Believing is Seeing: Sports Imagery and Semiotics

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Published on

September 4, 2017
Time to read: 8 minutes

‘Football matters, as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others… Football is inherent in the people… There is more eccentricity in deliberately disregarding it than in devoting a life to it. The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are’

When Arthur Hopcraft described the importance of football, he described a game that, in his view, distilled the character and quirks of a region, and laid them bare on a pitch. His book The Football Man was published a year after 11 men all born with 30 miles of Celtic Park lifted the European Cup – and in so doing alchemised the mercurial personality of Glasgow on a global stage.

This was a time when sportsmen were idealised versions of the places they represented and the supporters who revered them. This wasn’t just down to the fact that men like Tom Finney (76 England caps, 30 goals) got public transport to games and fixed pipes in the off-season (although this helped), it was because they were recognisable products of and participants in their local community.

This closeness led to the phenomenon of ‘seeing is believing’. Images of sportsmen (not just footballers) were more than a convenient showcase for moments of magic, they also crystallised (and up to a point continue to crystallise) an idealised vision of the supporters themselves: Jim Baxter’s keepy-uppy at Wembley showcasing Scots ‘gallus’ (a reckless spirit that many Scots feel is inherent in the national character); Terry Butcher’s bloodstained bandage an epitome of the indomitable English, bulldog spirit.

However, sport’s current unrelenting push towards bigger audiences and bigger paycheques has led to a visual landscape which prioritises multinational brands and elite lifestyles. ‘Big’ sport and its participants have finished their Krystal and are in the process of sailing their super-yachts away from the local communities they once served. The change is quite clear and, at Hook Research, we’ve logged it chronologically:

Hook Research - Sports Imagery and Semiotics

The past

The cultural significance of sport has classically meant that sporting images can be repurposed to fit a variety of needs – representing anything from politics to a country’s creation story.

The image of Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute is emblematic of cultural paradigm shifts occurring in the USA in the 60s and 70s, but a more subtle example is the 1936 Soviet film Vratar (the goalkeeper). In a world of collective endeavour where the role of the individual was sacrificed at the altar of the many, a player who had to be different in terms of dress and skill had an allure and excitement. The image of the goalkeeper standing alone in splendid isolation became the fulfilment of the idea that individuals could be judged and defined on their own deeds as much as on the needs of the collective.

Gideon Haigh has written of pictures taking on ‘a hybrid identity’ – a form that catalogues not just a moment in time but one that also gives shape and meaning to the beliefs of the viewer of that picture.

Victor Trumper - Sports Imagery and Semiotics

Victor Trumper – Wikimedia Commons

One famous black and white picture of the Australian cricketer Victor Trumper has taken on a mythic quality. It has been reprinted and reimagined so many times that Trumper is no longer a human entity, but is an extension of ‘that shot’ – a representation of the best of Australia and its swashbuckling brand of personality. Trumper’s legend has grown to such an extent that not only does this image litter Australian advertising and marketing to this day, but an embargo was placed on selling his remaining effects abroad because of his status as national treasure and cultural icon.

It doesn’t matter that the picture of Trumper was actually a construct happening outside of match time and set up by a photographer. What is important is what the picture embodies: the indomitable Australian larrikin spirit. The photograph, in essence, lives independently of reality, and has allowed viewers to take from it what they want.

The same can be said of Muhammad Ali’s famous two-step, fist cocked over a prone Sonny Liston – a photo that many believe shows Ali achieving greatness in front of a huge crowd of baying supporters. However, what is rarely commented on about the context of the shot is that: it was a record low attendance for a heavyweight fight; Ali is not adopting a triumphant pose, the killer punch was a gossamer touch not the sledgehammer the picture implies; and there is still more than a hint that Liston took a dive (on the mob’s encouragement).

However, none of this is important. What is important is that the image could be retro-fitted onto the legend that is Ali – a man who is an embodiment of the American dream, an idea that allows anyone to achieve anything. Whether the picture is a truthful representation of what happened is irrelevant – it is the perfect match for the legend.

The present

The past seems to have a monopoly on resonant sporting images and characters. Modern big money sport has struggled to produce the iconic pictures of an Ali, a Trumper or even a Baxter. Part of this is due to sport becoming big business. The Stakhanovite need for progress each year means bigger everything: bigger competitors; bigger money; bigger marketing and bigger brands.

Even in isolation, sport morphing into ‘business’ creates distance between fan and player. However, the biggest change is that in a global marketplace, players have become commodities, with the best players moving frequently to maximise both income and glory. This leads to a situation where the players in elite sports teams become increasingly disconnected from the communities they are based in (one year Chelsea, the next year Manchester United).

The ultimate consequence of the demise of one-team players (like John Terry or Ryan Giggs) is that it is hard to have the same kind of close relationship with the individuals on the pitch that previous generations had with star players. This leads to a situation where supporters are backing at best a brand and at worst a garish strip. The ubiquity of the colours and strips of the planet’s biggest teams is one of the features of a globalised world.

Roger Federer - Believing is Seeing (Hook Research)

Roger Federer – Wikimedia Commons

So, what are the images that live in the modern sports fan’s mind? The combination of media training and athletic perfection leads to sportsmen having a base homogeneity that results in a lack of memorability. Titans of the modern age like Roger Federer do stand-out for sheer genius and beauty of movement but as acknowledged in David Foster Wallace’s great essay about him:

‘[securing] a One-on-One … [is] rather like the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats’

Given Wallace was already a famous essayist with tennis pedigree, and he faced these issues getting 5 minutes of Fed, it probably indicates how distant Joe Public is from getting close to Roger Federer.

If we are to revert to Arthur Hopcraft’s quote and ask what modern sport and its images ‘tell us about who we are’ we can see hints in terms of what is talked about on social and obsessed about in the press. If we take this at face value, the gateway into our national game (football) is probably the Sky transfer countdown and an obsession with Jim White and his yellow ‘breaking news’ tie. As much as fans rail against it, there is prurient fascination with the money spent on the modern player. Bigger and bigger numbers flashing on the screen, another attractive young man with sleeve tattoos and sun-glasses driving an expensive car into an identikit parking lot.

It doesn’t matter whether Neymar is worth 200 million pounds or not, what matters is what this signifies about ‘football’. Football is no longer a community game, nor even a national game, it is a multinational business. This level of professionalism is new, and allows us to marvel at the equally new heights of athleticism and physical endeavour exhibited by sportsmen. However, what a professional, globalised ‘product’ finds it difficult to do is offer people, movements and images that reflect ‘real’ personalities and places. What does this mean for the future?

The future

According to the experts in the press we haven’t yet reached peak football in terms of the money sloshing about the game (and given Amazon’s monstering of tennis rights recently, many sports are going to get richer and richer in the next few years). What does this mean for the images the viewer is left to harvest?

UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 – Wikimedia Commons

Maybe the answer is at our fingertips. This Summer, the Woman’s cricket world cup and European football championship (and accompanying attendance figures and BARB figures), has shown us that women’s sport is gradually cutting through for a broader audience. There is something less slick, more natural and more compelling about the way these teams handle themselves and position themselves at the heart of the communities they come from.

However, there is a problem which the peerless Marina Hyde points out. The problem is that these female teams are currently viewed by a majority as an inferior foil for men’s sports. Their success cannot be seen in its own right, becoming instead a metaphorical grenade with the words ‘try harder’ etched on it – a weapon to be thrown at our underperforming men’s teams.

Seen through the prism of the men’s game, it’s no surprise that the coverage of the women’s European football championship on C4 largely over performed in its slot time for men but underperformed for women (women’s football being seen as a strain of men’s football not a unique game in its own right).

It is time to give these teams the credit and air time they are due. To do this, the blueprint for future development has to be geared towards positioning the women’s game as a distinct entity, with a special form and distinct personalities. When this happens we might open the door for sport once more to reflect ‘the kind of community we are’, and be seen as a positive force for good at a local level, rather than a machine-tooled, multinational gravy train pulling away from local communities as spectators wave their white hankies in farewell.

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