The struggle to de-commodify sports

Manchester United fans protest against club owner Malcolm Glazer.

Recent developments in the A-League football (soccer) competition in Australia help to show how the realm of sport entertainment is increasingly colonised by capitalist markets and how popular participation is undermined.

Green Left Weekly has reported on attacks on the rights of fans. They show how the owners of elite football clubs, the media and the state (particularly in terms of policing) undermine fans' rights, especially those engaged in “active support” in the stadium (singing, chanting, dancing, and banner waving).

The capitalist club owners are not responsive to demands made by the fans (maintaining authoritarian management cultures). There is a need to rethink sports and advance an alternative sporting culture that opposes to its corporatisation. So how can we come up with a collective strategy towards reclaiming sport as commons?

Could community control over football clubs, by itself, change the dominant sporting culture, without addressing the community control over other areas, such as sports media?

What is required to change the commodification of sport, where a minority of (celebrity) male sports players earn huge salaries, while women sport players (and many male players) can often barely make a living?

How can community control address all the profits made by sports equipment and merchandising, produced by workers in the global South who are exploited in multiple ways?

Community ownership is a model put forward to deal with some of the problems. But there needs to be a broader conversation to deepen and radicalise the notion of community ownership.

Putting forward a vision of sport as commons locates the issue of community control in a broader context. It looks at how capital accumulation is taking place within sport entertainment markets ― particularly the relationship between finance capital, the media and the state.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the “marketisation” of sport was increasingly integrated with financial markets. Some innovations introduced to further commodify sports included the issuing of bonds based on a sport star's future royalty streams, securitisation of sporting clubs' gate receipts, sponsorship and television rights and building stadiums via future revenue stream securitisation.

The growing militarisation of sporting events and greater policing of sports fans is directly related to the role of finance. This is leading the process of gentrification of sport (a new form of enclosure for the privatised consumption of wealthy “polite” middle classes).

In Britain, moves to establish fan or supporters trusts, which seek community control over clubs, face significant legal and bureaucratic hurdles. In most cases, communities cannot match the funds needed to contest capitalist investors.

A key recommendation of a football governance inquiry in Britain in 2011 was to amend the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to recognise the special nature of supporters’ trusts. The government was requested to consider laws protecting minority supporter stakes where they face a “compulsory purchase order”. This is a mechanism that could help gain public control over a public good, which has been turned into a private commodity.

One of the most popular and richest football clubs in the global sport entertainment market is Manchester United. It operates similarly to any other transnational corporation, with its stated goal of “maintaining, enhancing and protecting our brand and reputation, particularly in new markets, in order to expand our follower and sponsorship base”.

In 2012, the club had a turnover of £320 million (about $577 million). The main revenue sources were: gate and match-day income ― £99 million; TV and broadcasting ― £104 million; and commercial activities ― £118 million.

Wages as a proportion of turnover was 51% and accounted for about £162 million. Historically, clubs earned profits from gate revenue. But, since the deregulation of telecommunications and finance, media and marketing rights provide the bigges share of revenue.

The EPL is sponsored by the Barclay’s Bank, which reported a profit of £5.2 billion last year. Barclay’s has renewed its sponsorship of EPL for three more years at a cost of £120 million, starting from the 2013-2014 season.

The deal was announced just after Barclays was fined $453 million by US and British authorities for supplying false data which went into calculations of the London interbank offered rate (Libor), a key global interest rate.

The new agreement includes “the global title sponsorship of the Premier League and exclusive worldwide marketing rights, UK and international TV programme accreditation, extensive advertising rights, match-day tickets and hospitality as well as joint community activity”.

The Barclays Premier League, as it is officially known, is broadcast to more than 650 million homes with a cumulative global audience of 4.7 billion.

As the most profitable club in the EPL, Manchester United's commercial revenue involves sponsorship revenue; retail, merchandising, apparel and product licensing revenue; and new media and mobile revenue.

The club’s merchandise and licensing business is now managed by Nike. The Nike agreement guarantees an aggregate minimum of £303 million in sponsorship and licensing fees to the club.

The club has formed partnerships with telecommunications companies in many countries. It also markets content directly to the fans through its website and associated mobile deals.

The expansion of markets into the previously non-market collective realm ― the commodification of the commons ― express a structural part of class struggle.

Community control over sports media, along with the regulation of financial markets, directly relates to regaining sport as cultural commons, as an expression of democracy and community.

Gaining community control over sport involves building broad alliances with workers and consumers of sport. Workers in sport includes not just the players, but also a whole range of administrative and support staff. It is also about linking with workers in sports media and finance sectors ― and workers in the global South who are making sports merchandise.

Resistance within and outside sport remain integral to demanding sport as commons. The struggles of fans for their rights is also about the struggles of the working classes, ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and LGBTI peoples to transform the dominant (hyper-masculine) culture of sport.

Such a movement would fit sport into a vision of human solidarity and social emancipation.