The old adage from the grumpy old pundit goes something like this: “It was a harder game in my day.” Generation after generation belittle the current generation and claim they had it harder; they had it tougher. “These guys wouldn’t have lasted a week back in my day” they say. While this could be the case for many sports, most notably soccer, this of course is mostly down to an evolution of player safety, insurance and common sense.
The main reason that modern sport “stars” are considered as “soft” or “pampered” and not as tough or as “hard” as players “back in the day” is because of the rise of celebrity and the brand, with this in itself stemming from the vast amount of money that television companies such as Sky have pumped into certain sports.
Back in the early 90’s, the old English First Division was transformed into the Premier League or Premiership, which ushered in the Sky Sports era of mass commercialisation and broadcasting of hundreds of games every season. Sky would dictate when certain games where played, and would decide if they’d rather big games such as Manchester United vs. Liverpool, for instance, should be moved to a Sunday afternoon so as to avoid it clashing with other televised or non-televised matches.
From these matches the exposure that comes with them, star and names were made, coinciding with this new celebrity fascination that was sweeping the world around the same time. Back in the 60’s and 70’s the golden boy of football, especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland, was Manchester United’s George Best. A European Cup winner and European Footballer of the Year, Best’s popularity rose due to a combination of his vast skills on the pitch, his good looks and his womanising ways. But Best’s celebrity was small scale compared to so many that came through in the 90’s, and those who truly burst the stratosphere in the 00’s.
The first name that comes to mind when you think of sport transcending the game and entering into commercialisation and the celebrity world is David Beckham. One could be forgiven for being unaware that Beckham was actually a very, very good football player. He may have played for Manchester United, Real Madrid, L.A. Galaxy, A.C. Milan, Paris St-Germain and captained England, but worldwide “Goldenballs” is known better simply for ‘Brand Beckham’. He’s a global icon, with his own line of clothing, cosmetics and underwear. He has made himself into one of the most recognisable face on the planet, not just in sport. Someone who has truly transcended his code into something much bigger.
So has this level of commercialisation damaged sports in any way? Using the example of soccer, you would have to think in most ways it hasn’t. Commercialisation has bankrolled the sport to such a level that soccer is hands down the most globally watched sport on the planet. The purity of the game may have diminished however, with players terrified of suffering with an injury that could keep them off the pitch and away from the cameras for too long. Such things affect sponsorship deals and bonuses. This brings us back to earlier where the older football pundit or fan might argue that these guys today are just not as hard as they were back in the day. This is most certainly true but it’s understandable when there’s a multi-million multi-year boot deal from Nike or Adidas on the table. The biggest players are such precious commodities nowadays that they’re wrapped in cotton wool and treated in the same ilk as rare, precious vase.
Such is the scale and power of brands in sport that the likes of Nike has been alleged to have funded transfers in conjunction with teams for certain players. They were allegedly involved in helping to fund a potential bid by Manchester United to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to Old Trafford from Real Madrid, whom they had sold him to back in 2009 for a then world record fee of €93 million. The deal never came to be, but imagine it had. What kind of power would Nike have then when it comes to Manchester United’s future commercial dealings? And would other clubs they sponsor such as Arsenal and Manchester City and Barcelona have something to say about them helping out Manchester United in such a way? These are some of the questions that can arise from how commercial the game has become.
Not just in soccer though, fledgling and amateur sports such as mixed martial arts and Gaelic games, football and hurling, are hugely reliant on television and broadcast deals, as well as outside sponsorship in order to not even thrive, but to survive. The GAA need their television deal. Dublin GAA have just signed a monumental sponsorship deal with insurance giants Aon, the first of its kind in the sports and many other counties have signalled their displeasure at how unfair it is that Dublin now have even more money than they do. Is this sour grapes? Or is it an example of commercialisation upsetting the fairness in the game financially?
It’s all a money game nowadays though. From the amateurs up to the professionals. The traditional notion of sports is long gone. Sure, the reason you get into a sport is love of competing, but what keeps you being able to compete in that sport at the highest levels is whether you can make money for yourself and for other people. “Back in the day” you made only the money the club told you you were going to earn, but nowadays players have so much more power thanks to commercialisation that it has actually weakened smaller clubs to the point where they find it impossible to keep their best players if bigger clubs come in with a big bid.
Commercialisation has smothered sport to the point where it is controlled by outside interests and businessmen only interested in profit. But profit can only come from entertainment, and fans are entertained more so than ever watching as much of their chosen code as they can stomach on a bi-weekly basis. You just can’t avoid sport nowadays. It’s as common as your daily soap. There’s always something on, because sponsors and players and commodities have to be seen. The intent might not be wholly pure, but more money in the sport from commercialisation has meant these sports are now of a better quality. Without a doubt.