The Boat Race – One

The annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is now only just over a fortnight away.

Today, it’s the amateur sporting event with the biggest television audience of any in the world. In the UK alone, over 7 million people watched last year’s race on ITV – quarter of a million actually turned up to the race itself – and in 2004 half a billion people (UPDATE: actually c. 100 million) watched worldwide.

Despite this, it’s kept a local feel. Of the Oxford blue boat this year, one member was educated in Hammersmith, which the race will pass, and another in Abingdon, a small market town on the Thames close to where the crew does much of its training. Cambridge are a little further flung – they include rowers from Derby and Wrexham. Nevertheless, on 7th April, the globe will be tuning in to a river in a little country famous since Roman times for painting itself blue, and places as diverse as Empty Quarter oases and Antarctic research stations will split down the middle to roar their respective boats on.

For all that this isn’t, and never has been, a race between the two best boats in the world, it’s not a soft race. By tradition, the race goes ahead in almost any conditions, and sometimes those conditions would be sufficient under normal arrangements to see regattas called off. Famously, boats do sink, and given that the Thames is a dangerous, fast-flowing embanked river, that’s not quite the amusing dip into the drink it might at first sound.

Alongside cricket and racing, it’s a survivor from before the industrialization of Britain really took hold. Public school blogger Chris Dillow will be pleased to learn, if he didn’t already know, that one school he covers especially often, Harrow, provided the twin inspirations for the first race, Charles Merivale at Cambridge, and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet) at Oxford. The annual challenge has continued almost uninterrupted ever since, pausing only for the two World Wars. The course itself has remained nominally the same since 1864, although the building of Bazelgette’s Embankment would have changed its nature substantially during that time.

Despite the race’s place in the UK’s sporting calendar alongside the Grand National and the FA Cup Final, as one attracting attention from people not normally drawn to sport, the Boat Race is still often subject to a degree of social bigotry. Damian Counsell, who, being both an Oxford man and a Cambridge man has a foot confusingly in both camps, decries a particularly witless and unpleasant example of the genre – from what you might see as an unexpected source – here. But that’s unusual. For most people, it’s a bit of unimportant fun on what will hopefully turn out to be a bright day, not a chance to get the Kennington Common rally right this time.

Rowing is a notoriously demanding sport in terms of fitness and training. The two crews on April 7th will have worked and sacrificed to a mad dogs and englishmen degree, and within 20 minutes of the race’s start, eight of the sixteen competitors will be wondering what it was all for. Perhaps one day it will be decided from the best of three, but for now, here’s a foretaste of what’s in store on the 7th:


11 Replies to “The Boat Race – One”

  1. I can’t believe 500m people worldwide watch the Boat Race. That would mean almost a high of proportion of people across the world watch it as they do in Britain, even though it almost certainly isn’t televised in many of them. Do you mean 50m?

  2. Nope – half a billion was the figure. On further investigation, however, I find the race organizers themselves reckon 100m, which is still substantial.

  3. 100m sounds more reasonable, though I’m still sceptical. I found figures ranging from 5m to 120m. The 5m comes from a study criticising sporting events for inflating their viewing figures (it’s outside the country of origin) and the numbers can be seen here. These are necessarily the top 20, they were chosen as they claim huge viewing figures:

    The final of Euro 2004 easily eclipsed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games to win the title of the most watched sporting event of the year, concludes a study harshly critical of global sport events for inflating their viewing figures.

    The final between Portugal and Greece was seen by 153 million TV viewers globally, aided by a massive rise in the number in Asian viewers, cementing football’s place as the most popular sport in the world.

    But the Olympics produced four events in the top 10. The second most watched event was the opening ceremony of the games, which attracted 127 million viewers, followed by the closing ceremony, which attracted 96 million.

    The ViewerTrack report from media agency Initiative Worldwide found global sporting events vastly inflated their viewing figures, claiming “the 15 events were chosen because, for each of them, worldwide audiences of at least several hundred million people are claimed”.

    But Kevin Alavy, an analyst at Initiative Worldwide, said: “Actual live audiences for these events can be very different from the claimed audiences.”

  4. I wonder how many of the people who sat through Portugal v Greece WISHED that they hadn’t been inflating its viewing figures?

  5. I watched the Portugal v Greece game in Ibiza. I remember almost missing my flight to see the end of it, which would have been one of the most stupid reasons to miss a flight ever.

    By the way I noticed the Wikipedia table is wrong, it doesn’t match up with the article (which I didn’t link to as it’s behind the guardian’s media registration wall).

  6. Apparently our American cousins much exaggerate the worldwide viewership of the Superbowl. Part of the problem is that much of the rest of the world is asleep at the time. And the rest would be if it troubled to watch.

  7. In re. the Superbowl, of course American Football is quite a complex sport to follow. The advantage of the Boat Race is that it is extremely straightforward to understand what’s going on. So it doesn’t just fly over the heads of simpleminded Brits. Nevertheless, I agree with you – holding the Boat Race in the early hours of the morning would increase those West Coast and Australasian viewing figures, and it’s time that idea finally came to the table.

  8. If it was held in June, not April, then it would probably be possible to still have it in the light too!

    On the other hand maybe Sky + type technology is minimising these things. I was quite rude to someone who called me just as England were about to score their winning points in the Rugby World Cup final – a bit later I realised I had paused it for 5 mins to go and buy some milk so actually the game had finished in the real world.

  9. “The advantage of the Boat Race is that it is extremely straightforward to understand what’s going on”

    Is that really the case? You say that “the Thames is a dangerous, fast-flowing embanked river” which means that the line the cox takes is quite important, and completely opaque to the uninformed viewer.

  10. I was being tongue in cheek, Dave – sorry. Reminds me of that great moment in foggy radio sports commentary – “I can’t tell who’s in front, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge” (John Snagge).

  11. I’m sorry, I just can’t believe this is true: “Today, it’s the amateur sporting event with the biggest television audience of any in the world.”

    Yes, dearieme, we in north america may inflate the viewership of our sporting events, but I think the US viewership alone of the NCAA basketball tournament or the BCS championship game would dwarf the worldwide audiece for Boat Race.
    Three questions:
    1: Could the worldwide audiece for a not-really-world-class rowing match really by 14+ times greater than the domestic?
    2: Given the US mania for college sports (pay no mind to the billions and billions of dollars in revenue/merch/tv rights, it’s *amateur* damn it!), what’s the worldwide ‘hook’ for the boat race that more than makes up for the advantage in domestic viewing audience?
    3: What other countries make up the bulk of this 100m total? Is there some unexplainable passion for this event in Australia or Canada? Does the Indian subcontinent tune in?

    It simply can’t be the most watched amateur athletic event…it just can’t.

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