor reviews (including So So Gay‘s) - so what is the attraction? Is it purely to see Tom Daley’s incredible physique in a tiny pair of trunks? Is it Z-list celebrities potentially hurting themselves? Or is it because of a growing interest in diving? It is likely to be a combination of the first two, and has nothing to do with interest or popularity in what is – despite Daley’s best efforts – a minority sport.[pullquote_right]Any young diver wanting to be the next Tom Daley and become a 10m platform diver has a choice of only nine pools in Great Britain and Ireland that offer the right facilities.[/pullquote_right]The key problem with encouraging and promoting participation in different sports lies with access to training facilities. As mentioned previously in regards to ice skating, you need the skates and the ice rink, and not every town or city has an ice rink. This is even more of a problem when it comes to trying to find facilities to dive. Any young diver wanting to be the next Tom Daley and become a 10m platform diver has a choice of only nine pools in Great Britain and Ireland that offer the right facilities. This figure will increase to ten at the end of this year when the Aquatics Centre at the Olympic Park reopens.
One thing proven to get people involved in sport is seeing a team do well on an international level. This was clear last summer at the Olympics, when the ‘Bradley Wiggins effect’ took hold and people literally dusted the cobwebs off their bikes and started to cycle to work. The Paralympics inspired an entire generation of mentally and physically disabled people and promoted disability sports. This clearly has a greater and more positive impact than Caprice and Joey Essex throwing themselves into a swimming pool.
Ultimately, there have to be facilities available so that people of all ages can go and try out something new. But instead of opening new facilities and building on the Olympic legacy, government spending cuts are having the opposite effect. Just this week, swimmers in Newcastle staged a ‘swim-in’ to protest against the proposed closure of Newcastle City Pool. The closure is planned as part of cuts designed to reduce council spending by £90m over the next three years, but the closure will mean that the local swimming club will lose their training facilities.
So for now, you should still expect random sports-themed reality TV shows to keep cropping up. But no one should be under the illusion or misapprehension that these shows are any more than entertainment, and more effective work needs to be done to open opportunities and increase dedicated participation in a wide range of sports.