Sports ‑ the house of cards

Jane Bouey

"Sports Franchise Sold for Record Amount" ... "City Parks and Recreation Budget Cut Again" ... "Star Athlete Signs Unprecedented Contract" ... "Obesity Rates In Children On the Rise"

Headlines such as these appear in our news on a regular basis. They are stark evidence of the contradictions within sport in our capitalist society. Vast sums of money flow into professional sports, at the same time as communities cut physical education programs in schools, and decrease accessibility to public recreation and amateur sport. (For example, the decision to spend $400 million on Skydome was made around the same time as it was "found" there was not the $500,000 needed to acquire new parks in Toronto.)

The last two decades have seen a massive transfer of public money into private hands. The declining rate of profit in some industries has forced corporations to look for new sources of investment. This transfer of funds has been done primarily through tax cuts, privatization and cuts to social spending. In the area of sport, these methods have been combined with large government subsidies, such as the expenditure of public funds to build stadiums for privately-owned sports franchises.

Throughout North America, cities clamour to see who can give pro sports the best deal:

"We'll build you a free stadium and all the roads and transit to get people there. You can have all the revenue derived from that stadium."

"No, we'll give you all that and a tax free status." And on and on it goes.

Supposedly, cities receive a huge financial benefit from having a "major league" franchise. Yet independent studies usually prove that these benefits have been greatly exaggerated. As outlined in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit (by Joanna Cagan and Deil deMause, published by Common Courage Press), these studies point out that money spent by families to attend sporting events is money that they would otherwise have spent elsewhere. There is no new wealth generated, and the jobs created tend to be minimum wage, part‑time work in the service sector.

In fact, Field of Schemes refers to studies showing that taxpayers' money spent on stadiums or tax bail‑outs would result in greater benefits if spent on public services and programs.

Yet again and again, politicians make the decision to support big time sports. The same federal and provincial governments which refuse to build public housing can suddenly come up with the funds to do so... if the housing is tied to an Olympic bid. Once the bid is lost, the dollars disappear into the wind.

Some US cities have held referendums on building private stadiums with public money. Even when citizens have turned down these schemes, state governments sometimes override their decisions (as happened in Seattle), or a series of referendums are held with the pro‑stadium side spending increasing amounts of money.

Why are governments making these decisions?

The reason comes down to money. The money in sports goes to some of the world's largest corporations: media monopolies, developers, breweries, and sportswear companies. A substantial portion of cash goes to the very small number of elite athletes who fit advertising's sexy image ‑ whether through becoming stars in a "hot" sport, or by their own looks.

Increasingly the entire concept of sport is tied up with the corporate (often sexist) images of Nike, Adidas, Michael Jordan, Tiger Williams, Anna Kournikova, GatorAde...

Hundreds of billions of dollars are connected with this branding, which even reaches into "amateur" sport. The corruption of Olympic officials and the drugging of athletes are inevitable results of the corporate dollars involved.

Faced with decreased funding, city councils, parks and school boards are being "bribed" with corporate funds to allow this branding of our public space to expand, often for very little return.

While this corporate strategy has been effective, there are signs that the loyalty of fans to particular sports teams ‑ one of the basic cards on which the entire house is built ‑ is eroding. Teams relying heavily on corporate money (with luxury boxes and sponsorships), have put tickets out of the price range of ordinary working class people. An increasing number of televised games are only available on pay‑per‑view. The threats to move teams, the constant flipping of players, and the focus on money ‑ all have alienated much of the fan base.

Even in amateur sports the focus on elite athletes has been a mistake. The Globe and Mail ran an article (August 13, 2001) showing the deteriorating results by Canadians in international track and field. Canada's head track and field coach was quoted as saying "We shifted our focus to the athletes on top... Now we have to shift focus to younger athletes..."

When will professional sport's house of cards fall? This is an interesting question, but the greater issue is the impact of the distortion of sport on society in general, and on youth in particular. The health of young people, both physical and mental, is in danger as access to recreation becomes more expensive, as physical education programs are cut back in school, and as corporate branding of public space spreads.

Professional sports are still indelibly a part of our culture. Why this is the case, and why there are such deep loyalties, is a subject for another article. The point is what to do about it.

From early Communist civic politicians like Joseph Penner in Winnipeg, to municipal unions like CUPE today, working class activists have struggled for decades to build community centres and to protect and increase access to recreation. In recent years we have added the fight against the corporate branding of our parks and schools to the list. Is it possible that a struggle for democratic control over our sports teams could be on the horizon?

Today, money is sucked into elite level and professional sports to fill the coffers of corporations. But imagine a society where sports teams are owned and run by the people, where players make a fair and just wage, and profits flow into amateur and recreational sports. A society where the emphasis is placed on increasing access for all, including those with low incomes, women, and people with disabilities.

This is possible. Even within the confines of capitalism, the struggle for people’s sport can have a real impact, as an important part of the overall movement for progressive and democratic cultural change.


(The author, a life-long sports fan, is active in struggles for women's equality and public education in Vancouver.)