ROHIT BRIJNATH SENIOR CORRESPONDENT

Sport's epic struggle for survival

Awash as the world is with crystal-ball gazers, tea-leaf readers and palmists - all trying to map out the world in 2015 - none should be employed in sport.

There is too much of chance at work here. An injury today, a loss of form tomorrow. Sport anyway can't really be forecast or foreseen, for surprise is its essential beauty.

After all, once, Lionel Messi was faithfully married to Barcelona; now, barely 10 days into the new year, there are rumours of ugly divorce. Has choir boy turned prima donna? Did you divine that?

Nevertheless, still we prophesise and predict, for it is central to the joy of sport. So let me timidly venture forth and guess that Sepp Blatter will win the Fifa presidency this year. Again. And will say something silly. Again. Blatter strangely has a quality which athletes crave: he claws, kicks, scratches and somehow survives. He finds a way to stay relevant.

And although sport is too tumultuous an activity to be encased in a single theme, one recurring motif this year will be survival. Surviving a damaged body as Rafael Nadal must, for, physically, sport is relentless. Surviving a few more tackles, as All Blacks captain, Richie McCaw, 34, has to if his team are to retain the World Cup. Surviving idiocy, for let's bet that an athlete with a Twitter feed is going to say something obnoxious in the next few seconds. Surviving the loss of a star, as Liverpool will discover when Steven Gerrard is gone.

Even the sports media must survive, as athletes this year will continue to subtly bypass them: now they go straight to fans through social media, providing a view that is personal yet monochromatic, revealing yet self-serving.

Survival requires wisdom, alertness and flexibility. The best athletes survive by reinventing themselves through a new dribble, a heftier second serve, a finer short game in golf. But entire sportshave to remodel themselves this year.

Golf warranted an essay on its struggles in The Economist last month. Much like epic-sized books ignored in a Twitter age, a long game in a time of short attention spans is being abandoned by players.

Golf - at the amateur level - has to be quicker, cheaper, less formal this year. Not disregard tradition, but relinquish stuffiness. It has a curly-haired Irish fellow as champion - who himself must survive over-adulation - and Rory McIlroy, 25, is the perfect vehicle to stimulate a game.

Formula One's challenge is equal yet different, a sport in search of financial management, clearer rules and strong rivalries between healthy teams. In a chaotic marketplace, with untold channels at restless fingertips, no sport can presume loyalty. Once, heavyweight boxers were familiar names recited in awe, now they are impossible quiz questions.

Much like Lance Armstrong and good sense, sport has lost its grip on austerity. Even the Olympics, whose 2024 version started its bidding process this year, is starting to comprehend this. By allowing for two cities, or even two nations, to share sports, a cumbersome, expensive Games may be granted new lease of life.

With money has arrived the ugly embroidery of corruption - football fixing is rampant in some places - and 2015 will test sport's necessary integrity. Football's fair play, for instance, cannot just be an idea and the awarding of World Cups, the game's triumphant crown, has to be transparent. The Qatari saga is still unfolding and people do not necessarily lose interest but faith, and there is a difference.

This year again, from within boardrooms, the mad drumbeat of business and branding will try and overshadow the essential goodness of sport, which is its labour, its heroics, its spirit. Fans can still detach themselves from the hype and appreciate real sport on the field, but it is a challenge.

To survive, some sports will reinvent themselves. Become more fan-friendly. Tweak the rules. Shorten contests. But reinvention is tricky, for all sports have an essence, and to adulterate it in a facile search of more fast-food viewers is to make an imperfect pact.

In tennis, the new, unconventional International Premier Tennis League will remain a distraction not a replacement this year. People still prefer pure, conventional competition; yet as Roger Federer fades and Nadal struggles constantly there is a need for fresh heroes to keep a sport afloat.

This fight between tradition and modernity, between established leagues and quickly fashioned leagues with no history, between old devotions to clubs and manufactured loyalty to new franchises will continue.

Survival this year will not just be about vibrant play, but how that play is disseminated. Television is still our preferred medium, where we return for its big-screen thrill, but viewers are no longer confined endlessly to their couches. They may not always watch sport for hours, but they follow it.

So the play, and statistics, and goals must be streamed onto their phones for glimpses at parties, and be made available on tablets. Fans want sport all the time and everywhere. This year, athlete and viewer will be on the move together. Adapt or die.

In Singapore, the Sports Hub can survive only if Singaporeans flock to it, discovering not just skill within its precincts but also inspiration. More pertinently, will local sport survive as an attraction amid a surfeit of viewing choices. We show up for visiting stars, but what of our own? At mid-year, the SEA Games return to the island, and who watches, and how many, will determine how much we care.

Spectatorship is no patriotic duty, and local athletes must provide effort and spectacle. At the same time, the aspiring athlete needs the fuel of public enthusiasm. The construction - and survival - of a culture is a partnership.

2015 will be a quieter year than 2014, though sport never has routine years. We will find comfort in the familiar, in regular seasons unfolding in our favourite sports, interrupted only by rugby's four-yearly test of the best, cricket's World Cup and the women's football World Cup.

Don't just watch the first two, but the last named as well. Because, this year, like most years, will reflect the continuing struggle of women athletes to find wider acceptance. Skilful, fast, brave, they fight for more viewing hours, for more fans, for more inches of newsprint. They fight even as they are less likely to be stupid on Twitter, beat a spouse, yell racist abuse or generally behave as idiotically as some of their male counterparts. This is a tribe that deserves to survive. And flourish.

rohitb@sph.com.sg