By STEVE MASCORD
IN 2016, the American writer Chuck Klosterman released a book called But What If We’re Wrong? It was sub-titled “Thinking about the present as if it was the past”.
Without weirding you out by wandering off on a tangent, Klosterman posited the fact that John Philip Sousa is synonymous with marching music. People today don’t have enough room in their heads to think much about something as archaic as marching music. They either know no-one who wrote marching music, or they know John Philip Sousa.
Bob Marley and reggae is going to the same way. If you know almost nothing about reggae, you know Bob Marley.
So, when rock music is being taught in schools in 100 years after it has absolutely no resonance in pop culture (that’s almost gone now, right?), who will be the one person it is most closely identified with?
When you ponder this, remember – Dave Grohl and John Lennon and Mick Jagger will all have been dead for more than a century. Rock music will be no more a part of your daily life than Sousa’s hits or Big Band music. There won’t be room in people’s heads for Alice Cooper on Joni Mitchell.
I won’t go down the rabbit hole of how Klosterman arrived at an answer (he first had to determine if rock was a performative art form (hello Elvis) or primarily an audio art form) but if rugby league, in some form anyway, is around in another 100 years (a big ‘if’ in my opinion), I wonder how we will remember 2020 and if there is only room in the heads of 2120 sports fans for one person from today, who that will be?
Klosterman’s key contention is that history does not travel in straight lines and that many things happen in a manner that is not purely evolutionary.
For instance, perhaps with the increasing knowledge of brain injury and the current trend of ‘woke’ness where society has more sympathy for mental illness, disability and all that, body contact sport will cease to exist in 50 years.
But if there is another major global conflict and infrastructure collapses, or a virus wipes out two thirds of humanity, or woke-ness leads to to some telling event that causes a backlash, rugby league and other body contact sports may flourish in future.
An example on a much smaller scale of this is the eight and half Sydney clubs that survive in the NRL today. In this example, we are talking internal rather than external factors but the tectonic plates of history can have unpredictable and profound impacts.
The period 1995-99 was like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Decisions made by one generation of officials and media moguls wiped out Western Suburbs as a stand alone club, as one example, and gave us the Melbourne Storm.
The asteroids were from technology, the introduction of pay television. This once-in-a-century event also led to the British game switching to summer.
Nothing much changed in the 90 seasons before that and we are now in a period of deep conservatism and consolidation once more, expansion viewed with deep suspicion.
I’ve seen it written that whatever sport was popular in a certain part of the world with the introduction of mass media – the high speed printing press and radio – remains mostly popular there today.
Rowing was massive in Sydney at the turn of the 20th century. Had rugby league not taken off at precisely that time … well I was going to do some sort of cheap, smutty joke with the word coxswain in it.
These flash points, caused by external factors, speed up history like the toggle on a remote control. In rugby league, where could next one come from? Let’s thing of the present as if it were the past.
Certainly the addition of the Toronto Wolfpack to Super League might be a trigger; more teams in North America have the capacity to quickly swamp the pit towns that founded the British game and provide new wealth.
But we are seeing after three weeks that the Wolfpack are suffering at the hands of stifling tradition; the effort of going up through the levels of promotion and relegation over the past three seasons has left them ill-equipped for the top flight and in danger of going back down again.
The metaphorical asteroid showers may come from technological advances or the fortunes of competitor or changes in geo-politics but when it comes to sport, the agent of all that change is money.
And the collapse of traditional TV rights is the number one likely reason for another period of profound change in rugby league.
Lower division clubs in the UK know their funding will drop if it happens while the NRL has insulated itself somewhat by setting up its own digital unit.
But areas of the sport that have not traditionally been well resourced, such as the international game, part time, amateur, women’s and disability leagues, are also building media platforms for themselves.
In this way, the perhaps the rich will get poorer and the poor will get richer.
The atomisation of the traditional media is a looming disaster for rugby league’s old power bases but a golden opportunity for parts of the sport that have traditionally been neglected.
By STEVE MASCORD