The sad death of golfer Seve Ballesteros is the lead story today in Spanish media such as El País, El Mundo and Marca. The glowing tributes appearing in media around the world (BBC, USA Today, L’Equipe and many more) prove his iconic status.
Ballesteros burst onto the scene as a 19 year-old, finishing runner-up in the British Open in 1976. Among dozens of tournament wins during his career were three Open titles and two US Masters. He was also the inspiration behind European success in the Ryder Cup from 1985 onwards after decades of American dominance. With his flair and sense of drama he probably did more than anyone else to popularise golf across Europe in the last 30 years.
Many sports governing bodies and sponsors try to extend the appeal of their events by supporting the development of young athletes in new markets. Through funding for youth programmes, training camps, wildcard entries and holding championships in developing countries, federations seek to broaden the pool of contenders. Occasionally it works, particularly when there is already an infrastructure in place within a specific market which can harness the international investment.
A successful example is the introduction of Italy into the Six Nations rugby tournament in 2000. Although the Italian team has not yet been close to winning the title, it has been consistently competitive and achieved some notable victories.
But what sports federations and sponsors really crave is superstars from outside their core markets, athletes who can transcend their sport and appeal to an audience well beyond the traditional fan base. Those of a similar generation to Seve Ballesteros include the likes of Boris Becker, Roger Milla and Lance Armstrong.
While star athletes often have a strong family background in their sport – Ballesteros came from a family of golfers and Becker’s father set up a tennis centre – they rarely seem to be the product of official sports development programmes.
With some honourable exceptions (such as the US college sports system and the FC Barcelona youth academy), development programmes succeed in broadening the base of competitive youngsters but seldom unearth charismatic champions.
It may be that sports federations and sponsors should concentrate more on capitalising when they are fortunate enough to have a superstar in their midst and worry less about the very difficult task of producing the next one.
Ultimately it is the icons of sport who do more to inspire the next generation of stars than any well-meaning official intervention. At the US Masters last month Phil Mickelson said that watching Seve’s 1980 Masters victory as a 9 year-old influenced him to take up golf.
Farewell Seve Ballesteros. Your legacy lives on.