Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Decline of Pub Sports

By pure chance, a conversation on Twitter today sparked off my thoughts of how much the pub trade has changed since I first started frequenting pubs in the late 1970's.

At that time, a regular feature of lunchtime TV was a program called 'Indoor League' - which was hosted by the late Fred Trueman. That program was almost a microcosm of the type of entertainment which one would find in pubs of those days. It was arguably the very start of what became the popularity of Darts as a TV phenomenon of the time. It was not uncommon to see the top dart players of the day competing on 'Indoor League'. I can still recall seeing the likes of Alan 'Ton-Machine' Glazier, Alun Evans, Leighton Rees, Jockey Wilson, Eric Bristow, John Lowe et al regularly appearing on the program. Soon after, they all became household names as the World Darts Championship started appearing on the TV.

But this got me thinking about pub entertainment of that time and how much it differs from the pub landscape of today. It was almost impossible in those days to walk into a pub that didn't have a dart board - which was almost always in use. The ubiquitous pool table had, at that time, not quite become the phenomenon it is these days, though many pubs did have them nevertheless. However, what was far more common in many pubs of that time was Bar Billiards. Because you always took your shot from the bottom end of the table, a Bar Billiard table could be pushed against a wall or placed in the corner of a room.

It was also very common to see sports like Table Skittles regularly played, alongside tables of people playing dominoes or cards. Larger urban pubs would sometimes even have skittle alleys as part of the interior and such venues were popular with groups of work colleagues after a hard day at work.

These were all sports that featured on 'Indoor League'.

Almost every pub had a darts team, pool/bar billiards team, (bar) skittles team. There was even a dominoes league at one point in the village where I grew up. It was in these smoke-filled atmospheres that people socialised in massive numbers. Some pubs may have had a TV in them, but as I remember it was usually only in  clubs that TV's appeared in any great numbers. Jukeboxes were certainly around at that time, but were usually quite limited in what choice of music they had due to the need to hold any number of actual vinyl single records (the most popular songs almost always had a scratch on them due to wear and tear) and they rarely had the juice to overpower a bar with sound. Then of course, many pubs also had a live band playing on Friday and Saturday nights. When there was a band playing in the pub, it was literally standing-room only - and even that standing room was limited.

What I remember most of all was that the bars were almost always full to the brim of people having a drink and generally socialising/enjoying themselves. As most villages/towns/cities had a plethora of pubs/clubs, it was not uncommon to start at one end of town and work your way to the other end visiting as many establishments on the way as you could handle (in those days I can recall buying a pint of cider for as little as 25p a pint).

Now, more than 30 years on, there are far fewer of those pubs around. But what has struck me is how the social element of pub going has disappeared. In those days I could walk into any pub in the town/village and be guaranteed to bump into somebody I knew in every one of them. Why ?

Well, for one thing I played for my local Darts team. That meant frequent visits to other pubs in the area as we competed in the many leagues and cup competitions. The fact that most pubs had many other teams for the different pub sports also meant that people who played those in other pubs would frequently be seen in my local. In short, you got to know everyone through these games/sports. It MADE the social atmosphere of the pubs.

In 2016, very few pubs even have any of those games/sports facilities available and consequently the many different leagues and cup competitions have long gone as more and more pubs have closed down. Where I live now, not one of the (very few remaining) pubs even have a dart board. Some of them will have a Pool table, but you will not find any that have a Bar Billiard table, or Table Skittles and it is very rare indeed to see people playing dominoes or cards anywhere.

There are many and varied reasons for the demise of the pub trade. Chief among them (in my opinion) are the Smoking Ban (which instantaneously alienated smokers - many never to return), simple economics, health & safety and changes to licensing (both alcohol and entertainment). Most pubs in 2016 will have a pool table (if you are lucky), maybe Sky TV Sports (if the Licensee makes enough money to be able to afford Sky's astronomical fees), sometimes a jukebox and occasionally a live band. That is about it. It is unlikely that you will know everyone in the bar like you would have 30 years ago because there are no team sports being played. In short, pubs have become far less sociable than they were due to the general demise of the pub trade.

It's a shame. I look back to what the pub trade was, and what it is now, and the two are barely recognisable.

So, what you remember/miss about the vibrant pub culture we once used to have ?

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