Sport as apocalypse – Why global sport is in crisis today

Essay by MIKE MARQUSEE, Frontline

Though’t be a sportful combat

Yet in the trial much opinion dwells.

– William Shakespeare, in Troilus and Cressida

EVERYWHERE TODAY, sport commands an increasing proportion of the public discourse – in advertising and politics, newspapers (front page as well as back), television and the Internet. More Londoners watched the telecast of the England vs Germany football confrontation in Euro 2000 in June than bothered to vote in the recent first-ever elections for a London Mayor.

The sports explosion of the last years of the 20th century is hailed as a success story, a triumph of globalisation, but there have been losers as well as winners, and among the losers may be found both loathers and lovers of sport, and perhaps sport itself. Amid the clamorous hyperbole emanating from the global sports industry, it is hard to remember that it all begins as play, that these exertions emerge from humanity’s childhood, from the spontaneous but structured interaction of the human body with balls, sticks, baskets and tree stumps.

IN APRIL 2000, key players in the industry assembled in London for ‘Sport Business 2000’, a high-power conference organised by Dow Jones, the firm of investment brokers and financial analysts, and sportbusiness.com, an on-line magazine. Among the participants were international governing bodies (the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the International Association Football Federation), major broadcasters (Sky TV and Turner Sports), sponsors (Nike, Coca-Cola), specialist sports marketers, events managers and agents (IMG, ISL), investment bankers, stadium architects, Internet enterprises (Yahoo, Sportal and sports.com), and not a few of the 1,000 consultancies said to be lubricating the sports sponsorship market, now worth $20 billion annually – up from a relatively paltry $500,000 thirty years ago. There were, however, no sports performers and no representatives of sports fans. The price of admission to the conference was 1,250 pounds per delegate, plus VAT. Not a great deal to pay for the inside track in an industry that accounts for something like two per cent of GDP in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Intriguingly, one seminar was entitled, “How can investors reconcile sports’ inherent uncertainties?”

The topics discussed at the conference included the impact of new technology, the difficulties of managing intellectual property rights in a global marketplace, the commercial potential of new multi-use stadiums equipped with interactive “smart seats”, and the relative merits of event versus broadcast sponsorship, on-site versus virtual advertising, cross-corporate convergence versus specialisation, and niche-marketing.

Intriguingly, one seminar was entitled, “How can investors reconcile sports’ inherent uncertainties?” After all, the team you sponsor may not win the cup, the athlete who endorses your product may crack a vertebra. One answer to this conundrum came that very week from South Africa, where cricket captain Hansie Cronje confessed to accepting bribes from bookmakers.

The monopoly media is devoting vast sums to secure TV rights for selected sports, as evidenced from FIFA’s World Cup, as on 2006

Thanks to the convergence of a deregulated financial regime and the spread of information technology, money now flows from one account to another with blithe disregard for national boundaries or legal niceties. In this environment the illegal bookmaking syndicates have flourished. They are merely the dark underside of globalisation, and only one of a number of powerful forces seeking to exploit sport’s huge popular base. Corporate sponsors, advertising and marketing agencies, media empires, government bureaucrats, politicians and demagogues – all have an investment in the game, and all seek to shape it to their own ends, to “reconcile sports’ inherent uncertainties.”

The questions raised by the match-fixing revelations – about the governance of global sport, about the authenticity of the spectacle – are by no means confined to cricket. Football, rugby, athletics, tennis, boxing, baseball, not to mention the Olympics – all have been tainted by controversies arising from conflicts of interest and commercial pressures. Behind this crisis of governance and credibility lies the powerful and intricately interconnected corporate-media-sport nexus that was on display at the Sport Business 2000 conference. This nexus buys and sells sport, forever striving to reduce its refractory human complexity to commodity status. In doing so, it is changing the very look and feel of the world we share, and the way we share it.

Corporate sponsors, advertising and marketing agencies, media empires, government bureaucrats, politicians and demagogues – all have an investment in the game, and all seek to shape it to their own ends, to “reconcile sports’ inherent uncertainties.”

THE SRI LANKANS were playing a Test match against India at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo. Loitering outside the heavily guarded gates was a young boy, barefoot, his scrawny legs sticking out of dirty shorts. Unable to afford the price of a ticket, he bided his time, hoping for a glimpse of Aravinda de Silva, Chaminda Vaas or some other deity of south Asian cricket. His tattered tee shirt was hand-decorated, with the letters N-I-K-E and a big, black swoosh, the Nike symbol, carefully drawn in felt tip pen. Like so many others around the world, this boy was prepared to do for free what Michael Jordan will do only for millions of dollars. At least, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he was not paying over the odds for the privilege. Replicating corporate symbolism was as close as he could come to joining the consuming classes.

The barefoot Sri Lankan was not alone. America’s tatooists report that the swoosh is their single most requested design. And if Nike is too downmarket for you, there is always the elite “sports watch” market, in which an Alexander McQueen design gets the Colin Jackson endorsement. Because modern sport is universal and secular – crossing boundaries of language, religion, culture – it is a handy tool for the construction of global markets, and for the assignment of status within those markets.

Cricketer Ajay Jadeja launching the Pepsi Web site in New Delhi. In today’s information-based economy, sport, which is both a symbolic good in itself and an effective carrier of symbolic values of all sorts, assumes inordinate significance.

Sport today is being used to ‘brand’ ever-expanding acres of public space – material, televisual and cyber. “The marks of international sports events have become extremely valuable properties,” explains Gerhard Proschoka, “the visible expression of the link between supporters and events are an effective way of giving products added value.”

Proschoka is head of licensing at ISL, one of the world’s most successful sports marketing agencies, which, on FIFA’s behalf, flogged more than 300 licences for 1998 World Cup-branded merchandise. Since retail sales amounted to some $1.2 billion, Proschoka must be right about the ‘added value’. As a highly flexible index of style and belonging, sport seems an ideal promotional tool, a short-cut to consumer consciousness.

In the last decade, the British market for sports clothing has grown by 145 per cent in value. Floor space is said to have expanded by 531 per cent since 1995. In addition, there has been a blurring of boundaries between sportswear and fashion in general as designer labels like Hilfinger, Gucci and DKNY enter the fray. Half of all global sports sponsorship now comes from sportswear industries. And the single biggest spender is Nike, whose dominance in the industry is intimately bound up with its associa tion with sports and sports stars. Over the years, Nike’s best selling item has been the Air Jordan, a product whose market-position is largely derived from its association with a sports star.

Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey told Sports Illustrated that Canadian society was “as blatantly racist as the United States.” Bailey’s sponsor, Adidas, was horrified.

Basketball star Michael Jordan has been an advertiser’s dream: cautious, conservative and consistently successful

MICHAEL JORDAN, of course, has been an advertiser’s dream: cautious, conservative and consistently successful. But the human material of which sport is compounded is not always such. Shortly before his record-breaking 100-metre run in the 1996 Olympics, Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey told Sports Illustrated that Canadian society was “as blatantly racist as the United States.” Bailey’s sponsor, Adidas, was horrified. The Adidas spokesperson not only disowned on the company’s behalf the contentious remarks, but insisted they had “nothing to do with Donovan the athlete or the Donovan we know” – as if they were reclaiming the public persona in which they had invested so heavily. Bailey’s political opinions had proved to be one of “sports’ inherent uncertainties.”

When Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler displayed a tee shirt backing the sacked Liverpool dockers at Anfield in 1997, he was immediately rebuked by the club and fined by the UEFA. The imperative here was not so much political as it was commercial; if they are to maximise revenue from branding, the club and the governing body must retain exclusive control over the use of any space (including players’ chests) associated with the game. Because the branding of public space (including sports events) by private corporations implies an exclusive (if temporary) ownership of that space, challenges to corporate messages are inevitably squeezed out. Sometimes the censorship is overt. At the 1997 du Maurier Tennis Open in Toronto, student anti-tobacco protesters were removed from the arena – even though it was located on their own campus.

When Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler displayed a tee shirt backing the sacked Liverpool dockers at Anfield in 1997, he was immediately rebuked by the club and fined by the UEFA. 

One of the salient features of an information-based economy is the increased value attached to symbolic goods (images and information) and the symbolic content of manufactured goods. Design and marketing account for an ever-rising proportion of total value. In this type of world, sport, which is both a symbolic good in itself and an effective carrier of symbolic values of all sorts, assumes inordinate significance.

THE single most powerful individual within the corporate-media-sport nexus must be Rupert Murdoch, whose diverse portfolio gives him a stake in nearly every aspect of the industry. Murdoch has explained his strategy frankly. He regards sports as a “battering ram” to enter and capture emergent markets. His Fox, Sky and Star TV networks broadcast major sporting events across North America, Europe, and Asia, and he is now collaborating with Globo, the biggest cable broadcaster in South America. He also has direct holdings in sporting institutions themselves – British and German football clubs, major league baseball teams, rugby league clubs in Australia. Murdoch’s newspapers in Britain, the U.S., Australia and the Far East report on his televised sporting events, and he is anything but reluctant to take advantage of the convenient “synergy.” Fox Sports has launched its own men’s clothing line. “We are hoping to take the attitude and lifestyle of Fox Sports off the TV and onto men’s backs, creating a nation of walking billboards,” explained Fox’s chief executive officer.

In Asia, Murdoch’s Star has joined forces with ESPN to carve up the sports market. ESPN boasts 20 television networks (including Euro-Sport) spanning 182 countries. It also runs the leading sports website in North America, where one third of all Internet use is said to be sports-related. ESPN is owned by the Disney Corporation, which controls the ABC television network as well as major league baseball’s Anaheim Angels and an ice hockey team christened the Mighty Ducks, after the Disney film of the same name.

The bigger the investment in sport, the greater the temptation to exercise hands-on management. Murdoch and Disney are part of a trend towards increasing cross-ownership among the media, sponsors and sports entities. The Italian politician and television magnate Silvio Berlusconi is the principal owner of AC Milan and he has a major stake in Sportal, the British-based Internet sport company. Canal Plus, the French pay-TV station, owns the Paris St-Germain football club. Fiat owns not only the Juventus football club but also the Ferrari Formula One motor-racing squad. EM.TV, the German media group, now controls 50 per cent of Formula One itself. Nike owns its own golf tour, and its contract with the Brazil football federation gives it a major role in determining where and when the national team plays, and even, some whisper, who gets to play in it.

Meanwhile, sporting institutions themselves are expanding their interests into media and merchandising. Manchester United and the New York Yankees, perhaps the world’s most valuable sports ‘brands’, have both entered the Internet and broadcasting business, and even taken stakes in other sports. As a result of all this increasing inter-connectedness, whose purpose is to minimise the risks posed by “sports’ inherent uncertainties”, special interests call the shots, and accountability and transparency go b y the wayside.

What future awaits curling in Scotland, wrestling houses in Iran, elle in Sri Lanka, or kabbadi in India?

THE ‘LEVEL PLAYING FIELD’ beloved of the architects of the current world economic order is, of course, a metaphor from sport. But in an irony characteristic of the age, the level playing field imposed by global capital seems to be having a distinctly unlevelling impact on the sports field itself. The concentrations of wealth and power now driving the industry are generating new inequalities within sports, between sports, and among sporting nations. Scores of traditional and indigenous pastimes, as well as once-vital modern sporting sub-cultures such as West Indies cricket, Welsh rugby and Cuban boxing, are being pushed to the margins, and threatened with extinction. In south Asia, hockey has been overwhelmed by cricket; in England, cricket is being overwhelmed by football. What future awaits curling in Scotland, wrestling houses in Iran, elle in Sri Lanka, or kabbadi in India?

The impact of globalisation on sports’ labour force is immediately apparent to anyone watching Chelsea or the New York Yankees. Major league baseball now recruits much of its talent from the Caribbean and South America; a multinational labour force is placed at the service of an overwhelmingly dominant North American market. Some North American players ply their trade in Japan, but there is no migration southwards – at least not since the flow of black ball players dried up after Jackie Robinson broke the colour bar in 1947. Likewise, most African athletes who hope to shine on the world stage pursue their careers at North American colleges, and African footballers seek their fortunes in western Europe (though they can also be found playing in Turkey, India and Japan).

According to the “rich list” compiled by Deloitte-Touche, all 20 of the world’s wealthiest football clubs are now based in Europe. Long-established South American clubs with massive fan bases, like Flamengo of Brazil, have fallen down the list as satellite and cable cash flows into the big western European leagues. In South America, cable hook-ups remain confined to a small elite (only 3.3 per cent in Brazil) and clubs are forced to boost income by selling players to Europe. The European matches in which the local heroes play are then telecast back to South America, reinforcing the superior status of European over local football.

During the 1990s, global expenditure on sports sponsorship trebled. But the distribution of this growth was highly imbalanced. In 1998, 37.8 per cent of this sum was spent in North America, 36.4 per cent in Europe and 20.8 per cent in Asia, with South America way behind and Africa virtually out of the reckoning. What counts here is not just the size of TV audiences, but their relative disposable income. The CAF, the African football championship, is followed passionately by hundreds of millions, but, al as, as far as corporate sponsors are concerned, there is little profit to be made, and African football, for all its wealth of talent, remains an underdeveloped, shoestring affair.

Even in the developed world, the distribution of the spoils is highly unequal. In 1998, sports sponsorship in the United Kingdom was worth 350 million pounds, two thirds of which was consumed by football and Formula One. Other sports are being marginalised, as are women’s sports. A survey revealed that 82 per cent of companies involved in sports sponsorship said they were “not interested” in women’s sport, although 57 per cent conceded that they would be interested if there was greater “sex appeal.” Despite the ever-swelling tide of sponsorship and television cash, and despite the increasing numbers of female participants in almost all sporting cultures, women’s sports (with the exception of tennis and a few Olympic events) remain a well-guarded secret. The high profile that the last women’s football World Cup final had is an exception that proves the rule. Here the United States met China, a dream match for the FIFA bigwigs seeking expansion into both markets. Ironically, the success of these women’s teams – in a sport in which their male counterparts are minor powers – owes little to free enterprise. The Chinese footballers were, of course, groomed under a centralised sports bureaucracy. But the Americans were also indebted to state intervention in the form of Title IX, a powerful legacy of 1970s feminism requiring educational institutions to provide equal facilities for women’s sport.

Increasing disparities in wealth are also compromising the integrity of sporting competitions. The pursuit of ever greater TV audiences led to a rapid expansion of major league baseball franchises and the adoption of a ‘souped up’ ball that is more likel y to fly out of the stadium. The result has been lop-sided competition and the devaluation of the home run. The fate of the FA Cup, the prototype modern spring competition, reflects similar pressures.

As a handful of rich clubs outspend their competitors off the field, the spectacle on the field becomes more predictable and therefore less compelling. The giant-killing feats that once tingled the collective spine are becoming rarer. In the past, a Cup encounter between old rivals would always outdraw a league encounter. Now the reverse is the case. The premiership has evolved into a glamorous, exclusive coterie, and the European champions league outshines all else. The symbolic eclipse of the FA Cup was the withdrawal in 1999-2000 of the Cup holders, Manchester United, who preferred instead to take part in a “world club” competition with no pedigree. In this they were backed by the British government, which saw the Manchester United move as a boost for the country’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. For both the football club and the politicians, conquering global markets took precedence over preserving a long-established national institution.

The money flooding into sport has raised its social status, and with that rising status has come ticket-price inflation, the growth of the corporate hospitality industry and the colonisation of sports arenas by luxury boxes. Everywhere, sports fans from the lower income groups are finding it harder to gain access to live sporting events. According to the 1998 British Social Trends Report, during a three month period one third of those surveyed in the top bracket ABC categories had attended a live specta tor sports event. In contrast, only 18 per cent of Ds and 7 per cent of Es had attended one. In the last baseball World Series, a mere 5,000 seats, 10 per cent of the total, were placed on sale to members of the public in New York City. Concerns about the exorbitant cost of attending matches in Japan during the 2002 World Cup met with a casual rebuff from Lennart Johansson, chair of FIFA’s World Cup organising committee. “When it comes to the cost for the fans, they have to look in their wallets to see whether they can afford it or not.”

As the new Internet, mobile phone and digital platform technology evolves and spreads, “an already sports rich world will become even richer,” predicts sportbusiness.com. “Sport will be available on demand in the home, the office and even the car. Technology will make sport yet more international and that, in turn, will accelerate the development of truly global sporting super-brands with a devoted world wide audience.”

But this global audience will be fragmented and segmented as never before. The greater flexibility of the medium will enable greater targeting of the product. One way or another, pay per view will become the norm. Outlets will proliferate, but attention to them will be much more casual. Sport will become part of that ceaseless, seamless flow of imagery and information that floats like a veil between individuals and the life they share with larger communities. Ideal, no doubt, for promoting the products of multinational corporations. But what will be left of the common experience of watching sport as part of a crowd, with all its biases, tensions and banter, its collective passions and heated arguments? For all their cultural differences and mutual ignorance, this was an experience which united sports fans across the globe, and out of it grew a wide variety of popular sporting cultures. In its heyday, modern sport helped bring strangers together; it helped forge new urban and even national communities. Sometimes, in some places, it still plays that role. But these days, as often as not it atomises communities and eviscerates collective identities.

LAST year the World Wrestling Federation was floated on the stock exchange for $1.5 billion. Financial analysts who predicted that the move would raise half that amount should have known better. In 1999, more than half of the top 60 pay per view events in the U.S. were produced by the WWF or one of its affiliates. Head to head with the Michael Jordan-less NBA play-offs, the WWF outdrew the glamour sport of the 1990s by two to one. The WWF also runs one of the top three sports-related websites, with 1.6 million visitors in a single month. Then there is the merchandise, the playstations, and the videos, not to mention the WWF themed hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

With cable or satellite audiences in every continent, the WWF may be, after the Olympics and the football World Cup, the closest thing to a genuinely global sport. Except, of course, that it is not a sport. The outcome is determined and the action is rehearsed in advance – which is why no one will take a bet on a WWF match. Here “sports’ inherent uncertainties” have been entirely eliminated. The WWF is a soap opera cast in the form of a perpetual sporting competition. With its commentators and pundits, technical jargon, pouting, preening superstars, super slo-mo (slow-motion) TV replays, vendettas, grudge matches and spurious controversies, it resembles a Gothic parody of big-time modern sport. The WWF founder and owner Vince MacMahon has even had himself and his family written into the scripts, which enact the now familiar conflict between superstars and sports bosses.

Pro-wrestling had been on the wane for years, spurned by broadcasters and sponsors as too downmarket, sleazy and naive for an increasingly sophisticated sports audience. MacMahon rejuvenated it in the 1980s, when the expansion of cable television gave the old vaudeville show a new audience. During the same period, the detailed choreography of violence was becoming a commonplace attraction in the popular cinema (in Hollywood, Mumbai and Hong Kong). Macmahon enhanced the spectacle with light shows, heavy metal music and comic book imagery, and devised long-running plotlines through which he manipulated the larger-than-life dramatis personae of his company of actor-wrestlers (whose stage names remain the intellectual property of the WWF). The formula proved so successful that Ted Turner launched a rival roadshow, the WCW.

In the WWF, victory and defeat, the goodies and the baddies, the twists and turns of sporting contests, come ready packaged, like junk food, and like junk food, their appeal crosses borders with only token resistance. Ironically, the WWF and its imitators build on – and ultimately displace – a wide variety of indigenous and traditional combat-based entertainments. Only a generation ago the wrestler Dara Singh was a hero to children and adults alike across north India. Today he would have to sign up with MacMahon or Turner or one of their global competitors if he wanted to reach even his own home audience.

The rebirth of this fairground entertainment through the medium of a globalised economy and technology – and its funhouse mirror image of modern sport – is testimony not merely to the enduring popular taste for blood and thunder, but also to the increasing reduction of modern sport to an endless parade of packaged simulacra. The signifiers of modern sport have been detached from lived experience to float in a ‘virtual’ reality owned and designed by a private corporation. When MacMahon barred television advertisements for Beyond the Mat, a documentary account of life behind the scenes in the WWF, he argued that the film made unlicensed use of the WWF logo; he also claimed to be the sole proprietor of the public images of a number of individuals interviewed in the film (including his wrestlers and himself).

Undoubtedly, he was also disturbed at the film’s candid expose of the serious risks taken by the WWF stars in pursuit of TV ratings. Simply by making clear that the televised spectacle had some harsh consequences in real life, the film became subversive. In response, MacMahon sought to reclaim exclusive corporate ownership of the realities depicted in the film.

Star Formula One driver Michael Schumacher. The ever-increasing global expenditure on sports sponsorship is not evenly distributed. In the U.K., two-thirds of sports sponsorship is consumed by football and Formula One.

Although it is entirely contrived from above, the WWF spectacle gives free rein to the most ferocious expressions of partisanship. Identities, loyalties and affinities that football or baseball clubs acquire over many years are market-researched, briskly manufactured and shamelessly promoted. Strangely, one reason for the appeal of the WWF seems to be the very nakedness of its artifice. In merrily discarding the higher ethos of sport and ‘fair play’, it seems less mealy-mouthed, less hypocritical, than many ‘legitimate’ sports.

When the boxer Naseem Hamed, frustrated by the defensive tactics of his opponent, resorted to an illegal body-slam, he was universally condemned for indulging in a “WWF-style” display, and was forced to issue an apology to broadcasters HBO, who had stumped up the money for the fight. Yet it was HBO and the fight promoters who had already resorted to “WWF style” tactics to drum up a live audience for an event whose profit was overwhelmingly dependent on pay per view. The fight against the Mexican challenger Cesar Soto was staged in Detroit, which is home to large Mexican and Arab minorities. Hamed hails from Yorkshire, but his Yemeni background has been crucial in shaping his image, and he often asserts his pride in being a Muslim. The fight was promoted in Spanish and Arabic in the appropriate neighbourhoods; ethnic identities were deployed as a commercial attraction.

Artificially-hyped collective antagonisms are certainly not confined to working class attractions like boxing and pro-wrestling. The Olympics have become a peculiarly noxious cocktail of national chauvinism and global capitalism. Even upmarket events like the traditionally genteel Ryder Cup golf contest between Europe and America have erupted in over-heated jingoism. And corporate sponsors and broadcasters alike now have a vested interest in hyping the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry to the limit – and beyond. Earlier this year, as the two teams faced each other in Australia, their governments were exchanging mutual threats of nuclear annihilation, not to mention actual gunfire in disputed Kashmir. Murdoch, Disney and the soft drinks sponsors saw fit to promote this sporting encounter as “Qayamat” – apocalypse.

Perhaps the crowning irony of the contemporary media-corporate-sport nexus is that it has turned the over-inflated response to national sporting success and failure into a global phenomenon. When the European-based superstars of the Cote D’Ivoire football team – whose yearly income is more than most of their countrymen will earn in a lifetime – performed poorly in the African nations championship, they were incarcerated by the military regime and given lessons in “patriotism.”

The mood swings that have long characterised the inner life of the sports fan have been transformed into a public mania, manipulated for commercial and political advantage. One of the pleasures of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a confessional account of life as a football fan, is that it never forgets that sporting partisanship, the habit of linking one’s individual fate to that of a team or performer, is fundamentally absurd. For true sports-lovers, “sport inherent uncertainties” are its deepest attractions; they are what drove generations of spectators and supporters through the turnstiles. The fan’s amour fou has always been tragicomic, but the huge investments and excessive importance now attached to sport are coarsening the drama.

The justification of sport is that it is a harmless diversion, an end in itself. Those forces that subordinate it to other ends (the conquest and exploitation of markets) now threaten to ruin this delightfully trivial, yet somehow infinitely creative, exercise of human faculties.

Mike Marqusee is the author of Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, published by Seagull (Calcutta).

Source: Frontline, Volume 17 – Issue 16, August 5 – 18, 2000

http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl1716/17161100.htm

This article is an extended version of an essay that appears in “This Sporting Lie”, the latest edition of Index on Censorship, the bimonthly London-based magazine.

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2 responses to “Sport as apocalypse – Why global sport is in crisis today

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