Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Spotting the next SPOTY in our Celebrity Culture

With Andy Murray’s exit from the US Open, I’d like to reassess this year’s Sports Personality of the Year award. Please feel free to add a Comment if you think I’ve missed anything.

These are the best available odds on the main candidates (NB some of them are Betfair odds, i.e. minus 5%, or 4.99% if you’re practically professional):

1/09/09 Today

Jenson Button 10/3 9/4

Jessica Ennis 4/1 5/2

Andy Murray 4/1 49/1

Andrew Flintoff 8/1 8/1

Andrew Strauss 12/1 11/1

33/1 bar 41/1

The Big Night is not until December 13th, so it’s not too late for another serious contender to emerge, but the chances of that are fast diminishing. In fact, I can't think of a big event taking place in the next three months that could do it. (Again, feel free to correct me in a Comment!) If the end of the Formula 1 season springs to mind, I’ll come to that in a minute.

My analysis (hoping that that’s not too scientific a word).

People sometimes bemoan the fact that the Sports Personality of the Year doesn’t always have much of a personality. I’m sure you realise that that’s not the point, any more than the Eurovision Song Contest is a song contest. My own definition of a “personality” may not match yours, and in any case let’s not forget that this is simply a popularity contest whose title uses the word “personality” because it’s a bit clunky to call it the Sports Person of the Year.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to list the main factors that can significantly affect a SPOTY candidate’s popularity. Any or all of the following can help a candidate to win votes:

· Achievement in the year in question

· Achievement in previous years

· Significance of the year in question (for instance, a retirement)

· A family story (family tragedies, poignant love stories, etc)

· Celebrity status (a certain showjumper springs to mind!)

· A record of overcoming misfortune (injuries and so on)

· The media coverage of all the above

· How much and how good their coverage is on the night – which partly depends on whether the candidate participates in a BBC sport

· Yes, their personality, and how they come over on the TV

· Most importantly, the competition, in the form of other British sporting achievement. (For instance, it’s usually difficult for non-Olympians in an Olympic year, and no one other than an England rugby player was going to get a look-in in 2003.)

We can all think of recent examples where one or other of the above factors seemed to be particularly important. I hid it in the middle of the list, but I believe that increasingly in our celebrity-dominated culture, we have to take into account the importance of Celebrity Status. So, bearing all this in mind, who should be the front-runner in this year’s competition, and are the current odds justified?

Jenson Button

In 2007 and 2008, something quite unusual happened in Formula 1. A British driver dominated both seasons, coming 2nd and then 1st. The last British Formula 1 Champion was Damon Hill in 1996. Hill won the SPOTY even though it was an Olympic year (Steve Redgrave came second). He also won in 1994, without winning the Formula 1 Championship.

But Damon Hill was already a genuine TV personality, and frankly, Lewis Hamilton was not. Given the deterioration of Formula 1’s image in recent years, and the fact that Button is even less of a “personality” than Hamilton, I think the best that Button can realistically hope for is that a Formula 1 driver comes second in the SPOTY for a third successive year.

Jessica Ennis

Candidates from athletics benefit from the fact that it’s a BBC sport, but it’s still unusual for an athlete to win the SPOTY in an odd-numbered year – you have to go back to Jonathan Edwards in 1995.

Like Ennis, Edwards came to prominence by winning World Championship gold. Could this be enough, as it was in 95? Well, Philips Idowu won gold this year too, but he’s not even in the running. I’m sure he’s a great bloke when you get to know him, but I don’t think the BBC voting public are quite ready for his combination of pierced tongue, eyebrow spear, and godbothering. (The odds would seem to bear this out – as I write, he’s available at 169/1.) By contrast, Ennis is a charming and attractive “girl next door” character. I think she has every chance of emulating her recent predecessors in this role, Paula Radcliffe (2002) and Kelly Holmes (2004).

Andy Murray

In my view, Murray’s odds have been unrealistically short for many months, on the basis that if he won either Wimbledon or the US Open, then he would be a shoo-in for the SPOTY. But I don’t think he was ever really in the running. Greg Rusedski won it in 1997 after reaching the final of the US Open, but that was a really slow year. Second and third were Tim Henman – and Steve Redgrave, in a non-Olympic year!

And in those days Rusedski and Henman were both genuinely popular personalities.

In 2009 we have a newly-emerged “personality” in a BBC sport, and England have won the Ashes. To me it seems unlikely that Andy Murray would have won the SPOTY even had he won the US Open. And, as with Idowu, he’s probably a lovely guy one-to-one, but on TV he simply doesn’t come across particularly sympathetically.

Of course, the fact that Murray’s been over-rated for so long has had one good consequence – as you can see in the table above, other candidates’ odds have been slightly longer than they should have been. Until now.

Andrew Flintoff

As soon as Flintoff declared his intention to retire from Test cricket, he became a contender. When he ran out Ricky Ponting, allowing the mainstream media to portray him as England’s Ashes Hero, I was surprised not to see his odds shorten further than they did.

He won the SPOTY four years ago, the last time he was the Ashes Hero, but that was the first time we’d won it for a generation. Without the open-top bus tour this time, he hasn’t yet achieved the same level of public and media acclamation as last time. But it could yet happen, perhaps on SPOTY night. It can certainly happen to a larger-than-life character who’s already a Celebrity.

Andrew Strauss

Frankly, if the SPOTY was decided on merit, Strauss would have a great chance. But it’s not and he doesn’t.


I’ve never been convinced of the merits of the other main contenders, and I believe it’s a straight race between Flintoff and Ennis. A lot hinges on how the actual programme goes on the night. Will they both come over well? Will Flintoff blow it by appearing too arrogant, or Ennis by being too nervy? Ennis has had less practice in the spotlight, so perhaps her poise will desert her on the night. But in the end, I believe the SPOTY will go to either her or Freddy. In the absence of other indicators, I expect name recognition and Flintoff’s prior celebrity status to swing it in his favour.

My Bets

True to Smithsonian tradition, I will declare my bets:

Back in January when Strauss was appointed England Test captain, I got a small amount on at 50/1, just in case. I am now considering laying off, but I will probably leave it. Again, just in case.

In July, when the Athletics World Championships squad was announced, I put small amounts on Radcliffe (335/1) and Ohuruogu (235/1), and a larger amount on Ennis (12/1). Any one of them could have become “the story”, and it turned out to be Ennis. I have since topped up at shorter odds.

I hadn’t expected England to win the Ashes, so at first I left Flintoff alone. But during and after the final Ashes Test, I got on Flintoff at 10/1 and 9/1.

I have no money on Button or Murray.

Obviously my Ohuruogu and Radcliffe money is already up in smoke, but I’m happy with my other investments. In recent years I’ve made a good profit on every winner except Calzaghe. I will now decamp to somewhere quiet and await the Button landslide!

When not poring over the SPOTY odds, Robert Barnes spends his time managing


Robert Barnes said...

Next time, remind me to put some dots in if I want to do a table!

Easterross said...

I would venture to suggest that now Andy Murray has blown his chances of winning the US Masters, it is likely to be Jensen Button if he wins Formula 1 and if he doesn't it will be Andrew Strauss because of the Ashes.

I had to google Jessica Ennis to find out who she is. Sadly for her becoming World Heptathalon Champion will probably not register with most people.

Peter from Putney said...

I really can't see any basis on which Freddie could/should win SPOTY. I've been saying for weeks that it's a two horse race between Button and Ennis. Should Jenson win the F1 title it's his, no doubt, should he falter however as seems quite likely right now, Jessica could edge him out and she has the advantage of being quite fragrant which is always quite a help.
My only misgivings about this forecast centre around the fact that the mighty SPOTY pundit, like you is going for Freddie - yeeks, why???
My only

Peter from Putney said...

Oops, I should have added that the mighty SPOTY pundit to whom I referred is of course stjohn who has picked the winner for the last two years, both at long odds.

Robert Barnes said...

Thanks for your Comments, folks. I guess if everyone agreed with me, the odds would not be what they are. But even if Button wins the F1 Championship, is he really any more popular or better known than Hamilton, who could only manage second in the SPOTY?

stjohn said...

Excellent article Robert Barnes. I agree with every word.

I would particularly underline three of your points and add a few of my own.

Firstly, your point about injury is extremely relevant this year. Innis overcame a major ankle injury last year to become World Champion this year. Quite an achievement. Flintoff also battled against injury to take his place in The Ashes.

Secondly, as regards Celebrity, Innis is probably not very well known yet but she is an attractive, glamorous and photogenic young woman. Flintoff, as you say, is already a celebrity.

Thirdly, the BBC coverage is indeed vital. In fact I think their editorial team "decide" the winner. They narrow the field down to I think only 10 possible winners that the public can vote for. Their coverage on the night is crucial. They gifted the prize to Zara Phillips and Joe Calzaghe in their respective years of victory. And yes, it helps the competitor if they bother to turn up on the night and if they come from a BBC covered sport.

It's also important if there is more than one competitor from the same sport on the list as this will split the vote. This is a problem for Flintoff as Strauss will siphon off a good proportion of Cricket votes.

I think Ennis is the likeliest winner but that Flintoff has a great chance and is the value bet. I will be surprised not to see him in the hunt on the night and I have just gone in again at 15/2 with Honest Fred Done.

I posted this on the main blog re the SPOTY recently:

"Quick update on the SPOTY. Flintoff closing in on Strauss as cricketer of choice. Both about 8/1.

With Button struggling to scrape an inglorious F1 victory, Ennis relatively unknown and lacking an Olympic Gold, Murray lacking in “personality” and so needing a “Major” under his belt and 11/4 to win the US Open, it could yet fall to an Ashes cricketer in an Ashes summer.

Strauss has done well but one legged Flintoff, in his retirement year, has the “personality”. His run out of Ponting was a great sporting television moment and his 5 wicket haul on the final day at Lords was a pivotal achievement.

Peter from Putney thinks my bet on Flintoff to win the SPOTY is foolish in the extreme. Mind you he thought the same two years ago when I backed Calzaghe to win this event at long odds. And again last year when I backed Hoy to win at 7/1. So I’m on a hat trick.

Flintoff available with Coral’s at 9/1.


by stjohn August 30th, 2009 at 12:15 am

Robert Barnes said...

Thanks for the comment Stjohn, and hats off about Calzaghe. I made money on Radcliffe, Wilkinson, Holmes, Flintoff, Philips and Hoy, but sadly not Calzaghe!

I think a lot of punters accidentally bet on who they think *should* win, rather than who has the realistic chance. As I argue in the article, this helps the rest of us by artificially inflating the odds for the genuine contenders.

I take your point about the danger of Strauss splitting the cricket vote. It'll be interesting to see if this hands it to Ennis, but the parallel situation didn't stop Wilkinson winning in 2003, when Martin Johnson came second.

Mitchell Stirling said...

I also have money on Strauss at 50/1 from January for similar reasons as Robert mentions. After the final test I laid some off at 8/1 but kept some just in case he gets a massive (double?) hundred in South Africa, that could swing people to backing him under those 8/1 odds imo.

Robert Barnes said...

For the sake of completeness I should add that I've now had a saver on David Haye, as he has a world title fight on November 7th. I took him at 50/1 and he's still available at 40/1.

I don't pretend to understand the way boxing fans vote, and I don't want to be caught out like I was with Calzaghe.