Dependable Erection

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sports and politics

Barney Ronay has a fascinating piece in the Guardian yesterday about the fact that really large amounts of money are having an impact on the politics of sport in England, in ways that simply do not compute here in the States.

Baseball, our National Pastime, long received an exemption from anti-trust laws which benefited team owners in numerous ways. The most obvious was, of course, the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team essentially in perpetuity. If you wanted to play for another team after your contract expired, or couldn't reach agreement on a salary with your current team, that was just too bad. Ballplayers simply had no other options. That changed with Marvin Miller organizing the MLBPA, and with Curt Flood and later Andy Messersmith challenging the reserve clause in the courts and eventually winning the right for ballplayers to be free agents.

You can argue whether or not the implementation of free agency has been good for the game, but there should be no dispute as to whether eliminating the reserve clause was the right thing to do.

A second way that owners benefited, and continue to do so, is the monopoly they enjoy on the franchises of MLB. The number of teams is limited, movement of teams is restricted, teams essentially "own" their territory, controlling everything from the presence of minor league teams in their region to the airing of out of market games on pay-TV and the internet.

European sport has always used a different model, but that's beginning to change.
The escalation to a current average Premiership wage of £12,300 a week has been like an unplanned social experiment. The players have come to represent an acme of consumption, a brutally linear expression of a certain way of living. In our footballers we see a funfair mirror reflection of the same forces working on the people watching them from the stands. We don't admire them, so much as aspire to their lifestyle, crave their large American cars and holiday homes in Dubai, bandy their salaries around with a Gollum-like mixture of avarice and disgust. The top tier of British football stands as an extreme expression of a certain kind of politics, rampant capitalism with the volume turned up to 11. A Premiership socialist? It might not even be possible.

This is all relatively new. We're not talking about golf here. Historically, football's politics, such as they are, have tended to loiter on the left wing. The majority of Premiership clubs have their roots in either a local church or a local pub. For 100 years these clubs existed as an extension of their local community, a living riposte - albeit an occasionally violent and shambolically administered one - to the Thatcherite notion that there is no such thing as society.

Football clubs exist everywhere in England. This year, London alone has 6 teams competing in the Premiership, the highest level of English soccer. (Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Fulham, Charlton, and West Ham). The Manchester region has five (Man. United, Bolton, Man. City, Blackburn, and Wigan.) Clubs don't own their territory, and neither do they own their place in the Premiership, England's "Major Leagues."

Fulham, Wigan, Charlton, and West Ham are all in danger of playing next season's games in the Championship, a one division lower. Two of the the four almost certainly will be relegated. Watford have already been. Every year, the bottom three teams go down, with a corresponding loss of revenue, and three teams from the Championship are promoted. This happens all throughout the various divisions of English (and European) soccer. Could you imagine if the reward for the Durham Bulls winning the International League championship was promotion to Major League Baseball?

This would create a very different relationship between the team and the community, for certain. In the States, almost every stadium is municipally owned, and rented to the team on the favorable terms in return for the increased tax revenues and perhaps a share of other revenues generated by the ballpark. Teams threaten to move all the time when another municipality offers a sweeter deal, and they often do. Would we want a 40,000 seat stadium in Durham, enabling our Bulls to compete at the major league level? Could we afford it? Would we risk losing the Bulls to, say, Tampa Bay or Kansas City if those teams were the ones relegated, and their cities offered a revenue deal that Durham couldn't compete with?

Ronay is interested more in the relationship between athlete and fan, and how the presence of lots of money is changing that. That's not necessarily a new concept for Americans, but it's worth looking at for the light it sheds.
The suspicion is that socialism - in the everyday sense practised by the likes of McQueen - is simply incompatible with the life of the Premiership footballer. Leftwing sympathies are still present in isolated gestures. Liverpool player Robbie Fowler celebrated scoring in a European Cup-Winners' Cup game in 1997 by pulling up his shirt to reveal a T-shirt expressing support for striking Liverpool dockers. As a gesture it was widely appreciated. But solidarity only goes so far: Fowler is also English football's fourth-richest man, estimated to own almost 100 houses as part of a £28m buy-to-let portfolio (inspiring the Yellow Submarine-style terrace chant, "We all live in a Robbie Fowler house"). Wigan manager Paul Jewell's dad was a trade union activist in Liverpool. He keeps a pet tortoise called Trotsky.

And then there's Gary Neville, the man most people would pick out as an example of a modern footballing socialist. Neville's "Red Nev" nickname was given to him by the tabloid press after his stewardship of a revolt in the England dressing room over Ferdinand's punishment for missing a drugs test. It's not exactly flogging Marxism Today outside Sainsbury's, but the nickname has stuck.

Neville is one of the Premiership's more thoughtful players. He has called on his colleagues not to use agents, although having always been represented by his father makes this an easy position to adopt. He signed up to the recent initiative for footballers to donate a day's wages to a nurses' hardship fund. He might even, you never know, see himself as a socialist. Still, you come up against the insurmountable stumbling block of his profession. In Neville we can see an intelligent man placed in an unintelligent situation. Earning £80,000-a-week for playing football places him on one side of a very real divide, whatever his potential leftwing leanings. The old distinction of champagne socialism doesn't really do it justice, unless perhaps we're talking about taking an Olympic swimming pool-sized Jacuzzi in the stuff every morning. Which is possibly something Neville might be planning to do in the £3m home with golf course, gym, pools, stables and a cinema he is having built in Lancashire. Clough is right. Socialism doesn't necessary exclude you from living in a big house; but there are limits to everything.

Does any of this matter? Certainly, football's central relationship, that between fans and players, seems to have suffered some collateral damage. The working man's ballet is now very much the middle-class man's ballet, too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the speed with which the demographic of football's target market has shifted is unprecedented. Not least in the idea of actually having a target market in the first place. Andy Lyons is editor of When Saturday Comes, the UK's only independent national football magazine. WSC began as a fanzine in 1986, at a time when following football was a relatively marginalised activity. "There used to be a sense of a shared experience of being a football supporter," Lyons says. "This has splintered now, due in part to the sheer weight of numbers of the Sky generation of new supporters."

Various forces have been working on this relationship between supporters and players: the repackaging of the game as televised entertainment and the dilution of the idea of a geographical fanbase; the hyper-inflationary hikes in ticket prices and the emphasis on football as a corporate hospitality product. Going to watch a game at Arsenal's new Emirates ground feels more like attending a stadium rock concert or visiting the Ideal Home exhibition. Your relationship to everyone else inside the stadium has changed. You're united by consumer choice. The people performing in front of you are skilled entertainers.

That right there encapsulates something very important. As a kid, my dad would take me to see the Mets play, first at the old Polo Grounds, and later at Shea Stadium. Some of that warm glowy feeling i remember from going to those games is misplaced nostalgia, no doubt, but it's also the case that the experience has changed. We never got the front row seats, but certainly we could have had we really wanted them

Now? Not so much. And especially the corporate suites with the private entrances and tableside service. Totally out of my reach. And where's Karl Eberhardt, who used to sit in the field level boxes between third and home, and kept, in his magic bag, a sign for every occasion? Where are the spontaneous chants?

Certainly not at the DBAP, which, even though it's about 1/8 the size of Emirates Stadium, encapsulates that entire feeling Ronay describes. I liked the old ballpark. I liked that kids could spend an inning on the rickety platform in the back of the bull and pull the lever that blew the steam out of his nose after a home run. (Never mind that the bull itself had no more history than the 1987 movie. My kids were exactly the right age for it.) I liked how the crowd, witout any prompting from a canned stadium announcement, would rag on opposing relief pitchers with "WHOOP, wooo" as they took their warmup tosses. (WHOOP on the pitch, and wooo on the toss back from the catcher.)

I liked striking up conversations with strangers reading magazines i'd never seen before, like AdBusters.

You don't get that at the new ballpark, or at any new ballpark that i've been too.

So what Ronay describes is, i think, something that is not necessarily rooted where it appears from a British perspective. It's not all that different from our experience, in a culture which has never known "socialism." (Although the model of sports ownership in this country, with its government subsidies, is certainly more "socialistic" than anything in Europe, where teams are allowed to go into receivership, and even fold completely, all the time.) I think it's more to the point to say that media has changed our relationship with our athletic heroes; the money is an aspect of how that happens, but there's an intertwining of causes that are not so easily unraveled.

In the meantime, well, Let's Go Mets.


  • You might like to find a copy of Susan Faludi's Stiffed, in particular the chapter on sports teams and how they've become separated from their original fan base. Faludi comes at this from a different angle -- the original fans are priced out, instead of the players are "income-d out" in the other direction -- but the result is the same: a disconnect between the players and the fan base that got them started.

    By Blogger Joe, at 10:28 AM  

  • As a kid, my dad would take me to see the Mets play, first at the old Polo Grounds

    Wow, you were around to see the Polo Grounds? Wow.

    And, you know, the Mets still haven't pitched a no-hitter in 45 years!

    I've been a Mets fan since '85, when I recall my dad and me getting great box seats for maybe $20 each, and the highest-paid players in SI's "What They Make" issue made $2-3 million.

    By Blogger toastie, at 11:08 AM  

  • Great post, Barry. There's a lot of analysis out there about the place of sports in modern, disembodied society, but I enjoyed the perspective of how a team interacts with place and the people tied to that place. (Both as reflection and venue.)


    By Blogger Gary, at 12:23 PM  

  • haven't read the Faludi piece. i think it's impossible to examine the relationship between teams and fans without accounting for television. It's TV that makes it possible to follow your team without actually, you know, going to the games; as well, it's TV where the huge sums are generated that make it possible for Alex Rodriguez to make half a million dollars a week.

    My dad was a Giants fan who always used to tell me that the most amazing thing about Willie Mays' catch in the '54 Series was not the catch itself, but the throw from 450+ feet deep in center field all the way back to the infield. He took me to my first game during the '58 season (the last in NY for both the Dodgers and the Giants) and used to remind me that i spent most of it under the seats playing with peanut shells. Needless to say, i don't recall that game, but i can clearly remember games from the '62 season (and i wish i knew where the foul ball he caught off the bat of Charley Neal ended up), and i can also remember feeling comfortable at the ballpark.

    John Maine had a no hitter through 6 innings last week for the Mets. I had a blog post all set to go in case he actually finished it. I also remember when Seaver's no-hitter was broken up in the 9th inning by Jimmy Qualls of the Cubs. Saw that one on TV, but i was also lucky enough to be at Shea in 1969 when Bob Moose of the Pirates no-hit the soon to be champion Mets. The standing ovation he got at the end of the game was fantastic.

    An interesting experiment i've been conducting on myself the past few years concerns English soccer. Since i've been getting Fox Soccer channel, i've watched a fair number of games. And after a season and a half, i realized i needed to have a team to root for. I eventually ended up rooting for Bolton Wanderers, and i could give you a dozen reasons why, including the fact that last year they had a Moroccan, two Israelis, a Greek, a Finn, and a Mexican on their team, all of whom saw significant playing time. And their logo is a balloon made of the letters BW. Or that Bolton figures heavily in the Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch.

    But none of those reasons explains how i ended up rooting for Bolton Wanderers.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 10:17 PM  

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