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Issue #1854      January 30, 2019

Capitalism and Sport

Part 1

“Crisis” is a term too often used in media coverage, but it is dawning on most Australians that our widely held sporting prowess, our claim to be an exemplary sporting nation, is in just such a crisis state, and at a whole range of levels. Not only do our swimming, athletics, golf, rugby and cricket champions struggle to cut the mustard at international level, our participation rates in all these sports is on a falling curve at local levels.

Participation in all the major competitive sports has been in decline over the past 15 years: Cricket down, 10 percent; Netball down, 24 percent; Golf down, 24 percent; Lawn Bowls down, 25 percent (most urban Bowling Clubs are struggling to survive, and more than half the rinks have shut down); Rugby league down, 27 percent. Alarmingly, tennis players have declined by 35 percent, which amounts to some half a million less people involved than in 2001, and rugby union is truly “on the skids” with a decline of 63 percent, or a drop in players from 148,000 to 55,000.

AFL (plus 1 percent) and Association Football, Soccer, (plus 46 percent) have defied the trend, largely because of the sudden and massive influx of women to the sport(s) – it is anticipated that this trend will soon plateau, and then resume the downward course of competitive sport numbers spreading globally.

Overall, our sporting involvement has fallen from 4.2 million players in 2001 to 3.8 million today. At the same time, we send one of the largest contingents of athletes to the Olympic Games but finish mid-range in the medal count. Despite our wealth and sponsorship of an Institute of Sport, our cricketers have been humiliated by a far better Indian team in recent Tests, in rugby the Wallabies have had their worst year on record, our large contingent of golfers rarely finish on the podium and our tennis “stars”, well, the less said the better.

All this at a time when Australia’s population is growing faster than most of the world, and facilities (like stadiums) continue to be built and rebuilt. At the same time, the obesity epidemic has struck over 60 percent of our people – making us one of the fattest regions on Earth – while consumption of everything continues to grow apace. Last year, 1.6 million Australians bought men’s or women’s sportswear in a given four-week period, up from 1.3 million in 2011 – the “sports industry” continues to take big profits.

The pressure for “success”

Competitive sport has always been a part of capitalism. Engagement of the working class grew during the 19th century and as struggles for the Eight Hour Day became more fruitful and weekend leisure time expanded, workers’ involvement in both playing and watching sport exploded, so that the 20th century could well be tagged an unsurpassed sporting era.

Not only were the Olympic Games revived, but whole new sports sprang up, became codified and organised and then framed into competitions, championships and leagues. At the outset, working class participation was enthusiastic and voluntary – most sports were amateur in any case – infrastructure like playing fields and Olympic pools as well as personnel for organisation and training were generally supplied by the efforts of people at a local level, often at substantial sacrifice.

Sport was seen as an enjoyable social experience free from the constraints of religion. It possessed skills and grace of movement which once had been out of reach for poorer classes and which now brought people together for their “tribal” expression. Yet as competitive sport and communication grew from regional to national to global levels so too did the essence of sport change.

While most part-time footballers/cricketers/netballers etc welcomed payment for their weekend efforts, the so called “professional” structure offered by gate-receipts and advertising meant that full-time players now became commodities, and the world of sport was changed forever.

Once, the power of numbers – working class support – determined the wealth and power of clubs through the sheer numbers turning up through turnstiles to see their heroes play. Clubs could establish their domination by using this wealth to buy players. The pressure for success grew apace with the volume of money available to the sport and, in theory, poured back into it by the dedication and wealth of successful clubs.

Today popular, numerical, support is not enough to achieve success. Paris-St.Germain, a huge football club in France yet still, in its own eyes, not achieving sufficient success/prestige at an international level, saw fit to purchase the young Brazilian Neymar from Barcelona FC for some 222 million Euro.

Club receipts, franchising and massive advertising support were not enough to pay this bill: PSG relies on its deep-pocketed Qatari owners to guarantee success in such costly ventures, since it is trying to buy its way to the peak of world club football (as it happened, Neymar was injured for the crucial part of the 2017-18 season and PSG were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the early finals).

Portuguese football star Ronaldo was recently purchased by the Turin-based Italian club Juventus for 340 million Euro – 100 million for the transfer fee from Real Madrid, and 240 million for his salary and taxes over his playing years. He receives nearly $A500,000 a week for his skills which has led many to ask: “Is any player really worth that much?” to which the management of Juventus explained that the move was necessary to pull the whole of Italian football out of the doldrums. Money buys success. As the German centre forward Robert Lebendowski observed, “Football is pure capitalism”.

Australian clubs, like most others in the world, cannot afford this level of market exchange. In fact, if any young Australian footballer shows signs of noticeable talent they are poached by a big European or Asian club, which naturally weakens our own A-League. Under the capitalist structure of global market forces, it would be a miracle for Australia to win the World Cup. A similar future awaits in almost every sport: the centres of economic power are also the centres of sporting domination.

“Created by the poor, stolen by the rich”

In 1992 the self-dubbed Top Twenty Clubs of English football met to form the English Premier League (EPL). This move was matched with similar “super” leagues in each European centre redesigning their look and funding structures: Bundesliga in Germany, La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy, League Un in France and ultimately, the A-League, NRL, AFL, Cricket Australia etc in Australia. The name-changing frenzy announced one major realisation: the new big player in sport was television coverage.

Heralding the same trend in Australia two media moguls attempted buy-outs of whole sports to secure exclusive TV rights: Kerry Packer with cricket and Murdoch with rugby league. Mass opposition curbed the brute monopolies they had hoped for: the theft of popular sports for exclusive corporate profit. When the final settlement came, however, public broadcasters were sidelined and it was clear that big money called the tune.

In England the previously unnoticed revenue from football coverage grew from 6.3 million pounds in 1986 to 44 million pounds in 1988 – the problem was that this income was spread over clubs in all four divisions run by the Football League. When the Top 20 “High Fliers” formed to corral coverage money, a bidding war won by the Murdoch media empire erupted and went to more than 260b million pounds. The gold mine had been found, and plumbed.

Recently EPL TV rights, still basically run by Murdoch’s Fox and Sky corporations, announced a $7.8 billion deal, which, however, represented a decline of the “inflationary” trend in the last few contracts.

Next week: Sport as commodity

Next article – What’s wrong with privatisation? Part 2

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