How long will the Boat Race be relevant for beyond Oxford and Cambridge?

LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 26: (Bow Seat) Matt Edge, Nick Mayhew, Noam Mouelle, Brett Taylor, Thomas Lynch, Seb Benzeery, Ollie Parish, (Stroke Seat) Luca Ferraro and Coxswain Jasper Parish of Cambridge University Boat Club celebrate after defeating Oxford University Men’s Boat Club during The Gemini Boat Race 2023 on March 26, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

A fixture between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge was once seen as the pinnacle of sporting events – or at least in 1829, the year of the first ever Boat Race. Two years prior to that, the first ever inter-Oxbridge meeting came in cricket. 

In the following 100 years, the two universities led the way in sports as they competed against one another in Varsity fixtures ranging from football and rugby to basketball and, more recently, quidditch. But the story of almost two centuries of the contests has been one of fading prestige.

In the last 20 years alone, Varsity football has vanished from our TV screens, the Varsity rugby match has moved from filling more than half of Twickenham Stadium to failing to sell out the Saracens’ StoneX Stadium, and the Marylebone Cricket Club has endured a bitter row between members over the future of Varsity cricket at Lord’s. 

It has left the Boat Race as the last Oxbridge sporting event with at least some claim to relevance beyond the confines of the two universities. 

Broadcast by the BBC to millions of viewers and attended by hundreds of thousands of spectators who line the banks of the Thames, the Boat Race has retained its pomp throughout an age in which reverence towards the two elite universities has declined. 

The Boat Race’s continuing attraction may be due to the fact that rowing has not become as professionalised as other sports. 

Major international events only come once every four years at the Olympics, or, for rowing ultras, at Henley Royal Regatta, which was broadcast for the first time in 39 years in 2015. There is naturally, then, a greater appetite for watching amateur athletes compete in rowing than in other sports. 

Boat Race boozing

Boat crews rarely have Olympic medallists or other recognisable sportspeople, pointing to the significance of the tradition over the event itself.

Crowds at pubs between Fulham and Richmond perhaps enjoy opening the season of Pimms as much as seeing the race itself. At 195 years old, the Boat Race is an occasion passed down through generations which still holds significance for many west Londoners. 

Like some other sports, it has suffered from a decline in national interest. In 2019, the BBC broadcast of the Boat Race attracted fewer than 3m viewers, compared to nearly 5m in 2015. 

The trend is in keeping with one that goes beyond sport, with fewer people caring about Oxford and Cambridge at all. Oxbridge had the lowest number of applicants across all 24 Russell Group universities this year. 

The Boat Race has almost 200 years of history
The Boat Race has almost 200 years of history

The Oxbridge student image has hardly been idolised in either intellectual circles or popular culture. Whether it’s Simon Kuper’s book Chums, in which he blames Oxford’s teaching methods for giving rise to the Brexit class of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or the film Saltburn, which casts the same university in a murky light, public discourse seems to be turning against the value of two universities to British life. 

The Boat Race is the last symbolic celebration of Oxbridge. Five years ahead of its 200-year anniversary, its status — as well as that of Oxford and Cambridge universities — may be under more pressure than it had seemed. 


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.