Saturday, 15 July 2006

Business of sport

The ancient Greeks perhaps never imagined what sports would be like, almost 3,000 years since they made it an important public institution.

Today of course, sport has become even more of an institution than they could ever have imagined. By the time their modern descendants won soccer’s European Cup 2,780 years since the first games were staged in Ancient Olympus, it has become a billion dollar industry from which hundreds of corporations profit, and most of the world lives and breathes by.

Perhaps no better example of this phenomenon was the just concluded FIFA World Cup, where probably the actual games themselves were only the sideshow to the real competition between Adidas and Nike, Mastercard and the other purveyors of plastic money, as well as other rival corporate pairings for whom the event meant their share prices either going through the roof, or plummeting to the floor.

Nothing in sports today is devoid of monetary value. How much was it worth to the Italians winning the World Cup? Well, 0.5 percent of their GDP, to be exact.

According to their own economic experts, this is how much their economy would be buoyed by the victory. That’s $80.5 billion, for those who can grasp money better than GDP percentages. Yes—that much more in pizza and pasta eaten, Chianti and Lambrusco imbibed, and Gucci and Prada bought from snazzy Milanese boutiques, because of the heady exuberance sweeping the Italian nation when their Azzurri came back with the golden trophy.

And what about FIFA, football’s international governing body, whose politics attract more interest than most nations ever would? Well, they supposedly profited a whopping $1.4 Billion from the month-long enterprise.

No wonder its president, Joseph Blatter, has the temerity to suggest that England ought to have played a more “attacking” kind of football during their matches! His organization has more resources at its disposal than even some of the countries whose teams were represented in the tournament.

Purists will bemoan sports’ loss of its nobility of purpose. And who can blame them? Seeing Portugal’s players dive to the turf time and again, just to ensure that their team secured victory at all costs was probably no different from witnessing Ancient Olympia being bulldozed to the ground, and replaced by a giant shopping mall.

And what to make of NBA superstars and their cribs on MTV? Or the same superstars insisting on staying in five-star hotels while playing in the modern equivalent of the Olympic Games?

Where have all the athletes gone? “Gone to their investment bankers, everyone” would seem to be the appropriately plaintive reply.

Modern sports is no longer simply the noble pursuit of physical excellence that the ancient Greeks wished it to be, and Baron de Coubertin tried in vain to preserve. Winning is now everything, and whatever it takes to gain financially from the undertaking is fair game – whether this means steroids, game fixing or outright crime.

Even as the Italian public celebrate their victory, the clubs with whom their players earn their living are being investigated for rigging the results of matches, all in the pursuit of illegitimate financial gains.

Only the most quixotic of sportsmen now play their game for the sake of it. But even just in our dreams, wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a time when athletes could still compete for the sheer enjoyment of it, when the brand of one’s uniform mattered little, and when conscience rather than corporate sponsors dictated appropriate sporting behavior?

Yes, it would be nice. And yes, it can only now happen in our dreams.
I would like to wish my mother, Carmencita Banzon Batuhan, a belated Happy Birthday!

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, July 15, 2006 (

Saturday, 8 July 2006

What price victory?

The current World Cup—now on its final stage with the epic clash between footballing titans Italy and France this weekend—has by and large been a very exciting sporting event.

More perhaps in the earlier stages than the latter, the participating nations have been quite keen to observe the fair play and sportsmanship that FIFA have taken great pains to stress over and over again in the game.

More than just lip service and token gestures however, the emphasis on fair play and good behavior is critically important in the sport of soccer. Watched by billions of fans around the world and supported by billions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, it is not only the biggest show on earth, but quite literally the biggest sporting business in the planet.

Its stalwarts are worth millions in advertising revenue, with the likes of David Beckham and Ronaldinho easily eclipsing big name American sports stars in terms of advertising income. No wonder it is difficult to play fair and square when it comes down to one’s passbook.

It is therefore no coincidence that the knockout stages— that make or break time when the outcome of a single game determines whether a team goes further in the tournament or goes home—departs from the earlier atmosphere of fair play.

One of the best examples, perhaps, of the change in mood from “gentlemanly” to “take no prisoners” was the contest between The Netherlands and Portugal. In all, the referee showed sixteen yellow cards and sent off three players amidst one of the worst scenes of cheating and dirty tactics ever seen in a major tournament.

Portugal particularly has developed a nasty reputation in this competition for all-around dirty play and rule-breaking. This reached sickening heights in the semi-final contest with France, when Portuguese players would just mysteriously fall to the ground without being tackled, in the hope of getting free kicks or penalties from the referee. Unfortunately, like the boy who cried wolf once too often, the referee never paid any attention to their protestations, even if in some instances it did look like some real fouls were being committed against them.

And of course, such is the irony of life and sport that those who live by cheating are bound to get a dose of their medicine.

Portugal’s exit was by virtue of a penalty kick awarded to France, in what looked to be a questionable foul committed on Thiery Henry while in a scoring opportunity. Appropriate comeuppance for the cheats indeed, if ever one was needed.

It is doubtful, however, if any of this will restore the game to a pristine state of chivalric purity. Too much is at stake, and too much stand to be lost. For the players the World Cup is the chance to sell their wares to prospective clubs and corporate sponsors. In the space of a month millions of dollars in potential transfer deals and advertising clout have been lost by erstwhile top class players who failed to perform to their ability, while millions more were gained by those who have patiently waited on the sidelines, and then used the occasion to show how good their skills were. Exit David Beckham and Roberto Carlos. Enter Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

And yet the pure football fan, wishing only to be mesmerized and entertained by the magicians of the sport, is the one being shortchanged in all this. But thankfully there is still a lesson to be learned here further down the road – fans buy the products that football players advertise. Who wants to buy from a cheat?

Indeed, in the end it may be up to us to teach these cheats a lesson in Business 101.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, July 08, 2006 (