People vs. Profit: Give Sports Back to the Fans

Source: The New Statesman

Rapacious business interests have made profit the new first principle of top-class sport. But all over the world, from South Africa to Liverpool and Manchester, fans are mobilising to reclaim the people’s pleasure.

As Tiger Woods returns to golf, not all his affairs are salacious headlines. The Tiger Woods Golf Course in Dubai is costing $100m to build. Dubai relies on cheap third-world labour, as do certain consumer brands that have helped make Woods a billionaire. A representative of Nike workers in Thailand wrote to him, expressing their "utmost respect for your skill and perseverance as an athlete" but pointing out that they would need to work 72,000 years "to receive what you will earn [from your Nike] contract".

The American sports writer Dave Zirin is one of the few to break the media silence on the corporate distortion and corruption of sport. His forthcoming book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) blows a long whistle on what money power has done to the people’s pleasure, its heroes – such as Woods – and the communities it once served. He describes the impact of the Texan Tom Hicks’s half-ownership of Liverpool Football Club, which followed the "leveraged takeover" of Manchester United by another rich and bored American, Malcolm Glazer, in 2005. As a result, England’s most successful club (with Liverpool) is now £716.5m in debt.

The profit principle

How long has this been going on? In 1983, you could buy a ticket to a First Division game for 75 pence. Today, the average cost of a ticket at Old Trafford is about £34. Watch the latest crop of parents stand in morose queues to buy overpriced club strips, often made with cheap or sweated labour, with the brand of a failed multinational emblazoned on them. Profiteering is now an incandescent presence across top-class sport.

Sven-Göran Eriksson will trouser up to £2m for just three months’ work with Côte d’Ivoire’s national football team, while half the Ivorian population has barely enough to survive. Australia’s finest, most boorish cricketers are collecting their bundles for a few months’ cavorting in the Indian franchises.

The attitude is entitlement, the kind that less talented "celebrities" flaunt. It was not remarkable that in 2007-2008 a number of the heirs to Don Bradman’s Invincibles achieved what was once nigh on impossible: being disliked in their own country. Those high-fives and fists punching the air have become salutes not to "everyone working for each other . . . everyone having a share of the rewards" (Bill Shankly), but to the voracious sponsor and the forensic camera.

Take Fifa, which has in effect taken charge of South Africa for the World Cup. Along with the International Olympic Committee, Fifa is sport’s Wall Street and Pentagon combined. They have this power because host politicians believe the "international prestige" of their visitation will bring economic and promotional benefits, especially to themselves. I was reminded of this watching a documentary by the South African director Craig Tanner, Fahrenheit 2010. His film is not opposed to the World Cup, but shows how ordinary South Africans, whose game is football, have been shoved aside, dispossessed and further impoverished so that a giant TV façade can be erected in their country.

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