Fans' loyalties come a distant last when sport becomes a very big business, writes Ross Gittins.
I went to see a revival of David Williamson's The Club the other day. He wrote it in 1977, but I was struck by how prophetic it was and how relevant its concerns remain. Even then, football clubs were debating the attractions of commercialisation against the largely intangible costs and grappling with a slippery emotional question: if you have to shift the goal posts to win the premiership, haven't you devalued it?
Williamson's reminder of the early origins of sport's commercialisation had another message for me: though it's a development many of us are uneasy about, it's not one we can blame on the dastardly economic rationalists.
The transformation of tribal sports into big businesses is just another product of the onward march of capitalism, another testimony to the seductive power of the almighty dollar.
But I think the process has occurred in two stages. Stage one began
when the first club realised it could advance itself in the comp by the
application of money.
This is the stage Williamson depicts. A "reform group" of business- men wrests control of their underperforming club, promising to lift its fortunes by the application of sound business principles. It's simple: you buy some better players, buy a better coach, even buy a better club manager.
The only tricky bit is dispensing with a few outmoded club traditions: that it always trained up its own players from the local district and that the coach had to be a former player for the club.
The second stage of the process began when the first media mogul realised sport's huge untapped money-making potential. (That moment came first to Kerry Packer and cricket, of course, then eventually spread to the various football codes.) But this stage of commercialisation is more like privatisation. The administrators of the code took what was a community asset, turned it into a business, then effectively sold a large part of the business to the media moguls.
(This process occurred after bloody takeover battles in the cases of cricket and rugby league, but was friendlier for rugby union and AFL.)
The privatisation of the football codes has parallels with the demutualisation of AMP and the NRMA - except that, with the codes, the original owners weren't compensated with shares in the new business.
The one thing that prevents the privatisation process reaching its ultimate stage is the Federal Government's anti-siphoning rule. Sporting matches of wide interest to the public can't be shown exclusively on pay TV but must also be shown on free-to-air.
Why would the pussy politicians restrict the media moguls' freedom in this way? Fear of voter retribution, obviously. But you can see the anti-siphoning rule as the Government's tacit admission that, by rights, the sporting codes are the property of the community.
The media moguls' inability to limit sport to pay TV means the privatisation of sport hasn't greatly hit the pockets of sport followers. The big profits come not from charging the newly created "customers" but from advertising, sponsorship and product endorsements by star players.
So the football "business" is mainly about taking the public's love of football and, purely by association, using it to sell products that bear no relation to the sport, from pizzas to photocopiers.
A key element in the privatisation of the football codes is the subjugation of the clubs. Whereas previously the competition was a federation of clubs which were each joint owners, now the clubs are more like franchisees.
All the important decisions are made at the centre by code administrators acting under the influence of the media moguls. The most glaring demonstrations of this are the draft and salary cap rules.
You can regard these rules as classic commercial behaviour or rampant socialism, depending on whether you define the "business" as the comp or the individual clubs.
From the viewpoint of the comp, the purpose of the rules is to equalise the clubs - minimise the ability gap between the best and the worst. But this isn't about fairness, it's about maximising the comp's output of exciting entertainment.
Whichever model of the product you choose to barrack for, you can be sure that, every season, it stands a reasonable chance of winning the comp. The handicappers' ideal is to make every match a cliffhanger.
From the viewpoint of a particular club, however, it's like the Soviet Union. Clubs are largely prevented from advancing themselves from season to season by their efforts. The system cuts down the tall poppies and rewards the incompetent.
It restricts the right of the most promising young players to advance their careers by selling their services to the highest bidder, in a way that wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry.
But none of this is to imply that the commercialisation of sport is all bad. If it was, it wouldn't be so seductive. The players are hugely better compensated and the standard of play has moved up many notches.
Fans who go to the grounds now enjoy better facilities, while the view from the lounge room is much improved. You get to see a lot more football each weekend because the matches have been staggered.
The big drawback is the way the comp administrators play fast and loose with the tribal loyalties of club members and supporters. They close down unsuccessful clubs or order them to move interstate.
They keep changing the nature of the thing you're barracking for - is it the particular suburb, the particular players or now just the colour of the jersey, ie, the brand name?
The draft and salary cap have robbed supporters of the ability to influence their club's success in any way other than shouting their lungs out.
Like the banks after deregulation, the codes are busily exploiting their customers' loyalty but, in the process, destroying it. They're slowly changing the game from a tribal sport into just another form of commercial entertainment. They're turning club supporters into fans of the code.
They're proud of the way they've made their code "truly national" - but their very ability to so easily win a following in non-traditional cities is actually a sign of what's being lost.
The eventual end is that "sports fans" switch between teams and even codes the way a TV viewer flips between channels.
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