British sports fans say BBC should award on merit, but also believe at least one woman should have been shortlisted
Every year since 1954 the BBC has presented its Sports Personality of the Year award to the sporting competitor who the British public believe has achieved the most over the past 12 months.
Over time, the precise mechanisms of the public voting process have evolved to reflect changing behaviours and new technology. Nowadays, each of the chosen UK publications submits a list of ten nominees selected by their sports experts. A final shortlist of ten overall is then compiled from those who receive the most nominations. During the televised programme, the public then place their votes by phone for one of those final ten.
With such a potentially partisan subject as sport, it is perhaps no surprise that the result sometimes generates heated debate. This year, however, the controversy has started a few weeks earlier than normal with the announcement of the shortlist.
While there were murmurs of surprise from football and rugby fans, among others, when not a single competitor from those sports made it through, much more vocal were the complaints that not a single female was selected for the final shortlist. World champion swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Kerri-Anne Payne came closest, but neither of them received enough nominations from the panel.
At one level this is perhaps not as surprising as it might immediately seem. Women are featured far less frequently on televised sport than men and out of the 57 recipients of the award, only 13 have been women. Furthermore, swimmers have only won twice, which is one more than rugby union and league players combined, but equal to the number of times a member of the Royal Family has triumphed.
Despite this, 2011 is the first time that a female has failed to be selected for the published shortlist. It is perhaps therefore inevitable that debate has been sparked, with various people from inside and outside sport lining up on either side of the argument.
To gauge the feeling among the wider public, YouGov has conducted a survey among British sports fans aged over 18. The majority (54%) felt that it should be the general public who draw up the shortlist, while the next most popular choice (24%) was professional sportsmen and sportswomen themselves. Sports journalists were only the third most popular option, selected by just over one in nine respondents (12%).
One aspect of the current voting process that came in for particular criticism was the inclusion of magazines Nuts and Zoo in the list of publications who are asked to submit a shortlist.
In our survey, respondents were given a list of publications and asked which they thought should and which should not be allowed to do so. Only 17% of sports fans felt Nuts should have been allowed, and for Zoo the corresponding figure was only 15%. This made these magazines a less popular choice than other options Cosmopolitan (18%), Hello (21%) and Private Eye (22%).
The inclusion of women
Nearly two thirds of respondents (65%) felt that the shortlist should be based purely on merit, with just one third (33%) preferring it to represent a cross-section of sportsmen and women. However, over four in ten (41%) felt that there was at least one sportswoman who deserved to be on the shortlist based on her performance over the last 12 months. This figure was nearly double the 21% who felt that there were not any sportswomen worthy of inclusion and so none should be added.
Some commentators had suggested that a separate award for men and women would be an acceptable alternative, but this was rejected by the majority of sports fans. Over six in ten (62%) felt that things should be kept as they are, with just one award. Under a third (31%) felt that separate awards should be the way to go.
Without further studies it is not possible to know the profile and behaviour of those who actually intend to vote on the night and so accurate predictions are not possible. However, for what it’s worth, at this stage Mark Cavendish, Mo Farah and Rory McIlroy are all out in front in our survey with 14%. However, Andy Murray and the others are not far behind on what is a very close list.
We won’t know the final result until 22nd December, but before then discussions around both the shortlist and the winner are unlikely to abate.
YouGov surveyed 835 respondents online who identified themselves as sports fans between 30th November and 1st December 2011. These were drawn from a larger nationally representative sample of GB adults aged 18+ that was statistically weighted to the profile of the adult population as a whole.
Joe Twyman is Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov (and a seriously competitive swimmer).
You can follow him on Twitter @joetwyman