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Cost v popularity in sport

Whilst packing my daughter off to the Horse of the Year Show (all this week at Kyalami Equestrian Park, if you really want to know), I got to thinking about the barriers to entry for specific sports. There surely is a correlation between the money it takes to participate in a given sport and the popularity of it. The foundation of most sport is running and at its basic level it is free. A pair of running shoes would be nice, but many of the greatest runners of all time grew up racing barefoot. Some, including Zola Budd, got as far as the Olympics without shoes.

But for most people true sport involves a ball of some sort, so let's look at the barriers to entry therein.

Clearly soccer is the world's favourite pastime. It has been unfairly labelled as "a simple game for simple folk," but there is some truth in that statement. You can play soccer anywhere, indoors or outdoors, on any size of arena (within reason of course) and the only equipment you need is a goal and a ball. And in fact you don't even need a ball. A bundle of rags would do, or if you wanted to go completely retro, a pig's bladder.

In North Africa and many parts of Eastern Europe, handball is almost as popular as soccer. The same equipment is required and the only difference between the sports is that one glorifies the feet, the other the hands. So to all intents and purposes, soccer and handball at their most basic levels are free. It's only when you start to take either seriously that you start forking out money.

They are therefore separated from the sports that demand specialist equipment, specifically those based upon hitting a ball with a stick of some sort. I'm thinking of hockey, baseball, cricket and golf. Once upon a time, hockey could be played cheaply. A hockey stick, a hard ball and a field were all you needed.

To an extent that is still the case, but as soon as you want to take the sport seriously the costs rocket. The single most important item of equipment is out of the hands of the player, and that is the pitch. A generation ago, a hockey astro was an unjustifiable expense for a club or school.

Now, if you want to have competitive fixtures at all, it is not negotiable. All of the other costs - stick, padding, balls, goals - are insignificant by comparison.

In that respect, organised hockey is more expensive than its close cousin, cricket. It is still possible to play proper cricket on a grass field, and my own experience suggests that a heavily prepared pitch, one that has been cut, rolled and manicured, is nice to have, but not absolutely essential.

The big expense for the casual cricketer is the bat, and for the club or school, a supply of balls. The same is true of baseball, another sport that can operate on a basic field, albeit necessarily quite a large one.

But then we come to golf, and that's where the barrier to entry gets really large. Even the most basic form of the game involves paying to play on a large area of carefully maintained real estate, with clubs and balls that grow exponentially in price as you get better.

But if you really want to break the bank, ride a horse competitively. First buy your horse, then stable it, feed it, pay the vet bills, buy saddle, bridle and general accessories. Then buy a vehicle to transport it to shows. Pay entry fees for the shows, membership of the federations that run them and a ground levy. Then decide you quite like this and get a second one. Don't laugh, they say that women's brains are hardwired to forget the pain of childbirth.

I'm starting to sound bitter and twisted. I love it really. Really I do. I'm a teapot. A nice red teapot. Baaabbuuubbeee...

(Editor's note; normal Andy Capostagno will resume shortly. Our technician's are working on it.)

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