On a global pitch, passion for the game is still local

Sport and Corporate Nationalisms
September 16, 2005

Recently it was possible for early risers on a Saturday morning in Britain to watch New Zealand play Australia at rugby union. The match, which was part of a competition run in partnership with a multinational media corporation, was beamed directly to my front room in East London by a satellite TV channel run by that same company. It was won by a New Zealand team outfitted and sponsored by a German sportswear company, coached by two men who have also coached Wales and a third who spent three seasons at Northampton, and without the option of selecting its most experienced scrum-half because he was on the other side of the world preparing to make his debut for Leeds Tykes.

That sport offers an unusually fertile field for the study of globalisation and its effects is abundantly clear. Equally apparent is the fact that a strong element in this is increasing corporatisation, as companies recognise elite sport as an unmatched vehicle for their images and products. The demands of television increasingly influence not only the scheduling but the structure of major events, and global sporting bodies - once the domain of men with the outlook of colonial administrators or, in the case of the International Olympic Committee's Avery Brundage, an antebellum plantation owner - interlock closely with international capital.

As with the wider globalisation debate, it is unclear whether sport's globalisation is an inexorable rise sweeping aside national boundaries. It runs into the reality that sporting loyalties are national or local and are not readily transferable. Greater travel and access to news via a range of media have given sports fans a range of secondary loyalties - this week will find me checking, via the internet, on the progress of Rayo Vallecano in Spanish football, the Washington Nationals baseball team and St Kilda Australian Football Club - but these are peripheral alongside deeper-rooted home allegiances. Sporting cultures are similarly resistant to change. As the football historian Bill Murray said, once codes are entrenched they are hard to displace. (Murray knows of what he speaks from the abuse he has taken as a soccer player in Australia.) American football, despite a brief 1980s vogue in Britain when television executives with no grasp of history were convinced that it would displace soccer, is little played outside North America. Soccer, often proudly proclaimed as "the game Britain gave the world", has been least successful where British influence has been strongest - New Zealand, Australia, the Indian sub-continent, the US and Canada. Cultural and commercial space has been hard to find alongside established codes. For all its success as a participation sport, soccer remains marginal as an elite game in the US.

This collection of case histories of the relationships between sport, capital and national identity is welcome and timely. It is exploratory rather than conclusive and suffers from the weaknesses of a multi-author work. Although the editors attempt to provide an overriding analytical template in their opening chapter, the 17 authors who contribute the 11 following chapters adhere to the invariable, and not unreasonable, practice of following their research in its most interesting and productive direction. There is much of interest on the corporate side - notably Alan Tomlinson's chronicling of the rise and fall of ISL Marketing and its progressive capture of football's world governing body, Fifa. Tomlinson also does a considerable service to the memory of Denis Howell, already remembered as the most effective of Britain's sports ministers, in showing his prescience in spotting the potential conflicts, corruption and cronyism inherent in this relationship, a sporting parallel (with not dissimilar outcomes) to the murky relationship between Enron and the Bush Administration in the US. Samantha King's lucid study of Avon's involvement in athletics points up the development of corporate social responsibility programmes.

While John Amis notes the use by Guinness - an undoubtedly multinational brand - of imagery drawn from its Irish roots, the national tends to appear in terms of resistance. British basketball fans emerge as a group who like the game for its own sake, have their own local loyalties and are unimpressed by the globalising pretensions of the (US) National Basketball Association. New Zealanders are still less impressed by the appropriation of the Maori imagery of the pre-match haka in adidas's All Black-linked marketing promotions.

The book's main weakness is the tendency of some chapters to over-labour the construction of their analytical frameworks. The reader waits impatiently for a hail of citation to pass over in the hope that the author will finally reach what he or she, rather than the previous literature and iconic text, is talking about. This is epitomised in the chapter on America's Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), a potentially fascinating subject with the conflict between traditional conceptions of what it is to be American and the appeal of the world's most popular spectator sport given a further twist by gender.

That chapter also suffers from another problem endemic to the academic collection - long lead times. WUSA collapsed in September 2003, and it is frustrating that a book published 16 months after that contains not only no reflection on the implications of that failure, but not even a reference to its having happened.

Long lead times should allow detailed and rigorous editing. Or perhaps not.

Two spectacular howlers escaped here. Identifying MLB as "Major League Basketball" rather than Major League Baseball is roughly analagous in British terms to identifying the FA as "Fishing Association" and is made still less explicable by its being in the context of MLB's World Series - known to even non-sports fans as a baseball event because the assumptions of the title are so regularly cited as evidence of American solipsism.

And while a British author can perhaps be forgiven for the initial error, surely at least one of the three US-based editors should have spotted that basketball player Tracy McGrady is not - nominal evidence withstanding - a woman. They are perhaps trivial matters (except, of course, to Mr McGrady), but mistakes that bring the reader up with a jolt undermine the authority of the whole.

Huw Richards is visiting researcher, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.

Sport and Corporate Nationalisms

Editor - Michael L. Silk, David L. Andrews and C.L. Cole
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 292
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 85973 794 3 and 799 4

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