Sport: Money over Athletics at every turn

Sport-Business-Entertainment
Sport-Business-Entertainment

Sports Entertainment has been with us for longer than the 1980s when Vince MacMahon (WWF/WWE) coined the phrase. But over the past few decades, the virus has spread to other sports, fueled by the happy marriage of sponsorship money with the coffers of club, league, and association/federation leaderships.

The term is aptly defined by Wikipedia: “Sports Entertainment is a type of spectacle which presents an ostensibly competitive event using a high level of theatrical flourish and extravagant presentation, to entertain an audience. Unlike typical sports and games, which are conducted for competition, sportsmanship, physical exercise, or personal recreation, the primary product of sports entertainment is performance for an audience’s benefit. Commonly, but not in all cases, the outcomes are predetermined; as this is an open secret, it is not considered match fixing.”

With the advent of televised sports, let alone today’s streaming options, sporting venues are secondary to the airwaves and internet in delivering an audience to a sporting event. Not that ninety thousand

Basketball

Basketball is a prime example of an activity that has ceased being a sport and become pure entertainment over the past four decades.

As to the game itself, it reached successive plateaus of entertainment with the Dr. J era of dunks, followed by the Magic and Bird shows (mixing show time with rough time), moving onto the Detroit bad-boy time frame wherein hockey games were tame by comparison, which was supplanted by the MJ period. Then, over the second twenty-year span the NBA offered a mix of true sport (San Antonio Spurs) with fluctuating superstar-led eras, each with its own flavor—O’Neal, Bryant, James, Durant, Curry—up to the present, when the sport’s global development brought about the likes of our current stars Antetokounmpo, Jokic, and Doncic.

Watch a men’s or women’s basketball game in the USA, amateur or professional, and count how many times a three-point scorer will let you know with hand gestures that s/he just scored a three-finger basket or managed a dunk or a block. Or watch an American Football player score a touchdown and do a countdown on the length of their celebrations. Each player is seeking a cumulative fifteen minutes of fame regardless of the magnitude of their accomplishment. It’s showtime, right?

Our era continues the troubling trend of increasingly deviating further away from the sport with each successive season. The latest incarnation seems to include sanctioned, overly aggressive playoff defenses wherein a player can be hit on the head repeatedly in back-to-back games with no concern over the health of the athlete or the rules of the game, which should have led to the disqualification (expulsion) of the offender. Unless, of course, that offender is too integral to the show to let the sport get in the way. 

In the USA, the 48-minute game telecasts have so many forced advertising timeouts that 60% of the 120-minute televised show has nothing to do with the sport. Even during the actual sporting action, the sport is secondary to the sponsors—notice the ads pushed at us within the on-court action, wherein a foul shot is fair game for an announcer’s soliloquy on the latest sponsor’s beer, truck, or watch offering. Or watch the in-game interviews where we are treated to split screens to allow a TV talking head to exchange inanities with a player, off-court, while his/her teammates are contesting the….sport.

Which brings us to soccer.

Soccer: Advertising & Betting over Sport

If you watch a Manchester City game, you will note that eight-foot-plus field banners are running around the entire pitch. These are not just static advertising but instead screens upon which to project any number of ads, mostly in film form, that cannot but distract the fans and athletes—i.e. the unfolding sporting event. Those ads are, of course, in addition to the ones worn by the players on their uniforms and posted in every possible stadium surface with the sponsor of the stadium (Etihad Stadium for Man City not to be confused with any other airlines, such as Emirates, also a UAE company, sponsors of Arsenal’s stadium).

Then we have those ads that the television announcers themselves offer, you know, the ones that interrupt the match during the action with superimposed on-screen banners or voiceovers, and the ones that are permanently on the screen next to the superimposed game clock or scoreboard or in the muted/faded style at the top or bottom of the screen. Pointedly, the action is often covered up by those banners, and many promote betting.

Which brings us to betting in sport.

Can there be any more insidious encroachment on our sport than the omnipresent betting opportunities players, management, staff, and referees, are subjected to daily? How about the plethora of advertising and apps that encourage and facilitate gambling—will we see no end to them? We have had tennis, baseball, golf, soccer, American Football, ice hockey, and basketball, among the victims of betting scandals, via player, referee, or administrators participating in betting and/or match fixing—does anyone think we will experience anything but a more sophisticated future approach to these crimes by countless other criminals?

At what point will it stop? Will soccer institute and apply betting rules of the nature that will actually discourage betting in our sport? One thing is for a fan to bet on sports, but when people with inside knowledge, or in a position to affect the outcome, are allowed to gamble on any match outcome, we have a problem. Lately, it seems the problem is systemic across the world of sports. Money is still the standard, whether in terms of entertainment, business, advertising or gambling, over sport—anything seems to trump the athletic competition.

Futebol: Business over Sport

The chairman of Manchester City, Khaldoon Al Mubarak professes to be frustrated that his club’s financial irregularities are “clouding its achievements on the pitch,” according to ESPN. The club that has won four consecutive Premier League championships has been charged with 100 counts of financial transgressions.

In specific, the Premier League charges that Man City has not complied with the league’s rules that require: a member club to the Premier League, in the utmost good faith, of accurate financial information that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position, in particular with respect to its revenue (including sponsorship revenue), its related parties and its operating costs, include full details of manager remuneration in its relevant contracts with its manager, comply with UEFA’s regulations, including UEFA’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, and cooperate with, and assist, the Premier League in its investigations, including by providing documents and information to the Premier League in the utmost good faith.”

Those charges were brought to bear eighteen months ago, and Man City has been allowed to continue playing and win titles—all in good faith, both league and club would argue since “innocent until proven guilty” is the standard—until the summer break when the full coffers at both club and league would more easily allow the frustrating application of the rules to those who have agreed to be bound by them. How very convenient for all.

The question is, if found guilty, will the league then require the club to return all their ill-gotten gains, financial, sporting, and otherwise? Further, will the trophies be returned, and the second-placed team be crowned champion? Will the illegally paid salaries be reimbursed? If not, then why have rules that do not need to be followed? Could it be that all that matters is whether a profit was made?

Barcelona, it seems, cheated during its most recent “glory days,” the entire Lionel Messi era. They are charged with bribing referees for favorable on-field rulings over that extended period. If found guilty, will they too be expected to give back their multitude of honors? Will the FIFA-Qatar-coronated Messi be required to return his Ballon d’Or’s?

Aside from league and club greed, we have seen there is simply no depth to which FIFA will not descend in pursuit of the mighty Russian ruble, Qatari riyal, or Saudi riyal. But the depths of the sport’s sell out were tested when Russia won the in 2018 World Cup bid, followed by Qatar winning WC 2022, and Saudi Arabia winning WC 2034. It would be hard to argue that FIFA could sink any deeper after the world witnessed the Qatari-funded mock of a 2022 World Cup with its predetermined outcome capped with the Bisht-shrouded Messi as the coronated emblem of the takeover of football by money. 

The UEFA Champions League is to grow exponentially in future iterations, the Copa America—originally contested among the ten nations of South America—now features sixteen teams, a 60% increase, and none of the added participants are South American. The World Cup itself has grown from sixteen to twenty-four, to thirty-two, and now forty-eight in 2026. That increase means the players went from contesting 52 matches in the last cup to competing in 104 games in the 2026 edition. Think of how the yearly UEFA Champions League, Nations League, and quadrennial Euro, all crowd a European calendar that has the sports’ top players featuring in over 60 matches in a calendar year.

The only reason for the increase in competitors is to augment revenues, and as any professional soccer player will tell you, playing a contact sport an average of five times a month results in multiple, repeated injuries throughout the year. Think of how many players missed pre-1990 World Cups due to being “physically compromised” due to an on-field incident, in an era when fouling was rampant and mostly unsanctioned, and how many missed the 2022 World Cup, when FIFA allegedly tightened on-field player protections. Guess what? As the number of games played by top players crept up to its current peak, more tourney absences were due to injuries brought about by overexertion than by fouling. But, the owners and administrators were making more money, right? All’s well that…

Futbol: Entertainment over Sport

In soccer, the scoring comes much less often, and one might argue that elicits a tremendous amount of pent-up celebratory energy. But today, the goal scorer runs at the stadium crowds to point to himself—even when the goal is a 99% product of a teammate’s efforts, and the scorer simply pushed the ball over the goal line. When a defender clears or blocks an opponent’s effort today, he feels the need to run around celebrating as if he had won the game. When an attacker demands cheers for having forced an opponent to surrender a corner, one wonders if he understands the relative level of the accomplishment. Whoopie!

Today, a player completing a simple but showy play will gesticulate at the crowd as if demanding their applause. Even coaches get in on that act as they attempt to direct fan chants—in support of their teams or to jeer a ref. Far be it from Papa to suggest players and managers shouldn’t celebrate sporting accomplishments, but doing celebratory summersaults because you dribbled past an opponent and forced a defender to settle for a corner are accomplishments at a par with mounting a squirrel’s head above your hearth and calling yourself a big game hunter.

All these actions have one thing in common, they have become expected and tacitly accepted add-ons to the overall “entertainment experience” of our sport. The business and entertainment takeover of futbol at the international tournament level is now complete—witness World Cup 2022 and Copas America galore. The takeover at the club level will reach its zenith when the verdicts on the Manchester City and Barcelona irregularities are delivered.

Papa has two hopes. For the upcoming Copa America and the 2026 World Cup, that the fact both tourneys are to be hosted in the USA—as opposed to nations more susceptible to FIFA influence—will count for something when the sport’s rules are applied on the field, and champions are ultimately crowned. And, that while the 2024 Euro is being contested—and fans’ attentions are elsewhere—La Liga and the Premier League address their clubs’ charges of alleged irregularities fairly and impose commensurate penalties if found guilty.

Shutterstock ID: 2088150616, by Victor Ward

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