Sport undermined by neoliberalism

Monday, June 16, 2014
The whole idea of sports competition as a mirror or metaphor for capitalist competition is misconceived

One of the hallmarks of the neoliberal age has been the exponential expansion of commercial spectator sport — in its economic value, political role and cultural presence. All of which is thrown into high relief by the World Cup in Brazil.

In recent years, the sporting industry has grown in all regions above the local GDP rate. It is estimated to have generated US$135 billion in direct revenues last year. These revenues derive from gate receipts, corporate sponsorship, media rights and merchandising.

In the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries and in Asia as a whole, sponsorship is now the biggest money spinner. Although merchandising is marginal in most of the world, it accounts for 25% of revenues in North America.

Despite its growth, the sports industry, narrowly defined, is still dwarfed by the pharmaceutical ($1.1 trillion a year) and automotive ($1.8 trillion) sectors. But sport is interwoven with other industries: footwear, sportswear, soft drinks, advertising, among others. It's a central driver in media industries.

And it is critical to the gambling industry, legal and illegal. Betting on sports is estimated to be worth between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year.

It should therefore not be surprising that sport has become a major carrier of neoliberal ideology. It is used to promote a competitive individualism in which the pursuit of victory is presented as the purest form of personal self-expression.

What is celebrated is a “triumph of the will” in which adverse circumstances are made to bow to individual desire.

This ethos of egocentric assertion is by no means inherent in sport, which is not about “the law of the jungle” or a “war of all against all”. On the contrary, it's a competitive activity built on a cooperative basis, requiring mutual agreement among competitors and spectators.

And it is intensely regulated; in fact, without the regulation, the sport vanishes. Team sports set a premium on interdependence and a willingness to sacrifice individual priorities for the good of the collective. But even the most successful individual competitors are what they are only because they enjoy a network of personal and social support. No one can ever “just do it” on their own.

In fact, one impact of neoliberal globalisation on sport has been to create an increasingly uneven playing field, marked by widening inequalities.

As the major male sports swallow an ever-growing share of sports revenues and investment, other sports are pushed to the margin. In south Asia, cricket is so dominant it has rendered hockey, at which India and Pakistan excelled for decades, nearly invisible.

Women's sports have enjoyed increased revenues in absolute terms, but the growth of male sports means that women still receive only 0.5% of corporate sports sponsorship.

Elite male European football now accounts for more than 35% of global sports revenues; a similar share goes to the Big Four North American team sports (baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football). Within European football, the five biggest leagues make up half the total market and the top 20 teams one-quarter of that market.

In the English Premier League, the tendency has been for the rich teams to get richer, while the rest face perpetual insecurity. The billionaire-backed clubs are hoarding the best players, making it even harder for others to compete with them.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has introduced its Financial Fair Play rules in a bid to restrain the growing inequality, but they are unlikely to affect the overall imbalance.

European football clubs recruit extensively from Latin America and Africa, whose domestic competitions are thereby weakened. Compounding the talent drain, globalised broadcasting made Europe's big clubs more famous and more widely followed than local teams.

The general trend towards a concentration of wealth and power is neatly illustrated by recent events in world cricket. Earlier this year, the three richest cricket boards — India, England and Australia — combined forces to impose a new order on the International Cricket Council (ICC), the game's governing body.

From now on, the Big Three will take home a larger share of the game's global revenues, dictate unilaterally which other teams they'll play and how often. There's also a plan to introduce a two-division structure for test cricket, with a telling wrinkle in the scheme: none of the Big Three are ever to be relegated to the second division.

So their standing in the competition will be guaranteed not by the quality of their cricket but by their financial clout.

Unpredictability and spontaneity are at the heart of sports, and they are at odds with the capitalist drive to maximise profits and eliminate variables. An extreme example is bookmakers who seek to fix results, thus guaranteeing the return on their investment.

But sponsors, too, would prefer some World Wrestling Entertainment-like scripted entertainment: no annoying upsets or injuries or mysterious losses of form to compromise their projections. The problem for them is that their property would forfeit all value should it be seen to be scripted.

So there's a tension between capitalist imperatives and sporting imperatives. In fact, the whole idea of sports competition as a mirror or metaphor for capitalist competition is misconceived.

The “level playing field” in sport is constituted by a rigid scaffolding of rules without which the competition dissolves. Capitalism's version is a deregulated arena of limitless accumulation.

The aim of capitalist competition is to eliminate (or acquire) the competitor. In sport, you need the opponent to survive and return for the next match or season, which always begins the contest afresh. And of course, what's at stake in the two types of competition is fundamentally different. The penalties for coming second do not compare.

All the contradictions of commercial spectator sport will be on display, in heightened form, in this year's World Cup. Dave Zirin, in his invaluable new book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil, shows how this sporting mega-event has become a carnival of state-sponsored neoliberalism, characterised by mass evictions, gentrification, increased repression and surveillance, vast expenditure on redundant facilities and corporate plundering of public funds.

It's a boon for the construction, property, security and media industries, but a bane for many others, as demonstrated when huge numbers of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the World Cup priorities that have skewed the country's development.

World Cup boosters claim that once the competition is underway and “the ball is rolling” all the discontents will vanish. What's certain is that there will be a concerted effort to convince us that this is so. Those who persist in talking about the social cost underlying the festivities will be condemned as killjoys and nay-sayers.

We are cast as consumers and nothing but consumers, expected to imbibe the corporate-branded spectacle without qualms or conscience. In that context, engaging critically with sports, seeing them as part of the broader human current, becomes a necessary subversive act.

FIFA and its corporate partners have a vested interest in promoting tunnel vision, but the rest of us do not. Enjoyment of football and critique of its context can and should go hand in hand. The idea that one excludes the other is a myth we need to shed.

[Slightly abridged from Red Pepper.]

From GLW issue 1012