February 12, 2017

LEE | Draining the Sports Swamp

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Last Sunday, Tom Brady and the Patriots embarked on the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. However, the Pats weren’t the only big winners that day. With 30 second ad spots that fetched five million dollars apiece, broadcaster Fox made around $500 million in ad revenue.

The commercialized crush surrounding the Super Bowl is just the most recent case of the enormous swamp of money that surrounds major sports. Over the past decade, broadcasting networks have shelled out truckloads of money for the rights to broadcast sports games. In particular, the NFL’s broadcasting rights rank as the most expensive, not only in the context of major American sports, but also in general American entertainment properties. Four of the five networks that currently hold broadcasting rights — NBC, Fox, ESPN and CBS — will pay a total of nearly $40 billion for these rights between 2014-22 (the fifth is the NFL Network).

Commercialization dots the landscape in more ways than just broadcasting rights. Many major American sports teams have their stadium names bought out by companies. The Minnesota Timberwolves play in the Target Center, while the Carolina Panthers welcome opponents to the Bank of America Stadium. And even now, businessmen are pushing and probing to find more ways into this lucrative machine. Recently, the NBA announced that player jerseys will feature ads starting in the 2017-18 season.

This cash-influx is not strictly an American phenomenon. Overseas, the jerseys of soccer players are regularly labelled with sponsors. Ticket prices around Europe are rising as clubs begin to embrace a newer, wealthier audience. And of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the exorbitant amounts of money surrounding player transfers these days. Paul Pogba recently transferred for an eye-watering 105 million euros, shattering the previous record set by Gareth Bale just three years earlier, who himself broke the transfer record set by Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo four years before that. Judging from the recent history, it seems inevitable that that record will again be broken in the near future.

One would be hard pressed not to raise an eyebrow when confronted with the sheer volume of money that circles around sports today. While it is true that a lot of this money ends up being small nuisances — coming in the form of ads or branded stadium names — it is equally true that this money exerts an exorbitant amount of influence. A common complaint among English soccer fans is that the increasingly financial focus of the sport is sucking the soul out of the game. Fans point to rising ticket prices for freezing out the traditional raucous and hearty support which once made up the fans of clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United, effectively transforming what was once the working man’s game into an elites-only enterprise.

There are suspicions in the United States as well. In 2007, the NBA was rocked by a scandal involving a referee who was caught betting on his own games, purportedly in cahoots with organized crime. Even more recently, there have been rumors of the NFL using its financial muscle to cover up the results of studies on the harmful effects on the brain of playing football at the collegiate and the professional level for extended periods of time. But perhaps the grossest and most blatant misuse of power comes far from either America or Europe.

In a small, sandy strip of land far from the well-established infrastructure of the United States and Europe, laborers are hard at work. These workers have little in common with the flashiness of the modern sports world, and yet are intrinsically linked with it.

The bulk of this work force comes from migrants from nearby countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and India seeking a route out of the crushing grip of poverty. Once they arrive at their new jobs, they are confronted with expensive recruitment fees, effectively ensnaring them through financial obligation. Their employers strip them of their passports, preventing them from returning to their countries. At work, they deal with brutal working conditions, cramped living quarters and a miniscule base salary which is often delayed or even withheld from them. Over 4 thousand workers are projected to die during their labors here. The entire area consists of a variety of human rights violations.

It is also an area that has been designated as an ideal location for a World Cup.

Despite all the attempts to purge FIFA of its money obsessed leadership, the fact remains that the Qatar World Cup is still a go. Never mind the scorching temperatures that make sports unplayable during the summer, the links with global terrorism, the nonexistent infrastructure, or the well documented human rights violations in preparation for the World Cup; it seems that money has trumped all concerns. And this is the crucial lesson: money moves people, and with the ludicrous sums of cash that fly around today with regards to sport, we must take great care that it does not overwhelm what sport stands for.

The Qatar World Cup already promises to be a first in many ways. It is set to be the first World Cup hosted in the Middle East. It will also the first World Cup to be played in the fall, thanks to the scorching summer temperatures. These, of course, establish precedents. For the sake of the beautiful game, and for sport in general, let us hope it does not establish a precedent in any other category.