Team GB are Britain’s most popular sports outfit, so how do we get people to watch?

<span>Photograph: Sam Mellish/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sam Mellish/Getty Images

They were celebrating and swooning over Britain’s Olympic stars at the glitzy annual Team GB ball at the Savoy on Thursday. Just as they always do. And that experience will only be magnified when the Paris Olympic Games rolls around in eight months’ time. Huge numbers of medals will be won. Gushing editorials will be written. Once more, viewing figures will be enormous.

Would it surprise you to learn that a recent YouGov survey found that Team GB are the most popular sports team in the UK – ahead of England’s women footballers in second? Or that Team GB consistently ranks high on the list of the most cherished public institutions in the UK, behind the NHS and the emergency services? I suspect not.

But I also can’t help thinking back to a conversation I had earlier at the Savoy with Alex Yee, Britain’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic triathlon gold and silver medallist. The 25‑year‑old, who is as intelligent as he is talented, was talking about his most special moment in Japan. It wasn’t the glory that most thrilled him, he insisted. It was hearing about kids doing “triathlons” in their own back garden the next day, with the aid of paddling pools, little bikes and their own imaginations, after watching him on TV.

Related: Beth Potter and Alex Yee in ‘best ever’ Team GB Olympic triathlon squad

Then came the kicker. “I feel passionate about growing the sport,” he said. “So the fact there’s less BBC coverage is definitely a shame. In fact, World Triathlon now has a paywall to watch an event. But I want everyone to be able to see our sport, enjoy it and be inspired.”

Triathlon is far from alone. Most sports under the Team GB banner are in the same leaky boat. For two weeks every four years we laud these athletes as superheroes. Then we forget about them. A good part of that is down to the dominance of football, a behemoth that sucks oxygen from every other sport in its path. It doesn’t help either when many Olympic sports have been slow to adapt to a changing media landscape, one where young people increasingly gravitate towards clips shared on social media.

Even so, Yee hit on something I hear increasingly across British sporting circles: the growing frustration with the BBC for dialling down its coverage of Olympic sports – both online and on TV – outside the Games. And then, when it does have the rights for events, too often shoving them behind the red button.

Why pick on the BBC? Because, unlike other British media outlets, it has public money and a public service remit. Not only can it afford to spread its love and affection beyond football and the other major sports, but it has an obligation too. One administrator I spoke to described it as “betrayal of the licence fee”, but even those who don’t go that far question why the BBC throws so much at the Olympics, but so little on the stories before and afterwards.

True, the BBC’s budgets are under pressure. As its outgoing director of sport, Barbara Slater, told MPs last week, TV rights for blue riband events such as the Six Nations have more than doubled in the past decade, yet the corporation’s budget has gone down by 30% in real terms. However, when it comes to many Olympic sports there is no such premium.

Opening CeremonyGreat Britain flag bearer Andy Murray leads out Team GB during the Rio Olympic Games 2016 opening ceremony
Andy Murray leads out Team GB at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony but too many Olympic sports struggle between Games. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

No one should doubt the amplifying effects of live sport on the Beeb. Or how it acts as a signal to the print press and other media that this event matters. The Guardian always has a huge spike in its traffic for the world athletics championships. Partly because people care but also because millions are watching it on the BBC.

Indeed, given UK Sport gets around £100m of public and lottery money a year to fund our Olympic athletes and to inspire the nation, it is slightly strange that politicians don’t want more bang for their buck. For once it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to put pressure on the corporation to cover more Olympic sports.

In fact, would it be that outlandish for the BBC to consider having its own sports channel, especially in a world where the likes of Viaplay Xtra and SportyStuffHD exist on the Sky box? What is not to like about a combination of live sport and classic sporting footage from its deep archive?

Perhaps the time for that was after London 2012. However, Mike Cavendish, British Triathlon’s highly regarded performance director, doesn’t think so. “We still have world-leading superstars across a whole bunch of different events,” he says. “So the opportunity is still there.”

Admittedly athletes also need to do more to promote themselves and their sports. Too many don’t realise they are not only in competition with their rivals but other forms of entertainment. It is not enough to play a good game; you have to talk one too. That’s what builds up interest and rivalries.

However, like many Olympians, Yee’s talents undoubtedly deserve the widest possible audience. He certainly puts the work in, too: a typical Wednesday, for instance, starts at 6.30am for a 6.5km swim set, which takes around an hour and 45 minutes, then a four-hour bike ride followed by a 45-minute run. Oh, and a 75-minute gym session in the evening.

No wonder Yee sleeps well at night. At the same time, though, he gets restless. He wants to inspire more people. But to do that, first they have to see him in action.