Readers of this blog will know that the Victorian novelist and journalist, Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80), has been featured many times here by Stephen Basdeo. Today, however, Anthony Bynoe, a student-athlete at Richmond: The American International University, turns our attention to the life and works of Egan the Younger’s father: Pierce Egan, styled “the Elder” (1772–1849). In this article, Bynoe draws particularly upon the work of the scholar David Snowdon to highlight the ways in which Egan the Elder invented modern sports journalism.
Pierce Egan (1772–1849) was a news reporter and novelist who has some claim to being the first “modern” sports journalist. Born possibly in Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom, his family at some point moved to London and, as he was growing up, he made sure he enjoyed all that the capital had to offer—it was the many sporting venues, alehouses, theatres, and bordellos located in the couple of square miles around Piccadilly that he frequented which had a profound influence on his writings.
In order to understand the significance of Pierce Egan’s influence on sports journalism as a whole, let’s examine the of pre-Egan media sports journalism in Britain. Daily newspapers began in the year 1702 with the appearance of the first issue of The Daily Courant, which mainly reported political events in addition to news concerning stocks and shares.
More opinion-based newspapers did exist, such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Tatler and Spectator magazines, but these were often very moralistic; the “sports” they covered were mainly aristocratic ones, such as hunting, and they were read almost exclusively by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.
At the other end of the scale, there were publications which suited the tastes and pockets of readers of more humble means. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, news of more working-class sports was traditionally disseminated through the medium of broadside ballads: poorly written and poorly printed poems on a single sheet of paper, sold often for 1d or 1/2d, that were often sung in the streets by members of the plebeian classes after sporting matches.
Egan’s great idea was to create a new style of sports journalism which was didactic yet accessible as well as being fun to read. Egan also looked to writers such as Henry Fielding (1707–54), Laurence Sterne (1713–68), and Tobias Smollett (1721–71)—all of whom had a flair for seriocomic writing—and this made Egan’s sports writing interesting and entertaining. Egan most famously covered the nineteenth-century world of pugilism, or bare-knuckle boxing, in a series of books titled Boxiana (1812–29). Egan therefore pioneered a new form of sports journalism that was accessible to both the wealthy man and the commoner because it was exciting and entertianing. Egan’s prose, as David Snowdon points out, eroded social boundaries and had
“The appeal of an entertaining stage production to a mixed theatre audience.”
An inevitable result of Egan’s theatrical promotion of fights and those who fought in them meant that many of the athletes featured in his columns became celebrities. One of the most surprising athletes who experienced a sporting following was former slave Tom Molineaux. Molineaux left America after gaining his freedom and commenced a bare-knuckle boxing career in England. Elliot Gorn paints the picture of the crowd during a competition between Tom Crib and Tom Molineaux as comprised of both
“aristocracy and gentry, [and] participation by less than genteel members of the lower class, [with] a shared love of conviviality and high times, a shared admiration for courage, display of honor, and physical prowess”
Had he stayed in America, Molineaux surely would have never experienced becoming a celebrity as he did in the United Kingdom and his fame is an attestation of the power that Egan and his team of journalists had in “creating” famous people.
In order to cement these athletes’ fame, Egan included numerous illustrations in his books and magazines. Athletes would no longer be known only by reputation but also by sight: people would recognise them in the street. They were famous.
And the bonus was that this community of sports fans was relatively non-political. Egan therefore realized that sport offered spectators a chance to “support” a certain athlete or team; so rather than divide people politically, as the more politically-oriented papers of the day did by supporting one party or another, the only polarization resulting between people was one based upon their differing support for a particular athlete or match result.
Egan did not just report the match, however, but also the drama and rivalry between players before a match in what we would now call “pre-match coverage.” Modern sports news outlets such as ESPN and NBC Sports have built upon Egan’s principle of creating anticipation specifically in the instance of pre-competition commentary and, of course, in our modern commercialised world: advertisements.
Pierce Egan was, as David Snowdon says,
“in every sense of the phrase, one of a kind” due to his ability to “spin out a narrative and his wizard-like flair of conjuring up phrases and words specifically designed to showcase sporting events”.
Not only did Pierce Egan transform the sports journalism of his day, he was successful in influencing the works of leading literary lights such as George Orwell and Charles Dickens, the latter of whom, as Scott Crawford tells us, can be “held up as a prime example of the working writer, with deadlines to meet, who was influenced by Egan’s pugilistic phrasing.
Pierce Egan was therefore an essential part of improving British sports journalism in the 19th-century and sports media as a whole, and without such creations as Boxiana and his later Book of Sports, reports of sporting events might have remained restricted by classist, moralistic and pompous vocabulary, and those early modern athletes may not have received the following they deserved.
Crawford, S. (2019). The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (review). Muse.jhu.edu.
Dionísio, Pedro & Leal, Carmo & Moutinho, Luiz. (2008). “Fandom affiliation and tribal behaviour: A sports marketing application”. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 11, p. 1352.
Franck, E. and Nüesch, S. (2007) ‘Avoiding “Star Wars”– Celebrity Creation as Media Strategy’, Kyklos, 60 (2), pp. 211–230.
Gorn, Elliot J. (2010). The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. pp 328.
McCalman, Iain and Maureen Perkins. (2001). “Popular Culture.” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schlossberg, H. (1991), “Sports marketing”, Journal of Promotion Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 119-22.
Snowdon, D. (2007). Drama Boxiana: Spectacle and Theatricality in Pierce Egan’s Pugilistic Writing. Romanticism on the Net 46. [Online]. Available at: www.erudit.org [Accessed 18 October 2019].
Snowdon, D., 2013. Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s Boxiana World. Bern: Peter Lang.