Written by: Sean Wilson

We’ve all seen the tendency of sports shrinking their formats to cater for a fan’s shrinking attention span. In the future, these sports will find themselves at a turning point when their shortened alternatives aren’t just bite-sized versions of what the consumer was brought up watching, but are in fact the very versions that introduced them to the sport.

How I would’ve yearned for the option of a shortened version as a 6-year-old kid being dragged to the cricket ground by my sports-obsessed father. It used to be a rough at that age, sitting through 7 hours of play of a domestic 4-day match that’s happening at less than 2 runs an over surrounded by 60-something men who occasionally wake up from naps to state “This is a key session”.

Rugby wasn’t always that much easier. Sure, the hard hits and tackles were more viscerally stimulating and drew louder crowd reactions to get a kid excited, but it could seem confusing with the ball hidden amidst clumps of players in rucks and mauls, interrupted by the referee’s whistle to stop play for no apparent reason to a child (and more often than not, the explaining adult struggled to find reasons too).

Now look at what’s on offer for a more “family-friendly” entry level version sports. For cricket, a child going to T20 game will now feel more brought than dragged by a parent. It all offers so much more surface level fun when everyone gets to gawp at sixes arching into the crowd every other over. That’s way more palatable than sitting through maiden overs all day constantly begging for ice-cream.

A day taking in a rugby sevens tournament is also a much more decipherable game with only half the players on the field and it’s got far more gripping tries per minute ratio. It provides more cheers from the crowd in a shorter space of time and more often than not just looks like more fun.

More traditionalist sport fans might complain about how these options aren’t “true” versions of the sport. 36-year-old me complains about how the traditions of the game are being compromised. 8-year-old me would’ve whacked 36-year-old me over the head with a King Cone.

Generally, even if traditionalist fans do complain, they end up keeping an eye on all versions on offer regardless. After all, a shortened version caters for their shrinking attention spans too even if it’s not their favourite. It puts greater emphasis on big moments rather than enduring battles of skill and temperament. It offers matches with a quick-to-follow narrative without much time to invest in it.

While the growing success of the shortened versions has run concurrently with the prolonged original versions, what will happen when the generation shifts to a bunch of consumers that haven’t been introduced to longer versions later in life, but rather have things like T20 and sevens as their first memories of the sport?

Are these shortened versions competing with their longer original versions or are they complementing them?

In the South African sporting landscape, the trend of lower attendances in test cricket and rugby union has been clear. For how long will promoters get away with the narrative that these versions, that clearly look less followed, are actually the “true” version of the sport?

The T20 landscape suggests that a more “every format for itself” situation is brewing in cricket, with more privatized tournaments popping up and slowly divorcing itself from ICC structures and conventional domestic cricket boards. It will have to come to a point where all T20 organizers will want to promote their product not just as a sibling of other versions, but as the version that conquered all.

The Sevens circuit still operates under the auspices of World Rugby running neatly alongside conventional rugby union. However, in South Africa at least, there’s surely only so long that tournaments like Super Rugby and the Currie Cup can sustain their dwindling interest without the privatized sector trying to rope in a rugby interested public with more sevens alternatives than the one international tournament that hits the country annually.

It’s a sporting landscape that’s set for a crossroads, and if history is anything to go by, the “McDonaldized” option tends to win. Sponsors and investors for both original and short versions should be mindful of treating the situation less like one hand feeding the other and more like both fighting for your limited attention.