World Games: The U.S. Tries to Colonize Sport

Having trouble visualizing global capitalism? Mike Marqusee argues it's being played out on a sporting field near you.

By Mike Marqusee Aug 25, 2000

The discourse of sport has always been prone to planetary-scale hyperbole, and in some respects the ideology of globalization when applied to sports has only taken old habits to new extremes. What is curious and revealing, however, is the way in which global pretensions are so often mingled with U.S. myopia. And nowhere was this contorted posture, so characteristic of our age, better illustrated than in an issue of Newsweek published in October 1999.

As part of its breathless celebration of the achievements of the expiring 20th century, the magazine ran a 34-page feature on sporting heroes, entitled "America’s Greatest." Here the history of sport in the U.S. was presented as a triumph in which barriers of color and gender prejudice were toppled, along with sporting records, by the efforts of a succession of extraordinary individuals.

Amid the predictable exaggerations and omissions, there was one claim in particular that strayed most egregiously from reality. "Sports may be America’s most successful export to the world," the editors wrote. "Whatever the world thinks of us, it loves our games. Major League Baseball is increasingly dominated by Latin players, and there is a growing infusion of talent from Japan and South Korea. Basketball is popular on every continent. And in Europe they now play our football along with their own."

When I shared this last sentence with students in London, they burst out laughing. What is known in the rest of the world as "American football" is a very minor sport in Europe, viewed by many as a testosterone-fuelled freak show.

And while basketball is gaining popularity in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, it everywhere lags well behind more established team sports, just as soccer does in the U.S. In Soweto, you will certainly find far more Manchester United soccer shirts than Chicago Bulls caps. Michael Jordan’s fame outside his native land rests more on his role as a shill for the world’s biggest sports shoe company than his achievements on the basketball court.

Whose World Series?

Contrary to the Newsweek dictum, sports are actually one of the U.S.’s least successful exports. Other products of American popular culture–Hollywood films, TV sitcoms, rock-n-roll, rhythm-n-blues, soul, funk, hip-hop, fashion–have all travelled further and penetrated deeper into foreign cultures than the games of baseball, American football, or even basketball.

Indeed, the salient fact about the U.S. sporting culture is that it is shared with so few others. Overseas, the quaint habit of denominating the finals of the North American baseball competition as a "World Series" is regarded as an example of typical American arrogance–more amusing than bombing Third World countries, to be sure, but cut from the same cloth.

It is not only in preferring their own, home-made sports to genuinely world games such as soccer, rugby, cricket, or even field hockey that Americans plough a furrow of their own. The ways in which sport is produced and consumed in the U.S. are also distinctive. Despite their preoccupation with the expression of American national identity through sports, the Newsweek editors seem largely unaware of those features that actually make the U.S. sporting culture distinctive; indeed, to many foreign observers, downright weird.

Cheerleaders, for example, are a uniquely American phenomenon and attempts to introduce them abroad have enjoyed little success. Crowds at European or Latin American soccer or South Asian or Caribbean cricket matches would all find the notion that their response to events on the field should be mediated by a regiment of scantily-clad females bizarre in the extreme. Here the songs, chants, jokes, and other means of expressing partisanship or commenting on the course of the action emerge from within the crowd itself, often in accordance with long-established (but continually evolving) popular traditions.

The U.S. also enjoys the dubious honor of being the only country to institutionalize the use of higher education as a nursery for professional sport. When it comes to track and field or swimming, sports in which America does compete with the world, this practice has given the U.S. a major advantage, and levelled the playing field with the state-sponsored athletes of the old Soviet bloc. However, ColorLines readers will be only too familiar with the corruption and compromise of both educational and sporting values that this long-established American tradition has entailed.

These days athletes from all over the world seek to avail themselves of the facilities of U.S. higher education. For many Third World sportspersons, a stint at an American university is their only hope of translating raw talent into high-level success and financial reward. In this respect, at least some features of the U.S. sporting culture are now spreading across the globe.

While sporting professionalism was a 19th century British innovation, Americans have led the way in the exploitation of sport for commercial purposes. Once upon a time, the idea that a sporting institution like the Brooklyn Dodgers could pull up stakes and move to another locale at the whim of a private owner would have been regarded as an idiosyncratically American phenomenon. Nowadays, the corporate capitalist model pioneered in the U.S. is taking hold nearly everywhere, reshaping ancient sporting traditions and transforming spectator expectations and behavior.

Capital’s Battering Ram

Although we do not share a single global sporting culture, we do, increasingly, live under the aegis of a single global sporting industry. This industry is dominated by a corporate elite whose leading members are only too well known to U.S. sports fans.

Take, for example, cricket in South Asia, a sport with a fan base of many hundreds of millions. The right to exploit this huge audience via television has recently been divided up between Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV and Disney’s ESPN. The principal sponsors of the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams–whose stars are household names across one-fifth of humanity–are Pepsi and Coca Cola.

Murdoch also has major interests–both as broadcaster and franchise owner–in European soccer and Australian and British rugby. In accordance with his oft-stated belief that sport is a "battering ram" for the penetration of national economies, he has teamed up with both the NBA and Manchester United in long-term projects for the development of basketball and soccer in China, capitalism’s favorite emerging market.

His partners in these ventures include not only the Chinese government, but also Mark McCormack’s International Management Group (IMG), which has already played a leading role in reshaping professional golf and tennis. IMG is also the promoter-manager of a series of India-Pakistan cricket clashes held annually in Toronto. While the event is not much of a spectator draw in Canada, the rights to the telecasts beamed back to a rapt South Asian audience are worth a fortune.

When the two teams faced each other on neutral ground in Australia earlier this year, Murdoch and ESPN hyped the contest as "Qayamat"–judgment day. With the military dictatorship in Pakistan and the right-wing Hindu government in India exchanging accusations of terrorism and nuclear threats on a daily basis, the cricket confrontation assumed a grotesquely inflated importance, replete with menacing religious and nationalist overtones. That so many of the big players in the global sporting industry (mainly U.S.-based) now have major vested interests in over-promoting the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry speaks volumes about the distorting and dehumanizing impact of globalization on the culture of sport.

We Brand the World

Everywhere, the vast concentration of wealth that this process engenders is transforming long-established competitive patterns and traditional loyalties. Inequalities within and between sports, as well as within and between national sporting cultures, are being exacerbated. In Britain, cricket withers as it finds itself unable to compete with soccer for popular attention; in South Asia, the glamour attached to cricket has marginalized field hockey, once the pride of both India and Pakistan.

The one claim in Newsweek‘s paean to American sport that has a ring of truth is the assertion that the U.S.’s "most visible symbol has, over the 20th century, evolved from the Stars and Stripes to Coke to the Swoosh." Note the complacency with which the editors appear to regard this disturbing evolution. The duty of representing a nation-state and its culture has been passed from a flag to a mass-manufactured consumer product and then to the symbol of a privately-owned corporation.

Last year at a cricket match in Sri Lanka, I witnessed the power of the swoosh. A poverty-stricken young boy was hanging around outside the gate, unable to afford the price of a ticket but hoping for a glimpse of his heroes. He had no shoes, scrawny legs and dirty, ill-fitting shorts. His tattered tee shirt was hand-decorated with the letters "NIKE" and a big, black swoosh drawn painstakingly with a black marker.

I wanted to say to him what I always feel like saying to young people in Britain or the U.S. who decorate themselves with the swoosh and other corporate logos: they pay Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, and Tiger Woods millions to wear that thing–how much do they pay you? At least the young Sri Lankan hadn’t actually paid Nike for the privilege of advertising their product–unlike his contemporaries in the West–but the implication was that he would if he could have afforded to. Since he could not, replicating its corporate symbolism was the next best thing, the nearest he could come to joining the global but exclusive club of the consuming classes.

In adorning himself with the swoosh, this sports enthusiast had become part of a vast web that links sweatshop laborers in South and East Asia, kids in the ghettos of North America, the corporate barons of the clothing and footwear industries, the media moguls and marketing gurus, and not least, sports administrators, sports promoters, and professional sports men and women. He had become part of what might be called the media-corporate-sport nexus–a nexus that now links together a substantial portion of the human race, but does so in a highly unequal and exploitative fashion.

The Increasing (Global) Significance of Sport

One of the defining features of an information-based economy is the ever-increasing value attached to "symbolic goods," that is, images and information. A mere 10 percent of the retail value of a Nike shoe is accounted for by the costs of physical production; design, marketing, and profit account for the remainder.

The company spends more on endorsements from stars than it does on the entire army of low-paid workers who actually make the shoes. Remember it was Air Jordans–a product entirely dependent on its association with a sports hero–that placed Nike in pole position in the huge global sports footwear market, now worth more than $16 billion annually.

In this type of economy, sport, which is itself a symbolic good as well as a highly effective carrier of symbolic values of all sorts, assumes increasing social significance and economic weight. But this development is not necessarily to the benefit of sport, sports fans, or society as a whole.

In 1998, global expenditure on sport sponsorship exceeded some $15 billion (a sum that had tripled in a decade and risen by 12 percent in the previous year alone). But the distribution of this enormous investment neatly illustrates the current imbalances in what the apologists of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization would have us believe is a "global economy." North America accounts for 37.8 percent of the market; Europe 36.4 percent; and Asia 20.8 percent. Africa is left far behind. The recent African soccer championships were followed passionately by a population of nearly one billion, but since it is a population with a meager disposable income, the competition attracted little sponsorship or media interest. The great African players ply their trade in Europe, just as the top Latin American baseball talent seeks the higher rewards available in the U.S.

Sports sponsorship in Britain now amounts to some $500 million annually–but two-thirds of that sum is consumed by only two sports, soccer and motor racing. Other sports find themselves increasingly disadvantaged in the furious competition for a slice of the cake, and women’s sport is left with only the crumbs. A recent survey revealed that 82 percent of British companies involved in sports sponsorship indicated they had "no interest" in women’s sport; however, 57 percent of these said they would have an interest if women’s sport displayed greater "sex appeal." So, far from busting stereotypes and liberating women’s long suppressed sporting potential, the modern marketplace seems to be reproducing the old biases.

Along with television rights and sponsorship, the big money in sport derives today from "licensing." For the 1998 soccer World Cup–next to the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event (in comparison, the Super Bowl is a parochial affair)–FIFA, soccer’s governing body, issued 300 licenses to corporations to produce and market more than 400 World Cup-branded products at a total retail value estimated at more than $1.2 billion. The licensing operation was handled for FIFA by the Swiss-based ISL. A top ISL executive explained the logic: "Today the marks of international sports events have become extremely valuable properties; the visible expressions of the link between supporters and events are an effective way of giving products added value."

Along with die-hard sports fans in many countries, I continue to believe, perhaps naively, that the "link between supporters and events" ought to be of a different nature. We may occupy diverse national and regional sporting cultures, but we have a common interest in resisting the Murdochs, the ESPNs, and the IMGs–and reclaiming our games.

What is happening in global sport reflects a broader crisis in popular culture. Just how popular is it? To what extent are its meanings fashioned among the majority and reflective of their lived experience, and to what extent are they contrived from above and cynically foisted upon a passive public? This crisis isn’t something we should regard in a fatalistic manner, bemoaning the loss of a largely mythical sporting innocence from a prone position in front of the boob tube. As events in Seattle reminded us all, the dominant consensus is a fragile one. The colonization of sport, like the corporate appropriation of the Third World gene bank, can be challenged and resisted. But only if sports fans emerge from their nationalist cocoons and begin making links across borders of all kinds.