February 8th, 2008

Sport Debased by Demands of Business

By Greg Baum
The Age (Australia)

At every of the many ear-splitting and hysterical ground announcements at Telstra Dome on Wednesday night, the Australian soccer team was called the Qantas Socceroos. After a while, it became grating, and to this mind, counter-productive. The Socceroos belonged to us, not an airline.

This was the same airline that took 40 minutes to ferry a few suitcases from a plane to a luggage carousel late one night during the school holidays. I found myself thinking that this airline ought to concentrate more on air travel and less on appropriating our sporting heroes.

But sport is business. And business is shameless. In the program, they were the Qantas Socceroos at every reference, even historic. Plainly, we were meant, by a feat of Orwellian mind management, to forget that there ever was a time when there was no commercial appellation.

We were meant also to begin to believe that name and sponsor were interchangeable. Upon Australia’s victorious return from the cricket World Cup in 2002, it was announced at a reception at Melbourne Town Hall as the “Emirates cricket team”.

All in the room well knew that there already was an Emirates cricket team and it wasn’t very good. But the airline was well pleased. This was the sort of publicity you could only buy.

This sort of brainwashing by word association is everywhere. MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner is never merely himself, but always and invariably Ducati Marlboro rider Casey Stoner, even on his own website. Maker and sponsor have become as much a part of Stoner’s name as Lord or Duke for a noble.

It is the sort of trick motor sport especially pulls to subvert laws banning tobacco advertising in this country. The only recent saving grace is that even that god of the grid, Ron Walker, appears to be tiring of Bernie Ecclestone and his incessant demand for more money.

The trouble with sport as business is that it rarely minds its own. Sports journalists in Melbourne this week received a thick package of propaganda from the National Australia Bank. It included guidelines on naming rights, instructing that NAB rhymed with “cab”, moreover that it was not “the NAB”, just “NAB”.

“When referring to any of the below properties,” it read, “please use the following correct naming rights: NAB Cup, NAB Challenge, NAB Supergoal, NAB Zone, NAB AFL Auskick, NAB AFL Rising Star.” To my way of thinking, the day that a goal became a “property”, complete with “naming rights”, a part of the game died. You can no more kick a property than you can put down a deposit on a goal.

Once, links between business and sport were subtle. Journos’ inboxes now bulge daily with “media opportunities” that invariably are guileless, gormless plugs. One this week from Carlton offered a chance to photograph Chris Judd with a car. Details about the car followed.

Sadly, media are too often complicit in this colonisation of sport by big business. In his column in the Times in London this week, Shane Warne noted that some cricketers would miss the county season start because of a clash of dates with the lucrative new Twenty20 competition in India. “That is a shame, but the benefits that could arise are huge,” he wrote. “Who knows what other opportunities in business may crop up? For example, I would like to help to take Advanced Hair Studios into India and this may be a way in.”

This was instructive in two ways. The first was as a reflection on how a once great newspaper could allow its pages to be bastardised by such inane tripe.

The second was as an insight into what appeals to players about the Indian tournament: not the form of cricket ó which most say they dislike ó nor evangelism, but the vast sums players stand to make out of it.

This week’s latest stand-off between Indian and Australian boards was not about racism, or sportsmanship, but beer. The Australian board is railing against its players sporting a brewery sponsor in the Indian tournament because its own brewery sponsor is “protected”. Words like “sabotage” appeared.

I would have thought the best protection for any business was to put out a better product than the others. But sporting business doesn’t work like that.

Predictably, ever shrill Indian board vice-president Lalit Modi is threatening to cut the Australian players out of the action.

Modi threatens Australia about as frequently as Ben Cousins speaks out for the first time about his drug problem. By my count, this week’s tawdry little show in Sydney was the third time Cousins has spoken out for the first time. Each has been as illuminating as the others.

Later, the focus of discussion was not drugs, but whether Cousins had, by his appearance, deflated the going price for an exclusive interview. It was not one of world sport’s more virtuous weeks.

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