Hunting season for popularity

The counter beeps and counts mostly the same fans over and over again. Multiplying and adding at the end, it comes out that on a planet with 8 billion people, 10 or 12 billion people watched the World Cup. And the bigger the numbers, the bigger the money.

1958, Warsaw: the 10th-Anniversary Stadium and one hundred thousand spectators in the stands during an athletics match between Poland and the USA. For years, a world record for attendance in this discipline. Never before or since has athletics been so popular...

But is it really about popularity? What defines it and how is it measured? What determines its reach? A sporting formula, a particular moment in history or perhaps a seasonal fad or intense advertising?

That match was played in a particular historical context. Stalin's death resulted in a political thaw in the country, which began in 1956 in October with social protests and factional fights within the Communist Party.

This thaw was short-lived, until 1961, but the visit of American athletes to communist Poland was an exciting event, which must have and did have an impact on the attendance in the stands. Thus, it is impossible to separate political and sporting emotions.

Today, it is difficult to assess conclusively whether the stadium was filled by athletics because it was so popular or by the apparent weakening of a regime that was not. Intuition suggests that it was more an incident with complex parameters especially as it had no repeats.

Using this example, it is impossible to explain the nature of the greater or lesser popularity of different sports or to define the issue. And it would be worth it, because these days popularity is the golden key to success and money.

The numbers are impressive

And it is for this reason that popularity rankings should not be blindly believed. The criteria are vague and rather arbitrary, as the very concept of 'popularity' remains undefined. Statisticians most often refer to the number of fans. But what does this mean?

Without an overexposure to detailed measurement methods, it means nothing or it can mean anything, which of course also means nothing. The top ten most popular sports in the world are opened by soccer with 4 billion fans. But who determined this and by what means?

Counting stadium audiences at matches of every conceivable game including league games at all levels, not leaving out the local competitions? I don't think that would be possible. In addition, such a survey would have to be carried out within a certain timeframe, which nobody is declaring.

TV ratings are a deceptive trap. Let's say that each World Cup match is watched in each country by around 20 million TV viewers. Multiplying such an average by the number of countries gives us the global viewing figures for that match. One match, but there are many and the event lasts over a month.

Statistics do not distinguish the audience of shows by name or appearance. The counter beeps and counts mostly the same fans over and over again. Multiplying and adding at the end, it comes out that on a planet with 8 billion people, 10 or 12 billion people watched the World Cup.

A funny lapsus, but not really. Numbers make an impression and this is easily converted into money. The bigger the numbers, the bigger the money. The bigger the audience, the more sponsors. That is why it is worth pumping up this and that even against logic.

I am by no means saying that football does not have the biggest audiences, because it does. It is undoubtedly the most watched sport. However, a precise count of its fans seems to me to be overambitious and rather futile. Popularity is the result of emotional bonds, and these are incalculable and often incalculable. They explode spontaneously as well as unpredictably.

Internet pandemic

We have proof of this in our house. The annual Przegląd Sportowy (Sports Review) plebiscite is such a constant, explosive mixture of emotion and logic. Since the first edition in 1926, it has failed to agree on what it is all about or who the fans are voting for.

Is it about sport or about feelings? It's about choosing the best or the most liked, in other words, the most popular sportsman in Poland. Every year, it's a wild ride. Someone is offended, someone suspects cheating. Sometimes it is one and the same person, such as Paweł Fajdek. The electorate can sometimes be torn apart and strongly divided.
Poland-United States athletics match in August 1958 at the 10th Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw. Photo: PAP/CAF/ Stanisław Czarnogórski.
The years when an Olympic medal, especially an Olympic gold medal, was the substantive bond of winning a plebiscite are behind us. Tomasz Majewski found this out painfully after 2008, when he won the Games in Beijing, but lost in Warsaw to Robert Kubica, who won only one F1 race in the entire season. Text messages from young fans were the deciding factor.

It is emotional ties that currently create the results of the Plebiscite, although this does not necessarily have to do with the popularity of the sport the given athlete practices. The unconditional love of the nation for football is not reflected in the Plebiscite in the slightest, as only two footballers have triumphed in its entire history - Zbigniew Boniek and Robert Lewandowski. And where is the logic here?

The confusion around a clear indication of what is good and what is popular is of no particular concern, as it allows for free interpretation of meanings. In internet diagnostics, what is good is what is popular. This option dominates the functioning of societies in public as well as in private life.

To put it as gently as possible, this is a gross oversimplification. And its illustration is the ridiculous status of a celebrity, i.e. someone who is known for being known. It would be funny if it didn't get serious. Social media has been populated by celebrity candidates and those who have already made themselves out to be celebrities.

The desire to be known and admired, i.e. popular, has taken over the earth's population from North to South and East to West. For many people, especially young ones, the internet has become an indispensable prosthesis of existence according to the belief - if you're on the internet, you don't exist.

The dangers are recognised and obvious. Since a drop in the number of clicks under posts can lead to suicide attempts, often unfortunately successful, we have an Internet pandemic, although it has not yet been named as such. And its symptom is addiction to popularity.

Short fuse

Does it have anything to do with sport and athletes? It does and it doesn't. It doesn't, because sportsmen and sportswomen become known through concrete and measurable achievements. But there are also those whose popularity far exceeds their sporting achievements because they care about their media image and have a flair for it, sometimes greater than their sporting talent.

The popularity of a person and the sport they practise are not the same thing. The history of the plebiscite and football, for example, confirms this. So what makes one sport gather larger and another smaller audiences? That some sports gain and others lose audiences?

There is no clear answer. This is influenced by various factors that can be seen on this revolving carousel. Firstly, the dynamics of the shows. The top five of the Top list hints at this. As is well known, football holds firmly in the lead.

In second place is cricket (2.5 billion, say fans). In third place are two hockey games, the one on ice and the one on grass (2 billion). In fourth place is tennis (1 billion). In fifth is volleyball (900 million).

However, basketball, undoubtedly a dynamic sport, only lands in seventh position (825 million). And handball, which also has a lot going on, falls short of the 'top ten' in popularity, which is closed by golf (450 million fans), which happens to be dynamic rather differently. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE As you can see, the pace and density of the shows do not exhaust the subject. The popularity mechanism must have other drives and it does. Another is the simplicity and legibility of the event formula. And, to put it more figuratively, a modern sports spectacle must have a short fuse.

The action in the stadium or on the pitch must set off the audience's emotions immediately and without hindrance. The faster and easier this happens, the better the chances of full stands and millions of impassioned viewers.

Football meets both requirements, creating dynamic and simple performances. The experience of them is not hindered by complicated rules, because they are understandable and well-known. The spectator seamlessly follows the spectacle like the players follow the ball. That is why football's popularity is global.

Cricket enthusiasts numbering 2.5 billion or golf fans numbering 450 million are also powerful armies of support. So much so that the former sport has regional roots, embedded in certain traditions, while the latter requires a good knowledge of the rules, which makes this short fuse longer.

This is good, what is popular

Popularity rankings do not hold a patent for infallibility or guarantee immutability. Tastes and fashions change, and with them the lists of the most watched, and therefore most popular, sports. It is no different in Poland.

For decades, athletics in our country has been a very popular sport. Since the aforementioned match at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium, it has even become legendary. Nowadays, it is one that is either in or out of the 'top' rankings, which depends on the portal that presents the classifications.

Sometimes it appears in the top five, other times it falls outside the top ten. It is being supplanted by speedway, combat sports, strength sports and, of course, tennis. New generations of fans have their own tastes and bring in new fashions.

It is interesting that these manifest themselves not necessarily at times of great success for the discipline at the Olympic Games or World Championships. Medals and popularity are apparently no longer compatible. One reason may be that it is not a simple or easy sport to watch.

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Even a trivial 100-metre run requires a certain amount of preparation: knowledge of results and records in order to experience the excitement of the event. The casual spectator doesn't really know what to look at because there is too much going on in the stadium at once. A short fuse is out of the question.

This is one of the reasons why the Silesian Stadium in Chorzów was empty during the Kusociński Memorial and the European Team Championships. It was a little better at the Diamond League, but only a little. 25,000 spectators at a venue seating almost 60,000 does not knock your socks off.

Does the personal physical activity of spectators have any impact on the popularity of sport in general or of specific sports? The question is right, but the answer is not necessarily. 45% of Europeans admit that they take no exercise at all, not even walking, and only come into contact with sport through the TV.

Regular surveys are carried out by Eurobarometer on this issue and the results show a downward trend. Poles unfortunately fall outside the low average. As many as 65 % of our compatriots do not engage in any physical activity or sport. Only the Portuguese and the Greeks are worse than us.

We have no reason to rejoice, but the Greeks should howl in despair, for it was they who gave the world the Olympic Games with all their ceremonial pride and glory and the first codification of ruthlessly observed rules.

In truth, such surveys describe the world of adult sport, because children do not take part in surveys. Kids who are buzzing with adrenaline on the playing fields of all countries create the impression that things are not so bad. And yet it is poor, so they grow out of sport too.

Later, as young people glued to smartphones, social media and TV screens, they will also be actively driving the popularity of their idols, but not with their feet but with their fingers on the computer keyboard.

Meanwhile, a season of popularity hunting is underway throughout world sport. The position of specific disciplines depends on it. On it also depend the profits of investors. The IOC is particularly sensitive to new sports gaining popularity. Recently, it has fallen in love with pole dancing.

Advertising and the media help to create popularity. Advertising specialists do it professionally, journalists do it to a certain extent too, although some combine their work with the passion of fans. Especially football journalists. If football material were converted into advertising, the mountain of money would reach the top of Everest.

Football is the most groomed sport by advertising both paid and free, therefore the most popular. And perpetuated popularity sells best, even when bundled with corruption, set-ups or activist scams. But what is the point? At the end of the day, what's good is what's popular and cool....

– Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Winners of the plebiscite for the 10 best sportsmen of Poland in 2004 in the 70th plebiscite of " Przegląd Sportowy", " Tempo" and TVP 1 during the award ceremony in 2004. Top row, from left: Robert Korzeniowski (2. place), Otylia Jędrzejczak (winner of the plebiscite), Tomasz Kucharski (3. place); bottom row, from left: Dorota Sikora (wife of biathlete Tomasz Sikora), Izabela Małysz (wife of Adam Małysz), Sylwia Gruchała, Anna Rogowska and Mateusz Kusznierewicz. Photo: PAP/Przemek Wierzchowski
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