We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thoughts on a sporting Saturday afternoon

The other day, my article about the antics of footballers and the shifting balance of power between players and clubs prompted one or two commenters to argue that this shows that market economics and sport do not always mix. The argument, so it goes, is that a sport like football or motor racing needs to operate an almost egalitarian policy when it comes to limiting the power of any participant, because otherwise the most powerful clubs and participants will dominate a sport so much that they destroy the very competition that makes sport enjoyable. Example: the current dominance in the English Premier League of Chelsea, which is now backed by the vast and dubiously-acquired oil wealth of its Russian owner. Another example: Ferrari and its dominance for nearly a decade of Formula One motor sport.

But while such observations have merit, it ignores the fact that sporting institutions like the Football League or Formula 1, the America’s Cup yachting race or whatever are voluntary associations of likeminded people who want to create a set of rules in order for people to have, well, fun. Those voluntary bodies can change their own rules if a participant’s behavioural dominance starts to squeeze the very competition such institutions hold. People effectively choose to submit to rules, just as members of a symphony orchestra voluntarily submit to the dictates of a conductor. In an open society such as ours, we get a profusion of autonomous institutions set up for the purpose of say, staging sports competitions where there are tight rules on behaviour of the participants but where such participants are free to leave.

I personally think that if, say, Chelsea tried to squash all competition beyond a certain point, it could drain interest out of the sport and possibly force the league officials to cap things like the use of foreign players and perhaps even limit the size of a squad that any club can have. And that would be “autocratic” of the league but also no assault on the “freedom” of Chelsea since that club draws is raison d’etre from being a club participating in an intensely rule-bound voluntary association.

Also, if a sport gets bent out of shape and the interest wanes, there are things like “breakaway leagues” or new competitions designed to revive interest. The case of motor sport is instructive: in the last few years, there has been a rising chorus of criticism that F1 motor racing is dull, unglamorous and market-driven (and although no-one will admit this, also very safe). So you get a rise in interest in alternatives, such as rallying, motorcycling, saloon car racing, classic racing, revival meetings, and so forth.

There seems to be a sort of parabola of development in sports. As technical excellence and physical fitness of players increases, some sports can reach a sort of stalemate end-point (Brian Micklethwait made this point about squash and the World Cup soccer tournament recently). But so long as sport remains outside the maw of the state and people can arrange their own events, there is no reason why people who become bored by the spectacle of spoiled-brat soccer stars or processional motor racing cannot do something about it.

7 comments to Thoughts on a sporting Saturday afternoon

  • RAB

    Bit of a nil all draw for this one Johnathan
    by the looks of it.

  • Rugby League is an interesting case study in this respect. The development of Superleague was the most destructive and harmful thing which happened to the game, and initially looked like dealing it a fatal blow; but in hindsight put into place the changes without which the game would have likely died (in the UK, at least) anyway.

  • As Clarkson once said about Top Gear’s Historic MPV racing: there was more excitement there than in an entire season of F1. The only sporting thing I make an effort to watch in BTCC. That is some of the best motor racing that be found anywhere in the world.

  • Pete

    Sport in this country is not left alone by the state. The state insists that some events, such as the world cup are free to air. This interference is unnecessary.People should be allowed to sell TV rights for their events to anyone and for any price. TV is not a necessity.

    Also the state gives money to sports people in the form of grants. I couldn’t care less if the UK had no athletics or rowing teams, and I certainly don’t want my tax cash going on sports events such as the Olympics.

    Another way the state interferes with sport is through its broadcaster, the BBC. This corporation uses cash from the TV licence tax to screen sports that hardly anyone is interested in, such as women’s football and The Paralympics. The BBC also uses money from this tax to outbid commercial broadcasters for events which are popular, such as the Open golf tournament and premiership football highlights.

    State interference in sport is rife in this country.

  • B's Freak

    Doesn’t the free market argument with sports depend on whether you see the teams as distinct competing businesses or as franchisees of the league, in which case the business competitors are actually the other sports leagues or possibly other forms of entertainment?
    In the US, cities such as Boston have an American football team whose season overlaps that of their baseball team, their hockey team, their basketball team and their soccer (I know, football) team. All are fighting for sports page and sport talk radio space and the dollars of the fans. New England fans are view themselves as “Red Sox Nation”, “Patriot Nation”, “Celtic Nation” or “Bruin Nation” depending on which team is enjoying success.

  • The public’s “right” to watch certain sporting events for free actually works against the interests of these events.

    Take cricket, for example. For years, BBC2 showed every single ball of English Test cricket. Then they lost the rights to Channel 4, a private but still free-to-air broadcaster. Then Channel 4 lost their cricket rights to Sky, a satellite, subscription only company.

    All the cricket lovers i know were horrified by this decision. However, it is quite clearly in cricket’s long term interests. You can guarantee that having spent a small fortune buying the rights to screen cricket, Sky will now work hard to increase viewers by making the game more interesting.

    For all the years the BBC owned cricket, it did precisely nothing with the game. Channel 4 immediately made changes and made the game more interesting for viewers (the “snickometer” for one). Sky will do the same.

    I always fail to understand why people who happily accept the ‘invisible hand’ in business sound like rabid socialists when it comes to sport.

  • In the Australian code [don’t laugh] they have first draft picks for the lower teams, salary caps, incentive payments from the League [Association] and so on. The result is a very balanced competition where almost anyone can win. But who looks at Australia anyway? They also have a departing PM who did NOT telegraph his moves ahead of time.