Image for Corporatised Sport: As scandalous as drug-taking ...

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Australia plunges itself into another messy war; the Ebola virus is on the rampage in Africa; hundreds of war refugees rot away on Manus and Nauru Islands; catastrophic climate change threatens to collapse human civilisation; then came yesterday’s AFL Grand Final.

Who gives a toss about sport? And how is sport related to other worldly problems? Surely this is one thing left that’s sacred. It’s got passion. It’s wholesome. It galvanises the nation in something positive. Yet, it’s up there along with big time corruption in politics and the distortion of our national media. It’s related because moneyed corruption of sport is yet another symptom of the general degradation of everything that was once innocent and cherished.

Saturday’s blockbuster was, on the face of it, like any other AFL final since the game was codified way back in1859. On this occasion two dominant teams –Hawthorn versus the Sydney Swans – battled it out for the prize cup, the name of the game ostensibly revolving around sporting prowess, teamwork and expert coaching.

That’s the way the fans still see it. Yet something has fundamentally changed in modern times. This is not the game it used to be, even if the same old bag of wind is, as ever, kicked from end to end between the same four big sticks.

Yes, there was a little fuss this past year over Essendon’s performance-enhancing-drugs scandal. Variously described a ‘shocking’ and ‘disgraceful’ in media headlines. But that scandal was judiciously taken care of and the sport is clean once again. Yes?

No. The ‘level playing field’ in the AFL was abandoned years ago. Australian Rules is now hurtling into an era where sporting prowess is becoming mercilessly overshadowed by big money; where star footballers are now market assets – on sale to the highest bidder; where who pays wins; where managing football teams has become a veritable game of monopoly; where a handful of teams eventually acquire enough assets, as they go around the board, to stay on top; where the AFL’s eighteen teams are set to become permanently stratified.

The personality of note on Saturday was star forward Lance Franklin, bought by the Swans during the year for the princely sum of $10 million in a nine year deal – a purchase that the Swans had gambled on to tip the balance in its favour. That particular sale is just one set piece in a rapidly accelerating trend towards naked, untrammelled commercialisation of the sport.

As scandalous as drug-taking

The fascinating thing is that nobody seems to mind. If domination of sport by big money had happened overnight this would have been as scandalous as drug taking, but the transition has been imperceptible. It bedded itself into the sport alongside the economic rationalisation doctrine that has transmogrified the entire world economy, so hardly anyone raises an eyebrow.

How far will sporting commercialisation go? To see what could happen in time it’s worth taking a quick peek at Britain’s Premier League football. This sporting league highlights the ultimate takeover of sport by money. Not just any money, British (and Spanish) football has become the plaything of billionaires.

Six teams now rule the roost in Britain – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool. This is six out of the 46 teams that have played in the League since its inception. Owing to their accumulated wealth these six clubs have solidly locked themselves into the top layer. The rest are also-rans. There is almost no expectation that any other team can win the Premier Cup yet the game is still played as if the playing field is open to all.

Only these six corporations have enough financial clout to scour the world and buy up the most promising stars from anywhere – South America, Africa, Asia, Europe. The average buying price for each such player is in the order of $60 million. Fill up a squad with top-priced bought players plus the best coach on the market and the total bill comes to well over half a billion dollars, way beyond the reach of any of the lower-order clubs.

Below we can see valuations of the Premier League in 2012, compiled by the Tom Markham method, universally applicable to English Premier League clubs.

(The worlds richest soccer club is Real Madrid worth a whopping $3.44 billion and which has huge sponsorship links with Emirates and Adidas.)

Note that the financial worth of then bottom-side Wigan represented just 4 per cent of top side Manchester United’s assets. Unsurprisingly the bottom sides have absolutely no hope of making it, no matter how good is their team spirit or the enthusiasm of their fans. In reality the contest is mostly between just four teams and it is money alone that decides.

Wealth delivers the silverware.  Sporting teams have essentially become competitors in the business marketplace, but even that analogy is insufficient, because these businesses don’t act like any other businesses. The Premier League has become a place where some of the world’s wealthiest billionaires snap up a club for sheer prestige value and are happy to sink a proportion of their wealth into it, without necessarily expecting a profit. These investments lie outside normal boardroom decisions, so these clubs don’t even act like normal business corporations.

Billionaires who own sporting clubs include:

• Arab Sheikh Mansoon (worth $22 billion) – owns Manchester City.

• US businessman George Soros ($19.2 billion) – owns Manchester United.

• Russian oil magnate Alisher Usmanov ($17.6 Billion) –owns Arsenal.

• Indian mogul Lakshmi Mittal ($16.5 billion) – owns Queens Park Rangers.

Though some clubs have made sterling attempts at gatecrashing to the top through sheer effort – Swansea City and Southampton come to mind – the only real chance any team has of making it is to attract a corporate buyer. This year all eyes are on Leicester City, recently purchased by the billionaire Srivaddhanaprabha Thai family. The new owners have pumped some $200 million into the club, including a top coach and they intend to deliver a return on investment.

Who pays wins

“As a businessman, investment has to be returned, of course, but in different ways. If you invest to buy a hotel, you get a financial return in say 15-20 years. In football, the investment is the same but the return is different.”

Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha

What has all this got to with Australian football? Some ALF teams are by now sizeable corporate empires and whilst it’s true that they may be presently regulated so as not to be purchased outright, what we’ve seen in recent years is the same progression towards a market-dominated sporting culture, the commercial trading of players and a stupendous level of accumulated corporate wealth amongst some clubs that enable them to buy up the most proven of footballers and coaches.

Who pays wins.

It’s probably true that any team can still reach the top, though one suspects that lowly St Kilda may never make it up there again, having fallen behind in the monopoly game. My prediction is that during the coming decade a small handful of AFL teams will become comfortably slotted in at the top and the premiership cup will float between those, just like their British counterparts.

Any bets on the winners and losers?

Sport has been described as war, but without the bloodshed. It says a lot about human beings’ tribal instincts that sporting enthusiasts the world over seem to be untroubled by the almost wholesale takeover of sport by money. Turning up in droves, they barrack for their preferred corporation though they may as well be barracking for any multinational, like Coles of Woolworths.

Even knowing full well that the money factor primarily decides who wins or loses, competitive instinct overwhelms reasoning, people just can’t stop themselves from picking a favourite. The fact that sport has been totally corrupted by money barely raises an eyebrow.

And all of those points to an anachronism. If the proverbial ‘level playing field’ can be usurped by money, full frontal, why do sporting authorities and the public express such dismay when the use of performance-enhancing drugs are exposed?

How did we get to the point where we turn a blind eye to the blatant corruption of sport by money (who pays wins) whilst there is so much consternation and gnashing of teeth when sport is corrupted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs? Far be it for me to approve of drug use, the point I’m making a point about consistency, for there is none.

Even for those who don’t give a toss about sport (I have no allegiance to any team) the corruption of sport by big money perhaps illustrates more than anything else how our society has embraced economic rationalism so comprehensively that it has invaded Australia’s most precious, iconic cultural institutions.

And almost nobody gives a toss.

Examiner: Tassie in the spotlight IT IS impossible to measure the overall benefits for Tasmania of Hawthorn’s successful grand final appearance yesterday, says Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman.