Have We Entered The Age Of Sports Entertainment?
Total Pro Sports – If 80s’ quasi sci-fi movies are to be believed, our bloodlust will eventually overcome us and instead of paying to see Matt Millen butcher a franchise, we’ll get to see ex-convicts disembowel each other on roller skates. Obviously/hopefully these ideas are firmly within the realms of fantasy, but have we come to a point where entertainment is being put ahead of pure sporting accomplishment? And does it matter if the lines between sport and entertainment continue to blur?
Sport is entertaining. Period. I’ll unashamedly say that playing, watching or participating in sports – talking with friends or playing fantasy sports for example – are some of the best ways I spend my time. The influence that the entertainment side of sport can have however, is a different animal entirely. There is an element of danger to valuing money, TV and revenue over mechanics, skills and touchdowns by having ‘everything else’ come before the pure action on the field/court/track; a danger often proliferated by TV.
Take a look at the 2009 NFL Draft; you’re forced to make a decision between the coverage of either NFL Network or ESPN, and fundamentally your response is dictated by which network – assuming both are available – offers the best analysis and presentation. It makes sense therefore that both sides pump millions into the entertainment portion of the draft, since at its core Roger Goodell saying “Kansas City select Tyson Jackson” isn’t enthralling TV. I seriously doubt anyone is majorly offended by seeing flashy redundant graphics sponsored by GMC on their TV, but with this huge focus on presentation and entertaining I think it’s valid to fear we might be on a slippery slope.
There is the misconception that ‘big’ sports are infallible, and that they never have and never will pander to the TV crowd by focusing on ‘sports entertainment’ as supposed to pure bat on ball action. But the idea that using gimmicks and show-iness to get over is for ‘lesser’ sports – like championship bug-fights or arm wrestling – is short sighted. The soccer played in front of 79,000 Manchester United fans is exactly the same as the soccer played in parks across the world; the rules are the same, the techniques are roughly the same, and at the end of the day soccer is soccer. However, pump billions of dollars into a game of jumpers-for-goalposts inflating it beyond belief, and all of a sudden viewing figures and revenue become more important than goals and results. In 2006 this pressure cooker boiled over as off-field activity overstepped the boundaries, and the allure of money thrust Italian soccer into chaos. For those who don’t know the story; the biggest names in Italian soccer, AC Milan and Juventus, as well as Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina were indicted on charges of fixing games by favorably influencing the appointment of referees during the 2004/2005 season. Juventus were relegated to Serie B, whilst the others were rocked with huge point deductions and were removed from European club competition the following year. The effects of the scandal went further than point deductions and relegation’s; Juventus shipped 77 million Euros worth of players in cut priced deals, Palermo were withdrawn from European football’s tertiary tournament the Intertoto Cup despite being totally innocent due to administration blunders, and despite there being no cast iron link (maybe a lack of competition, falling attendances, the void Juventus left) you get the feeling that Serie A today just isn’t what it was half a decade ago. The ballooning and burgeoning link between soccer and money had finally spilled onto the field, and Italian soccer collapsed quicker than Detroit house prices.
Those with the power to dictate the direction of soccer had taken their focus off the on-field product and they got burnt; other sporting bodies need to take note, and I think those that would be most wise to listen are the NHL. 2004: the argument over astronomical salaries killing small market franchises cost everyone a year of hockey. 2006: player gambling rings led by Rick Tocchet rocks the NHL again. Twice in 5 years the NHL has negatively been in the headlines for everything but hockey, and declining viewing figures means that sometime in the next few years – not now but soonish – the discussion over whether continuing North America’s premier hockey league may begin to rumble. It is rampant doom mongering for sure, but a world where sports like hockey can’t exist because they don’t make financial sense in the face of ‘other entertainment’ like Desperate Housewives is a realistic worry.
So where is the line drawn? When does an activity leave the realms of sport and become pure entertainment? I’ve always thought of a spectrum; at the far left you have pure sports like lawn bowls – televised lawn bowls is a terrible spectacle – whilst on the far right of this spectrum you have events where the split between sports and entertainment is nearly 0-100 in favor of entertainment – good examples of this are professional video gaming or darts where the drinking culture, music, darts babes and mutualistic masturbation of niche cultural fancies overshadows an obese gentleman throwing $5 darts. If these are the two ends of the spectrum, then in my opinion, soccer, football and basketball lie centre left on the spectrum (the North American pass times maybe playing more on their entertainment pedigree than soccer), with professional wrestling and horse racing centre right of that divide (is there a following for horse racing outside of gambling?).
I think therefore that when considering whether entertainment has encroached too far, it’s worth looking at the industry that perhaps straddles the divide between sport and entertainment more than any other: mixed martial arts. MMA is pretty inaccessible (believe me, Brazillian jiu jitsu classes will clean you out) so the expectation that one day kids will be attempting kimuras from side control instead of throwing a baseball with their dad is a tad naive. With that being said, out of the dark ages and post-unified rules MMA can no longer be branded as no holds human cockfighting and if you’ve ever watched a PPV (especially the UFC or WEC) the production values are through the roof, to the point where many are put off by the whole ‘flashness’ of a televised event. It’s got to the point where this entertainment value is now worryingly dictating goings on in the octagon.
When you invest 6 hour training sessions for 7 days a week away from your family for 3 months in preparation for one of possibly 3 fights you’ll have all year when the chance of injury is sky high, you would expect some serious monetary compensation. Fact is, unless you’re one of the top guys you aren’t paid that much per fight (if you’re outside of the UFC, Affliction or WEC you’ll probably make more money being a teacher). Yes fighters do see money from sponsors and minimal win bonuses, but as far as straight up salary goes it’s pretty meagre. Out of 20 fighters at UFC 94, only St-Pierre, Penn, Machida, Parisyan, Guida and Jon Fitch made over $30,000 for their fight. Whilst St-Pierre (deservedly) made $400,000, John Howard made just $6,000 on the undercard: a serious wage gap. So when the UFC dangles its Submission, KO and Fight of the Night $65,000 awards in front of these guys you have to wonder whether ZUFFA (the UFC’s parent company) are rewarding exciting fights, or blackmailing underpaid fighters for entertainment purposes.
There has been a definitive change in the mindset of many UFC fighters who no longer fight for the win, but for the bonuses; George Gurgel gives out jiu jitsu black belts and could school people on the ground, but instead prefers the more entertaining Rock ‘em Sock ‘em style wars because it’s the only way to get paid and keep his job. Just recently at UFC 98 many expected a wrestling clinic from Sean Sherk against Frankie Edgar, but Sherk himself admitted post-fight that he was blinkered by the $65,000 Fight of the Night bonus and chose to keep things standing. He lost. What about Elite XC? Knowing that they’d likely fold if their poster child and few ratings draws Kimbo Slice was beaten, Elite XC representatives allegedly offered Seth Petruzelli money to not take him down and embarrass Kimbo on the ground. Shenanigans indeed.
I have no problem with ‘Pepsi Player of the Week awards’ and I appreciate if the Jags have to get out of a flagging Jacksonville market for a hotbed like LA, because I understand money drives everything. But sporting bodies need to be super vigilant that their desperate pursuit of entertainment, ratings and revenue doesn’t impair their neutrality and actions regarding their on-field product, especially when an economic downturn offers little room for maneuverability.