Enduring appeal of BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Veteran footballer Ryan Giggs was elected the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year this evening. As the winner is chosen by a public vote, the competition provides a useful barometer of public interest in different sports over the years.

A fixture in the December BBC TV schedules since 1954, the show has often been controversial among  fans who argue about the relative merits of their favourite sports. A cartoon in today’s Sunday Times cheekily suggested that Barack Obama might win – a reference to his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Historically winners have most often come from individual sports, especially athletics, Formula One and boxing, so Ryan Giggs has bucked the trend. Athletes from the team sports football, cricket and rugby union have generally only won in years when there have been major championships.

The visibility of each sport on television is of course a significant factor. Apart from athletics, individuals from other Olympic sports fare best in an Olympic year. To the BBC’s credit, a number of winners have been elected despite taking part in events broadcast on rival channels, including cricketer Andrew Flintoff in 2005 and boxer Joe Calzaghe in 2007. 

It’s difficult to detect many obvious changes in the profile of the winners in recent years, despite the dramatic changes in the sporting world. If anything, the results suggest fairly stable levels of support for athletics, Formula One, boxing, football, cricket, tennis, golf, swimming, cycling and others. There are signs of decline in snooker, which regularly provided contenders for the title in the 1980s and does so no longer. In the 1970s and ’80s outstanding British figure skaters won the award three times but winter sport athletes have scarcely featured since.

Multiple Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson was voted into third place in 2000, which marked a breakthrough for disability sport. It’s possible that athletes from Olympic sports will benefit from a higher profile in the years leading up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

This year the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show clashed with the final of talent show X Factor on ITV, no doubt leading to arguments over the remote control in numerous households across the country. It remains to be seen how much the viewing figures were affected by the scheduling.

The winners always seem very genuine in their appreciation when they make their acceptance speech. As Ryan Giggs acknowledged, they can all remember watching their idols collecting the same trophy when they were growing up. Eventually it may be threatened by the fragmentation of TV and online audiences but for now the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show remains a reassuring institution in the calendar for British sports fans – long may it continue.

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