Corporate America: Capturing Sports

Deeply embedded in the memories of the wizened leaders of our community, there remains the notion of a professional sports team ruled not by enterprise or the undying lust we humans have for money — a team dedicated solely to the surrounding neighbourhood or community, a team whose influence did not truly extend beyond its city or town. But it is just that: a memory. As sports have moved into the new century, and actually through much of the last century, teams have embraced the relentless capitalist urge to move forward and ‘monetize, monetize, monetize’. Not to say this is some sort of horrendous divine punishment passed on by the fates, this has meant the gift (arguably) of association sport has been extended to the furthest reaches of civilization: children in Fiji wear Yankees caps, bus drivers in Johannesburg wear Chicago Bulls jerseys and on weekends, businessmen in Buenos Aires wear their Barcelona jerseys. All of them cheering on a team halfway around the world, a team whose city they have never been to, but a team that brings them limitless joy every night. Ultimately, as is most often the case, there are two sides to the story, but one fact remains: A sports team is no longer just a team, it is more than that, it is an enterprise.

Many sports fans may be familiar with the U.S franchise system, developed in the late 19th century, where a team is essentially defined by its name. The franchise system in the U.S deviates radically from its European counterparts in that teams that wish to join a league must be voted in by all of the league’s current members. A prospective team is then given a contract which entitles is to the area surrounding a stadium in a specific city. This limits the amount of commercial competition a team might face and ensures that it thrives in its chosen community. It is for this reason (competition) that only in the largest cities such as New York or Chicago or even Bay Area have multiple teams involved in the same sport. In the franchise system, a team exists more as a startup or business than a team.
Although this system may sound horrifically all-encompassing, almost evil, it in fact has many positive aspects. When a team has limited commercial competition, it generates far more revenue, and when it generates a large amount of revenue, a team can compete more readily for a championship. Commercial competition is sacrificed for sporting competition. A good example comes in the form of the Super Bowl: in 49 Super Bowls, there have been 17 different victors. In the same amount of time, there have only been 11 champions in the British Premier league, where there is a tiered system and teams do not have to be admitted by a unanimous vote from all the teams.
The opposite to the franchise system is the tier system, where a league is essentially divided up into divisions where a team can be promoted into a higher division or relegated into a lower one. In this way a club can, to paraphrase Drake: “Start from the bottom and now [be] in the top division of the professional tier system.”

What the tier system creates is a very deep connection between a fan and his or her club. This is because a club cannot exist without its fans. Whereas in the franchise system, if a team does not have a sufficient fan base it can move to a different city. In the tier system, that team will cease to exist, as it is essentially a product of the community surrounding it. This is essentially what most find to be the defining characteristic of the tier system: a human connection between a fan and a club. Because of the tier system, a club will almost inevitably undergo some sort of trying period where it encounters its fair share of obstacles. It is during this period that a club can forge a relationship with its fans.
In many ways, the emotional aspect of sports is difficult to quantify. A similar relationship to the one formed in the tier system can be found in the franchise system, but franchise teams have never truly existed as a small club where an average fan can come to know the innermost machinations of the club and truly become part of the organization.

However, the aforementioned relationship in the tiered system fades with success, for as a club attains greater success, its fanbase increases, making it harder for a single fan to distinguish themselves amongst the millions of others. As is often the case with populations, the more people there are, the less significant an individual becomes relative to the larger population. In a sense, the connection between fans and their club in the top division of the tier system is actually fairly similar to that of fans and their teams in the franchise system. There is, however, still one intrinsic difference between the two and that is in geographic allegiances. For example, in New York baseball, there were originally the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the Dodgers franchise and the name left, so most of the Dodgers fans became Yankees or Mets fans.There are, of course, instances of fans who support a team that moves, such as with some Brooklyn Dodgers fans who continued to support the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

This sort of franchise move could never happen in the tier system, as teams are so directly linked to their surroundings that they could not move to another city. For example, Chelsea FC, in the English Premier League, could never move to say Liverpool, because Chelsea as a club is the embodiment of the surrounding area, there are certain aristocratic connotations that are brought up with the Chelsea name that could never be shaken off, and these connotations come from the area and fanbase to which Chelsea caters to.

This geographic anchorage has led to the development over time of deep-seated rivalries. A club in the tier system comes to represent much more than just a team, it comes to represent a culture or a certain political affiliation. This is an association that can only be created over time. For example, in the Spanish soccer league, there exists a rivalry between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid that takes its roots in the political rivalries that developed under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Those who supported Barcelona were generally leftists who called for secession from Spain, while those who supported Real Madrid were generally supported by Franco’s administration. Thus when these two teams met, it represented not only a clash between two sides, but a clash of political ideologies and the culture and ways of life that ideology entailed.

As Barcelona and Real Madrid have begun to expand their fanbases and appeal to burgeoning markets, it is this identity that they have sold to prospective clients. A few years ago, when the Barcelona team visited Thailand, there were fans at the airport waving signs saying “Visca el Barca, Visca Catalunya,” a slogan that translates to “Long live Barcelona (FC), long live Catalunya”, a distinctly pro-independence slogan. A slogan one would presume holds little or no relevance to a fan in Thailand. In the same way, Real Madrid fans in far off countries will regularly refer to Barcelona fans as separatists.

At first glance it might seem that this monetization of a team and its culture might have a detrimental effect on its local supporters, but this is not the case. Spectator sports are at their very core entertainment, an activity akin to going to the movies: Usually, if a movie has better resources, it will provide more entertainment. The same applies to a team; if it has more access to resources, it can provide a better entertainment experience through the purchase of better players and the construction of better stadiums. All of this is accomplished at what is a comparatively reduced cost for local fans, who are ultimately the direct beneficiaries of all of these improvements. The Seattle Seahawks, finalists in this years Super Bowl and winners in last year’s Super Bowl, began to attain success following its acquisition by a Microsoft co-founder who helped the Seahawks build a new stadium that would draw larger crowds. However, that is not to say that every team that commercializes will attain some measure of sporting success. The New York Knicks, for example, who at an estimated value of $2.5 billion, are worth more than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the Central African Republic ($2.1 billion), a nation with a population of 4.7 million. The Knicks have not won an NBA championship since 1973.

The Knicks as an example raises a curious dilemma that its fans face. Traditionally, fans of unsuccessful teams can take some sort of satisfaction in their perceived moral superiority: they are sticking with the team through the ‘hard time’, thereby validating themselves as true fans. However, this sort of moral high ground tends to vanish when a team monetizes its assets, or ‘sells out’. This, in turn, raises the question of how morality has become so intertwined with the sporting industry. A team is praised for relying on youth instead of buying up the opposition, but why? It seems that if the goal is victory, the end should in a sense justify the means, and as long as the tactics employed to attain victory are within the boundaries of the rulebook, there is no reason they should not be employed. There remains an emphasis on a certain morality and self-reliance throughout sports, especially in America. A possible reson for this is because for Americans, sports teams have come to represent something more than just a team, they have come to represent the American dream itself. The American dream, of course, is notable for its emphasis on self-reliance, so the idea of an organization receiving help to attain success repels Americans. A rather indirect example of this comes in the form of Lebron James’s move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in 2010. James faced virulent hatred from Cavaliers fans, who believed that James should have stayed with the Cavaliers to win the championship he so longed for, the idea was essentially that James had broken some unspoken code of honor when he left his home team in an attempt to win a championship with a team better equipped to challenge for the title.

When discussing player loyalties to a team, it is also important to discuss the youth system in the U.S. Such a system is virtually non-existent. Although there is a feeder system in the franchise system, most players do not come through it. In the tier system, a player is nurtured by a club from a young age and will ultimately have the opportunity to be promoted into the first team. In the franchise system, there is no such parallel. As teams take their players from draft picks, they have no need to establish their own youth system. This means that colleges are essentially the youth system for professional teams.

The demand from professional clubs for well-trained players has led to colleges raising their standards to an almost professional level, which has in turn resulted in the bizarre world of college sports. College sports have always existed and in all likelihood they always will, but as college sports got progressively more intense and professional, a logical albeit curious phenomena took place: people got interested in essentially amateur sports.

Now, there are precedents for wildly popular college sports, such as rowing at Oxford University and Cambridge College in the United Kingdom, but those events only truly get attention when the two colleges face off against each other; there is only interest when there is a bitter rivalry involved. The same does not apply to American college sports. In American college sports, especially in football, a minor game can attract thousands of people. Shops can sell merchandise and tickets by the bucketload. In 2012, this year’s College Football Playoff Bowl winners Ohio State University made a profit of around $52.3 million on football alone through branding and tickets amongst other things. The profit these universities make on their football programs is then used to finance the sports programs with smaller fan bases.

This system of using the profits from one lucrative sport to finance the others further reinforces the idea that through commercialization, college sports programs can become self-sustaining entities essentially separate from the academic aspect of
the university.

It is interesting to note that the second largest generator of revenue for most college teams is media rights as the broadcast of college sports around the U.S. has helped lesser known colleges attain large amounts of popularity. In a sense, instead of flooding prospective students emails with advertising, a college can advertise to them through the much more effective means of television, with their sports teams. This sort of commercialization, however, has only truly achieved success in the U.S., probably because the most successful broadcast sports in the U.S. are ones that are generally unpopular in the rest of the world.

Ultimately though, it has to be accepted that professional sports are moving into a completely new age, and there is little anybody can do about it. Money is coming to define a new, more expansionist global sporting system. Organizations are at times driven more by the thirst for profits than by a desire to improve the team in a sporting sense. However, this is not an indication of the sacrifice of all morality or appreciation for fans in favor of that international language. If anything, teams are increasingly geared towards fans. The only difference is that now teams and franchises focus more on providing an enterainment experience than on sporting success. This can come through the institution of ‘family nights’ where families get into the stadium or arena for less than the average price.

The prime example of the shift in focus towards the concept of entertainment comes in the form of the Super Bowl — the very holy grail of not only American sports, but American culture itself. The Super Bowl, which took place this last Feb. 2, generated around $10 billion in revenue. However, the Super Bowl did not attain its almost divine status in American culture overnight. The Super Bowl seems to typify America itself, primarily in the pure unadulterated spectacle it provides. The half-time show is just as important to the game as the ads themselves. The National Football League (NFL), in an attempt to appeal to an even wider market, one that had no interest in football, injected its Super Bowl with a shot of pop culture with the appealing advertisements and halftime show. This form of commercialization has turned the Super Bowl into a perennial favorite of the American people, making it one of the most watched televised events every single year. This early 1990’s revamping of the Super Bowl in an attempt to give it a greater mass appeal has also — arguably — benefited fans in contributing to the overall viewer experience.
As the sports industry commercializes, it is important to acknowledge the growing importance of profits to a team as it expands into a new market. Ultimately, money is the defining feature of the current sporting climate, and in the sporting industry, to quote Bob Dylan: “Money doesn’t speak, it swears.”

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