1980s >> 1988 >> no-1008-august-1988

Money games

Sponsorship is the game these days, as can be seen from the names of the competitions. From the Sherpa Van Trophy to the Ever Ready Derby, sponsors have taken an ever more prominent role. Since the advent of the Gillette Cup in 1963. sports sponsorship has become big business. It seems to be good business, too. with the Cornhill Insurance Company having doubled their turnover since beginning their association with test cricket. Sports sponsorship, together with smaller projects like financial support for opera, provides companies with cheap mass exposure.

The rising costs of organising sports events — especially the income of a handful of top performers — and the long-term decline in numbers of paying spectators have forced many sports into the arms of the sponsors. Loss of sponsorship can trigger a major financial crisis. There was panic when the Today newspaper suddenly dropped its backing for the Football League (though Barclays soon stepped in) and. more recently, when a unit trust group decided not to continue supporting the British Open snooker championship. Sports like hockey, with a million pounds in sponsorship over the last four years following British medal wins, are more fortunate. There is even a special credit card for channelling funds to Britain’s Olympic rowing squad.

In addition to outright sponsorship, the other major source of funds is broadcasting, especially TV. Millions of pounds are available from this source, but only so long as the viewers keep tuning in. When they don’t, the supply of money will be switched off too. Most cataclysmic, perhaps, was ITV’s decision to stop screening professional wrestling after over three decades. Channel 4 has stopped televising snooker. Administrative bodies for other sports have begun to flex their muscles, with the BBC forking out larger sums than in the past for coverage of golf and rugby union. Now the most televised sport of all, cricket, is seeking to sell itself to the highest bidder.

Most interesting and revealing, however, are the current shenanigans in the world of football. The potential of satellite TV and European-wide broadcasting has raised the stakes and introduced new bidders into the game. The Football League approved a ten-year deal with a satellite company worth a cool £200 million, with the prospect of further money from ITV and BBC. ITV then contacted some of the top clubs directly, with the aim of exclusive rights to broadcasting from their grounds. This led to accusations that a Super League was being introduced through the back door. Super-capitalist and football entrepreneur Robert Maxwell then threatened to throw his weight into the competition. At the time of writing, the outcome is unclear, though it is a fair bet that the interests and preferences of the ordinary football supporter won’t determine the upshot.

Ordinary supporters are now, in many cases, “members” of their clubs. But the membership scheme, designed to reduce and control violence, has done little but inconvenience supporters and line the pockets of some of the clubs. Being a member does not entitle you to any kind of say in how the club is run.

Sponsorship does not just go to tournaments or governing bodies, but also to individuals. It is here that the tennis superstars, with their media exposure and world wide reputations, come into their own. They can “earn” a million pounds a year or more by endorsing everything from clothes to watches and fruit juice. Even while playing they are like highly-paid sandwich-board men. flaunting adverts for this and logos for that. It helps, of course, to meet conventional ideas of attractiveness, like Becker or Sabatini. It really would have been appropriate if Pat Cash had won the Wimbledon title again this year.

It should not be forgotten, though, that most sport is played not by the idolised and pampered but by ordinary people for the fun of it. Practically any activity beyond a kickabout in the local park requires some kind of established facility. Many municipally-owned sports centres and swimming pools exist, and these have recently come under the government’s privatisation obsession, with a plan to put their running out to tender. Of course, some people aren’t too worried by the prospect of increased fees at council centres, such as the members (who include Princess Diana) of the Vanderbilt Indoor Racquet Club, who pay £650 just to join, and £500 annual subscription No problem here with too many players for too few courts and showers that don’t work.

The state’s involvement in sport goes way beyond providing tennis courts and putting greens. Since 1974 there has been a Minister for Sport, and government lackeys frequently pronounce on topics from hooliganism to drug-taking. It was the increasing internationalisation of sport, with its opportunities for boosting national prestige, that led to state interest in and supervision of various aspects of sport. The government does very well financially out of sport, with a huge income from betting tax. Top persons’ horse racing trainer Henry Cecil complains that the government should put a lot more money into racing — state subsidies are acceptable for the sport of kings and queens, apparently.

A reader of the Sun could no doubt be forgiven for thinking that sport exists primarily to provide salacious stories and sell newspapers. A specifically sporting press has existed for a century and a quarter, providing lots of publicity, sometimes sponsoring its own events, and surely increasing the number of spectators. When radio first emerged, the newspaper owners thought of no more than their own profits, trying in vain to prevent the broadcasting of football and racing results on the grounds that this would hit their sales.

In a society where nearly everything is for sale and virtually nothing is produced or provided without an eye to profit, it would be naive to expect sport to be in any way different. Sponsorship by business and the media is often the only way of staying afloat. If ordinary practitioners and spectators enjoy no benefit from the sponsorship money, too bad. If facilities for watchers and players remain abysmal, too bad. If the money instead lines the pockets of a favoured few, too bad. Capitalism, after all, is not about meeting the interests of the person in the street, so why should things be different for the person on the sports field?

Paul Bennett