The commercialisation of sport, an ongoing process, became rampant over the past decades (Ryall, 2016, p. 227), and has been characterised by global economic entities fostering exchange markets into sport. This association has resulted in the massive injection of revenue in sport, particularly elite and/ or professionalised sport.
Undeniably, this relationship has turned sport into a major income generating industry (Whysall, 2014, p. 416) through broadcasting and marketing of major events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup to lure sponsorship (Horne, 2012, p.
168), the branding and selling of sporting merchandise, hosting rights awarded through bidding processes, gambling and betting enterprises, trading of athletes on the transfer market, and the organisation of clubs as corporate entities (Walsh and Giulianotti, 2001, p. 55).
Sport has been seen to be a major part of global financial systems by contributing to countries’ gross domestic products (Ciomaga & Kent, 2015, p. 18). And has also tremendously flourished as an entertainment industry which provides consumers with an escape from the woes of everyday life.
Criticism against the commercialisation of sport, though, is hinged on the argument that the process erodes sport and its internal goods by replacing them with extrinsic values focused on financial gain (Ryall, 2016, p. 225). Proponents of the process, on the other hand, ‘maintain that commercialism enables a greater level of athletic excellence and opportunities to succeed’ (Ryall, 2016, p. 225).
In this paper, I shall argue that commercialisation threatens that which is intrinsically valuable to sport and it is not a price worth paying for. The solution is not to try to stop the current negotiations being held in the sport industry, but to encourage the discussions on possible measures to reduce the bad impact of commercialism on the internal goods of sport.
In the first section I will give a brief summary on sports values, the distinction and correlation between commercialisation and commodification in sport. Secondly, I shall argue how commercialisation objectifies athletes and how they are regarded solely to have instrumental value, for financial gain.
I demonstrate how this may threaten the value of sport together with rule changes focused on developing sport as an entertainment industry. In the last section, I will talk about the benefits of commercialisation
The evaluation of sport can be drawn from ancient Greek times when the pursuit of excellence, the demonstration of athletic prowess and exhibiting grace in tough contests formulated the sports values system.
Much focus was not placed on financial gain but rather on the joy of participation, the celebration of humanity, which is the human body, mind and spirit, and acting honourably. This notion formed a foundation for amateur sport values and ethos in which participation was mainly for the development of athletic skills and excellence, hinging values on the spirit of fair-play and sportsmanship.
In my opinion, this conception, suggests that sport possesses properties that are inherently valuable, the internal goods. Ryall (2016, p. 104) states that there are two contrasting views in assessing sports values. She propounds that an ‘externalist view’ regards sport as possessing extrinsic value and can be used as a vehicle to acquire other things which are not inherent to sport, for example financial gains.
On the other hand, an ‘internalist view’ argues that sport possesses internal values specific to sport, such as sporting skills and athletic excellences. For the purposes of this paper, my arguments shall take the position of an internalist.
This internalistic approach may be suggested to have founded the amateur attitudes and ethos in the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s British aristocratic era (Whysall, 2014, p. 419). Sport participation was mainly for fun, socialisation and the pursuit of athletic excellence. A few athletes were seen to profit from their athletic excellences during this time by means of financial rewards, and gambling ensured the exchange of money in sport (Horne, 2012, p. 164).
In my view, this is the point when sport began to be regarded as an instrument for financial gain and, in to an extent, money began to corrupt the intrinsic value of sport. Walsh (2015, 417) suggests that once an individual is motivated by business interests, the need to pursue excellence, fair-play, and the demonstration of virtue disappears from their thinking or is flooded by the contemplations of money.
For example, Whysall (2014, p. 424) states that unvirtuous acts of ‘throwing matches’ by the 1912 Chicago Red Sox was linked to gambling in sport. This thought and example show how money in sport may corrupt its inherent value.
Does this then mean that the ‘hyper-commercialised’ modern elite sport lacks the intrinsic goods of sport? My assumption is that the infusion of money into sport, which is the process of commercialising sport, shifted attention from purely seeking athletic excellence and the demonstration of virtue, to regarding sport as an instrument for financial gain. In my opinion, the intrinsic values of sport are under threat but not necessarily extinct from the world of sport.
Many critics of sport turning into a money-making industry raise ethical concern and such concerns are not without reason. Ryall (2016, p. 225) argues that the increased money in sport erodes sport’s intrinsic values, such as the pursuit of excellence, joy of effort, sportsmanship, and virtue, by substituting them with extrinsic values, which is the pursuit of financial gain.
This turns the environment within sport conducive for corruption and many other forms of vices like cheating. For the purposes of this paper I shall not speak more on all forms of corruption associated with the introduction of money in sport as my focus is on the objectification of athletes and rule changes that suit the entertainment needs of sports consumers.
In commercial or business entities, there are commodities which are bought or sold on the mass market (Ryall, 2016, p. 225). In defining commodification, Wilkinson (2007, p. 285) identifies three criteria to characterise a commodity. He states that regarding an object as a commodity is treating it as if it has a price; it is ‘fungible’, which means that any commodity can be replaced by another similar commodity to achieve the same purpose; and it only has extrinsic value.
Ryall (2016, p. 226) indicates that ‘understandings of commodification maintain that there does not necessarily have to be a physical exchange of goods for it to be commodification; it also includes an attitude or way of viewing an item’.
Based on Ryall’s view, my opinion is that when one places monetary value on an object even without trading it, that individual has commodified it. In commercialised sport, many goods and services are commodities and some are bought and sold to generate revenue. These include replica sports clothing and merchandise, tickets for matches, broadcasting rights for pay-per-view television viewership, and athletes bought and sold on the transfer market (Ryall, 2016: p. 226).
The business development of sport, I suppose, may be considered to be agonistic to globalisation since the world economic marketing cultures have been utilised to significantly propel the commercialisation and commodification of sport (Horne, 2012, p. 170). This line of thought suggests that the commercialisation and commodification of sport are continual processes rather than achieved states (Walsh & Giulianotti, 2001, 55).
The major concern with regards to commercialisation and commodification of sport is not merely the intrusion of markets into sport per se, but rather the ability to alter and replace the internal evaluation and meaning of sport, as a social practice, with the egoistic notions of profiteering from the entrepreneurial activities of sport (Ciomaga & Kent, 2015, p. 19).
The major lamentations outlined by commercialism critics are the ability of markets to overwhelm the traditional and cultural ethos of sport, the pursuit of excellence and joy of effort as an end, therefore inculcating market-oriented endeavours of revenue generation (Walsh, 2015, p. 417).
Ryall (2016, p. 225) propounds that a major inclination to the extrinsic value of sport creates an environment that breeds corruption and vices in sport. It can be plausible to say that these clouding effect of commercialism may erode that which is intrinsically valuable to sport. My main argument shall focus on the objectification of athletes and the moral objections raised which may threaten the value of sport.
The objectification of athletes starts by the commodification effect of transfer markets. Placing athletes on the transfer markets renders them as instruments for financial gain and this is the major moral objection, equating humans to products in a supermarket (Walsh, 2015, p. 419).
This act is demeaning to the intrinsic-value of a human being, and therefore dehumanising. Walsh (2015, p. 420) indicates that soccer players traded on the transfer market are treated as means by major clubs for revenue generation. Walsh (2016, p. 420) states that ‘we should always treat persons as ends and never simply as means’. Their worth is solely for commercial value in this regard.
My point is that the excessive need to benefit financially from player markets shifts attention from the pure quest for athletic excellence with profiteering interests take over as motivation in sporting activities. Athletes are regarded as objects with instrumental value and, by and large, the traditional sport values are threatened or degraded as stakeholders in sport only value it for the benefits they may gain from sport. Such a shift in evaluating sport is in itself a threat to the value of sport.
Proponents of commercialisation may argue that the player transfer market does not render athletes as merely objects with instrumental value and therefore sport is not perceived to only having extrinsic value. Their line of argument may focus on the society at large stating that the many careers, for example doctors and teachers, are there to service societal needs and are required for the advancement of humanity.
Like-wise, sport in itself plays a crucial role in the socialisation of communities, carrying a rich history of cultures and traditions, and has been used for the educational development of societies.
Can one then say that medical practitioners, although they are remunerated for their services, are regarded as objects used solely as means by their patients, to either preserve good health or treat illnesses and restore their health?
It may seem that they are paid for the services they provide, but not perceived as commodities solely as a means and there seems to be the preservation of their intrinsic value. Medicine and education, although they were monetised, seem to have preserved their inherent value of healthcare and improved education.
As it seems plausible to equate these professions to commercialised sport, the main purposes of such careers, I believe, are not for venal motives but to provide a service needed for the existence and advancement of the human race. Whereas in commercialised sport, players bought on the transfer market are regarded as expensive investments which must translate to profits. This perception diminishes the intrinsic human value of athletes to instrumental value as revenue generating commodities.
Club owners would be looking for a return in investment, that is, expensive player assets translating their worth on the field of play. A good performing club sells more game tickets to stadium fans, and ‘the most popular sports franchises make more from their merchandise off the pitch’ (Ryall 2016, p. 225).
It is reasonable to say that ‘broadcasting rights and advertising spaces at sporting venues are very lucrative’ (Ryall 2016, p. 225), and they are major revenue generating contributors in sport. Hence, athletes purchased on the sport market are expected to perform extremely well and ensure that clubs realise profits from their investments.
This can be likened to a factory that improves its technology to increase production efficiency and, therefore expects to realise profits from investments made. Athletes are merely objects or commodities, in this regard, utilised solely for profit realisation in commercialised sport. This shifts attention from the true pursuit of excellence to financial gain in the business of sport, jeopardizing the internal logic of sport.
An objection may arise from critics stating that such pressures are found at any other job and are healthy for efficiency in the work place to attain company goals. This is not necessarily objectifying employees but an expectation for good performance to attain good results. This may be a form of motivation to work hard thereby perfecting skills through acquiring excellences required to excel in elite sport. Such pressures inhibit complacency and promote hard work, a virtue essential in sport.
It is true that motivation is essential to attain set goals by encouraging hard work. I would rather assume that such circumstances where an individual’s job is under threat is not motivation per se, but rather duress. My thought is that such pressures breed unattainable goals propelled by financial motives. Under-performance in such situations may lead to contract termination due to failure to attain the goals. In the sporting context, this may encourage illusory means to attain the goals.
Hypothetically speaking, management and coaching staff of big teams may encourage athletes to use prohibited substances and methods to either enhance performance or to quickly recover from injuries for fear of losing their jobs. Not only is such conduct contrary to the internal logic of sport through cheating, it also may jeopardize athletes’ health.
There is a possibility that injured athletes may be pushed back too quickly into playing before full recovery, which suggests conflicting interests between intrinsic sports values and financial benefits associated with sport. The interest of sport which promote health and the pursuit and display of excellence seem to be unheeded in such a scenario to serve financial interests of commercialised sport.
My argument rests on the issue of evaluating sport to having instrumental value and this may possibly threaten sports’ intrinsic value and it becomes meaningless and hollow as a social practise.
Reverting to transfer markets, commodification and objectification of athletes may encourage unfairness between sports clubs which may compromise the value of sporting competitions. Rich teams have the financial muscle to purchase expensive player commodities which in most cases are the most talented and productive players.
If such teams are able to acquire a sizable squad of players of the same value and skill adeptness, they may always be guaranteed to win sporting contests and almost not giving the less affluent clubs a chance of winning especially in major competitions.
I do not want to strongly argue for this argument as many other factors contribute to teams winning athletic contests. However, my opinion is that a team which possesses more talented players and has more resources stands more chance to succeed on the playing field. Walsh & Giulianotti (2001, p. 57) state that AC Milan, a major club in the Italian football league, ‘purchased a huge squad of the world’s leading players to become Europe’s premier club during the later 1980s and early 1990s’.
The integral aspect of sport, in part, is rewarding athletic excellence and competitiveness on the field of play and here it seems such rewards are bought at a price (Walsh & Giulianotti, 2001, p. 57, 59). In my opinion, this is a good example of a situation in which the value of sport is threatened.
One may object by giving reference to the institution of financial limitations on clubs with regards to buying-power on the transfer markets. Such measures have been introduced to bring equality amongst clubs and bring some form of competition balance (Ciomaga & Kent, 2015, p. 25). This may assist in bringing sporting competition closer between elite sports clubs in major leagues, therefore improving the standard of sporting contests.
The quest to improve sporting contests, in my opinion, may not be entirely for purposes of serving the inherent nature of sport, but rather for entertainment purposes. Sport has been organised to lures new spectators and consumers by making contests exciting.
I would like to make reference to rule alterations that change the nature of the sport and sporting contests. John William Devine (2010, p. 637) states that there may be a possibility of rules in professionalised sport being formulated to satisfy commercial interests. Such rule changes are aimed at maximising revenue generation by increasing market reach and, consequently, enlarging the sports niche.
This kind of instrumental motives for financial gain are detrimental to certain skills and excellences that underpin the sport itself. Borrowing from Devine (2010, p. 637), my argument is that these rule changes are a detriment to the vital ‘balance of excellences’ upon which sporting contests are underpinned.
This can be observed in the shift from the longer test match cricket played over days to the faster and more exciting 20/20 cricket played in a single night (Ryall, 2016, p. 228).
Another objection is that a skilled athlete is able to demonstrate acquired skills regardless of the contest format since the skills are almost automatic and can easily be displayed. Rather, such changes made in sport promotes the development of new excellences which may have not been known to that particular sport.
While patience may be a virtue required in test cricket, the swiftness in making decisions to quickly build runs may be an excellence required in 20/20 cricket. Only by developing such competition types can other excellences be realized in that sport.
It seems plausible to say that rule changes in sport may encourage the development of certain excellences unknown to a sport, perhaps by creating new obstacles for contestants to overcome, thereby formulating new excellences for that sport. I argue that the motives behind such rule changes are not to pursue athletic excellence but are rather market-oriented motives of financial profiteering, therefore devaluing the intrinsic goods of sport.
Ryall (2016, p. 229) propounds that ‘a change in motivation from an autotelic one, carried for its own sake, to an instrumental one, carried out as a means for the sake of something else, e.g. increasing monetary profit, erodes sport’s value’.
This suggests that such rule changes are established to grow sport as a show business that renders athletes entertainment objects, exploited only to boost revenue by means of providing a spectacle for consumers or fans. Sport is therefore an instrument rather than an end. This perception threatens the internal logic of sport.