The economics of sport

Anthropologists sometimes refer to sport as an example of how codes and conventions can radically alter the significance of everyday activities, pointing out that anyone anywhere can kick a ball past a post but that only within the institutional framework of a football match can one score a goal. This can be taken further: only in a society based on commodity production can one get paid for scoring goals, making runs, serving aces, converting tries, and so on.

As with everything else under capitalism, sporting activity cannot be carried on in isolation from harsh economic realities. This applies also to participatory sports of non-experts. Providing sporting equipment (pitches, clothing. rackets, balls) is big business, geared to making a profit. There is no point in producing only top quality cricket bats and tennis balls, since most workers cannot afford to buy them. As a result, thousands of workers spend their time producing cheap saleable sub standard goods.

But when most people speak of the money involved in sport, they are referring to the vast sums earned by leading professional players, for instance £40,000 to the winners of a recent tennis doubles tournament that involved playing just five matches. Top boxers like Muhammad Ali can earn a million dollars a fight, though much of this money goes to support a large retinue of hangers-on. In most sports, the possibility of such huge earnings is comparatively recent; the maximum wage for footballers was only abolished in 1961, and we have all seen stories of how yesterday’s goalscoring heroes are today’s social security “scroungers”.

In fact the vast majority of professional sportspeople sell their labour power (their sporting proficiency) for a wage not noticeably greater than they would receive in a factory of office. Indeed, there was a case a couple of years ago of a Fourth Division footballer returning to his previous job as a carpenter because it was better paid.

Many county cricketers—those who have not caught Kerry Packer’s eye—spend the winter on the dole and on the breadline. And it should not be forgotten that for most a career at the top will last fifteen years at the outside. Even the highly paid George Best looked to his post-footballing future by opening a chain of boutiques while he was opening up opposing defences.

Let’s look a little more closely at the economics of football. Only a handful of league clubs can exist on income from gate money. Others survive by selling their best players for huge transfer fees, but most rely on various fund-raising schemes run by their supporters’ clubs or on money made available by their directors. Football club boards are usually self-perpetuating elites who deny their players and other employees any say in the running of the club, are often prepared to sack the manager after a handful of adverse results and yet themselves remain in charge no matter how badly things are going. At Newcastle United the directors refused to appoint as manager a man the players preferred: this was one of the causes of the disputes which led to many of the best players leaving the club and the remainder becoming so demoralized that United were relegated. The directors stayed put. however.

In view of the unprofitability of most clubs, directors aren’t in it for the money (the recent controversy over the issue of new shares at Manchester United, perhaps leading to enormous profits for the chairman and his family, is exceptional).. Directors are normally wealthy businessmen who either regard football clubs as rich men’s playthings (the way other capitalists view their mistresses) or aim to acquire some local kudos or publicity. The very last people to be considered at any football club are the paying spectators: at far too many grounds the view from the terraces is atrocious if more than a handful turn up to watch, while sanitary facilities are a disgrace. Part of the explanation for this is that money spent on new players entitles the club to tax relief, while that spent on ground improvements does not.

The most recent example of the impact of financial considerations on sport is undoubtedly Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. The world’s leading cricketers were persuaded by merciless application of the cheque book to play against one another in matches not under the jurisdiction of the official cricketing authorities but concocted for the benefit of Packers’ television cameras. Packer’s TV station had been unable to wrest coverage of Test matches from the Australian government broadcasting service, and his response was to stage and televise his own matches. Various commercially-directed gimmicks followed such as portable pitches and floodlit cricket played with a white ball. One hilarious episode was a match played in the United States, which introduced such variants as bowling all overs from the same end (to make things easier for Americans brought up on baseball). America, you see, offered an enormous potential market where there was no built-in opposition to Packer’s series. It may be arguable that spectators will see more and better cricket under Packer’s scheme, but what is certain is that the ordinary county cricketer has in no way benefitted.

One effect of increased commercialization has been the disappearance of the amateur from many sports. Lawn tennis was made open just over a decade ago, ending the ludicrous situation where full-time tennis players were officially amateurs, their jobs usually being “representatives” for sports goods firms. In football the FA Amateur Cup has been discontinued and cricket no longer distinguishes between Gentlemen and Players. Amateurs still exist at or near the highest level in some sports (Scotland’s Queen’s Park Football Club, for instance) but as a rule the part-time player cannot hope to compete with the full-time, professionally-coached, opponent. Hence the proficiency of Eastern European athletes, who are able to devote almost the whole of their time to sport while being strictly amateurs whose official occupation is student or teacher. Variations on this idea are by no means new. Arsenal Football Club was founded in 1896 as a works team of the Woolwich Arsenal, but soon players were conscripted for the team and then placed in jobs specially created for them (an ignominious start to such a famous team).

The lack of profitability of most sports has led to an increased reliance on two sources of revenue, sponsorship and television. The winners of the £40,000 prize mentioned earlier can proclaim themselves not just as World Double Champions but as Braniff Airways World Doubles Champions. Other lucky people can win the John Player League or the Texaco Cup, or can take part in a Coca-Cola International. He who pays the piper calls the tune, of course, and events are often modified to suit the sponsors’ requirements.

The importance of television’s financial support for sport is graphically illustrated by the deal between the Football League and London Weekend Television, an agreement so momentous that it led to questions in the House of Commons and investigation by the EEC. Sports like Rugby League, which has permitted live televising of games, have seen gates diminish and hence an even greater dependence on cash from TV. One of the problems with marketing (an appropriate word) soccer in the US is that, unlike American football, it lacks those brief natural breaks so suitable to the insertion of advertisements during a live broadcast; perhaps players will be encouraged to waste even more time at throw-ins so that the precious ads can be slotted in.

So while watching and taking part in sport is one of the ways in which many workers relax and enjoy a respite from their daily toil, it is as well to remember that even there the requirements and limitations of capitalism still make their ugly presence felt.


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