- Horse Racing
- Motorcycle Speedway
- Greyhound Racing
The borderline between does count and doesn't count, I said at the time, was "a crowd of 200 paying audience members". After mulling it over, there's a bit more to it than that; there's the concept that there are some sporting events which attract 200 but still feel very bush league compared to the extent that the sport could be watched at. Let's go through it case by case and see why things have or haven't made it:
Football: England Under-21s vs. Albania Under-21s, 4th September 2001. I remember this clearly: it was a Tuesday night. I attended the games club for an hour then left to watch the international match taking place in Middlesbrough's nearby football stadium. (All seats: £5.) Due to uncertainty over the starting time, we only got to our seat 15 minutes late, having missed the first England goal; happily, we scored four more without reply. I can remember Francis Jeffers playing distinctly well, but only now do I realise he scored a hat-trick. Attendance: about 21,000. (Apparently about 24,000. Wow. I remember the atmosphere was nothing special all the same, though.)
Boxing: "The War of the Worlds", 13th February 1999, a £50 ticket bought as a birthday present by a very generous friend. Main event was a contest for the WBO super-middleweight championship - Joe Calzaghe got a split decision over Robin Reid. (I was happy with the result, though had scored it as a narrow win for Reid and the Sky analysts had called it a draw.) I wrote more about it (Word .doc) at the time. Attendance: 8,500.
Athletics: not the decathlon meeting I went to last year, but we did go and see a meeting at Gateshead Stadium, ooh, probably some time during the first half of the 1980s. What I can remember: long pauses between races, being very poor with boredom at that age, chocolate biscuits which didn't taste very nice, someone claiming some sort of record in a 300m race. Steve Cram was probably running at the time. Attendance: probably a couple of thousand, at a guess.
Baseball: Louisville Mud Hens (...or something, I forget) at Indianapolis Indians, opening day, 2001. (Or was it 2002?) AAA baseball - about as major as minor league gets, accompanied by lambertman. I particularly liked the big video screen with its stupid stunts; we made copious Banzai references in response to the play-along games depicted. An effete usher of considerable size called "Macho Mike" got up and danced to the Village People's YMCA between innings, which was quite funny and made far more so by the fact that he fell over while trying to get up and start his routine. The Indians won 6-5, I think. Attendance: ten thousand, +/- 15%.
Basketball: Channel 4 started broadcasting in 1982 and made considerable note of their British basketball coverage. Probably within the first year or two of Channel 4's existence, we went to see Sunderland play someone (usual suspects here being Leicester and Crystal Palace) in a match live on TV. Dad and I took a sign which said "Sunderland 4 Wembley" (for the championship game was played at the indoor Wembley Arena at the time...) and received a close-up on TV for about a second or two. We didn't own a VCR at the time, but a friend a couple of doors away had taped this for us. Attendance: high three digits, I'd say, but it was televised so it definitely counts.
Horse Racing: the Dickson family go to watch horse racing every few years or so. I suspect I've been three or four times, to a variety of Yorkshire tracks. It had the same problems at the time as watching athletics, but only more so. Attendance: sufficient, by force of repetition if necessary.
Motorcycle Speedway: I watched quite a bit of this in 1985 and 1986 while I was just becoming interested in sport, but at a time when my parents didn't want me to go to football matches. Speedway races have four motorcycle racers riding four times around a nearly-quarter-mile track in a little over a minute; speedway matches see two teams of seven riders each submit a pair of riders into a race, fifteen times over, with points being awarded according to race finishing positions. I probably still have fifteen or twenty match programmes somewhere. Attendance: some matches over one thousand, the final match ever about two thousand.
Rugby: Middlesbrough has a rugby union football club which plays about ¾ mile away from here. Unfortunately they're not very good to the point that I haven't been able to work out just how the rugby union football pyramid works down to the level that Middlesbrough are at. We went to see a match once. Middlesbrough won, but I was very bored. Attendance: probably a little over 200, but this was clearly so minor league that it cannot count for all intents and purposes.
Rowing: If you attend Oxford University, some of your friends will end up rowing there, even if it's just in a crew that's more interested in beer than in boats; accordingly, you will take an interest in how well they do. I watched some of the races over my years there; they are run according to a spectacularly intricately and cleverly organised system. I may attempt to explain this system some day, but it makes Australian Football look simple. Attendance: more than a few hundred along the banks of the river, but not paying spectators so they don't count. (Watching the Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race live certainly would count, though.)
Greyhound Racing: rather like Motorcycle Speedway, but with dogs running around instead of motorbikes and no organised team competition. Went once. Enjoyed it. Attendance: probably a little over 200, but really pretty small compared to the meetings at famous greyhound racing tracks, so it Doesn't Count.
Wrestling: something like a show a year throughout the 1990s if you work it out. Clearly qualifies on grounds of attendance (I went to two shows promoted by WCW in Birmingham and Manchester, each of which must have attracted well over 5,000) but clearly disqualified on the grounds that it was pro wrestling and sports entertainment is not a sport for the definition of this ambition.
Puzzles: this one's mighty close. Participating in the World Puzzle Championship is about as high a level as competitive puzzle-solving gets. Furthermore, the grand final of the championships - a staggered-start handicap race between the best three or ten participants from the main body of the event - is clearly a spectator event. While I definitely don't draw a distinction between mental and physical sports, the attendance was clearly under 200 and so this just squeaks on the "not" side. (An early heads-up: the online and globally accessible US Puzzle Championship will be on May 31st. More about this closer to the time, but it's only weeks away now.)
So seven sports down, forty-three to go. Some might ask whether there are fifty sports which might be watched at a high enough level to count, but I am sure there are; Yahoo!'s directory has suggestions, after all, and their list of sports isn't nearly encyclopaedic. It's the spirit of the event which might qualify a sport for this distinction, not the statistics; unusual sports would get rather more gentle treatment than mainstream ones, should the event be cool enough.
There's another reason I'm bringing sport up today. Motorcycle Speedway was probably the one sport I followed most over the years, being a team sport, being accessible and being a sport in which Middlesbrough had an excellent team. As a sport, it suffered from great variation from year to year generally caused by a lack of funds. Speedway has been on a mild upswing in the UK over the last ten years or so, with strong efforts to (re-?)establish teams in places where teams were not active. Nevertheless, speedway does rather suffer from a very 1960s/1970s down-and-dirty image - which is a shame, because it's really the only accessible way to have a domestic team-based motor racing sport. Middlesbrough had a reasonably competitive team which raced around a track at the local greyhound racing stadium, which was in pretty bad condition. However, the school next door expanded and took the land over, spelling the end of the team in the mid-1990s.
However, when I was out buying the papers today looking for jobs (two promising-looking ones: Information Officer with the Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit, a stray bit of local government who I know already for their transport planning; Customer Services rep with some geocaching-tastic GPS sales people) I saw today that there is an initiative to restart a Middlesbrough speedway team.
The new Middlesbrough team consists of just four young riders and they will be racing in the most minor-league matches imaginable in Hull, about 100 miles away. I read this on a speedway bulletin board and the Hull Vikings team confirm the news on their site. Hooray! So once more I have a Middlesbrough speedway team to follow and I suppose I should throw my allegiance behind Hull for providing this Middlesbrough team with a base. I also note that their team includes one Paul Thorp, who I remember being one of the league's top stars back in the 1980s. He's now 38, or "old enough to know better", but it's nice to see he's still on the circuit. (So to speak.)
Oh yes, one other prominent name from Middlesbrough's speedway history was Gary Havelock, who debuted for the Middlesbrough Tigers, as was, in 1985. He only went and won the individual world championship in 1992. What chance that a member of the new Middlesbrough speedway organisation might go on to do exactly the same thing in another seven years? Not high, but evidently not zero.
It's always interesting to follow changes in sporting organisation. Almost all sports have far less money than they need and so it's interesting to see how they face the challenges. There is a long and glorious tradition of sporting management computer games, but they all assume a stable and inflexible league structure for simplicity. When so much of the appeal of following sports is the intrigue of following the organisation, I'd find a simulation where leagues struggle and alter and possibly collapse to offer an unusually interesting challenging scenario in which to manage a team. For instance, we read today about the latest attempts to run high-class professional ice hockey in the UK, caused by last year's slightly-too-elitist attempt proving too elitist for its own good.
See also the extinct sports leagues site by Steve Dimitry - lots of fascinating historical data and jumping-off points to sites about individual dead leagues. (There's even a link to an ace page about the various Superstars initiatives around the world, a pet subject of mine.) Steve Dimitry also has a rather ace page about heavyweight boxing history which tracks not just the undisputed champions but also all the defunct and minor boxing title-awarding associations. I think this makes him a bit of a dude.