Why did England invent so many games and show such an appetite for them as players, spectators and administrators that modern sport became possible?
Industrialisation undoubtedly provided the opportunity for modern spectator sports by moving England early from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society. Large agglomerations of people provide the audience for sport. The growing wealth of the country from industrialisation provided the money to support professional sport. But that does not explain why it happened in England when it did not in occur in other non-Anglo-Saxon industrialising nations, which either showed less interest in sport or adopted and followed English sports rather than making their own indigenous sports serious spectator sports. There had to be something special in the English character and society which provided the impetus to take the opportunity when it was offered.
The answer I suspect is that the English have always been a sporting people, whether it be pre-modern games of football and cricket, archery, dog fighting and so on. The love of the chase remains to this day in fox hunting. Athletic pursuits were widely admired before the modern era, especially by the educated Englishman brought up on the classics with their frequent descriptions of physical prowess. Long before the much Wenlock “Olympic Games”, Robert Dover of Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire held his “Cotswold Olimpick Games” – the games were first held in 1612 – which included sledgehammer throwing, horse racing and wrestling.
But the fact the English have always had an abnormal love of sport begs the question of why. It is probably simply an expression of the general English love of liberty and the practical realisation of that love in a society which until recent times has not oppressed the English man and woman with much state intrusion into their lives. (Sadly, recent governments, most notably that of Blair, have seriously changed the traditional free nature of English society). Over the centuries the English became habituated to the idea that the individual counts, that a free-born Englishman, however humble, had a dignity and worth simply as an individual.
This mentality is important because participation in a sport requires freedom from oppressive elite who frown upon public gatherings and societies with a dominant ideology which considers the ordinary man as next to nothing at best and a threat to public order at worst. English society has not been free of such qualities but it has probably suffered much less severely from them than any other nation.
As for why England has been so successful in exporting its sports, it cannot simply be the consequence of the British Empire and Britain’s economic and political dominance. Sports are demonstrably not easily transferrable from one society and another. Other European nations had empires and their colonies did not take up French sports. The United States for all their economic and cultural dominance have failed largely to export their two most important native sports, baseball and American football. Basketball and ice hockey have enjoyed more popularity but nothing approaching the popularity of football.
Australian Rules football, wildly popular in Australia, remains an essentially domestic pursuit. Ditto Gaelic games such as hurling in Ireland. Cricket and football gained a hold abroad and maintained it because they are inherently good and satisfying games, the former immensely technical to play yet simple in its basic idea, the latter the simplest and cheapest game to play – two sweaters down on the ground for a goal and a ball and you have a game.