Ballin’: A Look into the Appeal of Sports

By Munatsi Mavhima

Avid sports fanatics – or anyone who just enjoys large crowds, food, booze, and nonsensical screams of joy and anguish—will have their plates full in June and July: this summer offers some of the finest sporting action known to man, with the European Football championship and the Olympic Games. I’m one of those people. My day is greatly affected when a loss is inflicted upon my favourite team. I’ll stubbornly defend their decisions both on and off the sports field, and even my closest friends and family can become my worst enemy for 90 minutes at a time. My parents give me updates from two continents away. Oh yes, it’s that serious. So why question it? Why think to myself that the hours spent at bars and homes and fan zones, in front of the widest, thinnest, smartest, most HD screens I can find, could be more usefully applied elsewhere?

It started with a discussion with my girlfriend. Not understanding why I watched sport so much, she aptly put it as, “Watching grown men run around”. Anybody in a relationship would know that this was not the time to point out female athletes, but she had a point. There is a certain absurdity to the spectacle, the show that sport is today. People are paid big money to run, jump, catch, hit, kick, swim, and drive for our entertainment. And they do it well. The grace, balance, the harmony between precision and power is a testament to natural selection. So we spend billions of dollars on merchandise and matches and bets; all for the glory of our teams, their championships, silverware and medals. This is money that the common man will never see again, and yet they accept the privilege to gloat about the past weekend or season. I don’t mean to undermine community projects and charity runs, but consider this: Manchester City football club spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new players last year, unaffected by the recession that ravaged the world and probably 90% of the people in the stands.

Which brings me to what I believe is the main reason that sports are so popular: teams are born out of communities; they represent the values held by a group of people. How much of that is still true today? Going back to Manchester City example: they were founded by members of a small church in Gorton as a way of positively influencing and uniting the city of Manchester; noble and humble beginnings that are echoed within the club and benefit the people of Manchester today. In contrast, the decade FC Barcelona team was founded by foreigners but came to embody the principles of the Catalan population. At the centre of this was politics, mainly the push in Catalonia for autonomy from the central government in Madrid. This passionate desire for independence from Spain is the reason behind “El Clásico” the thrilling rivalry between the soccer teams, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

A similar rivalry is reflected in the battles between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Politics, socio-economic status, and religion have created clubs and teams, organisations whose history that has captured our interest and sparked great stories of determination, courage and hope.
However, for all the emotion evoked by a last minute “Hail Mary”, or by a great comeback win, it’s still ultimately all about cold, hard cash. Sports are a big business: between T.V. rights, publicity, merchandise, and ticket sales, winning is crucial in balancing the books. The more money you invest into your club, the bigger the revenues. The influence of big money investors cannot be ignored, and the disparities between teams has been largely criticised, with calls for salary caps similar to those measures in place in North America.

So, to all those that continue to question the meaning of sports, there is a simple answer: intangibles aside, it is money and business. Clubs are just another example of textbook capitalism. In order to build an infrastructure for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African government had to borrow huge sums of money, particularly in terms of the under-utilised Soccer City that cost $440 million to build. Despite all the debt, however, the upgrades were necessary, and tourism really did increase incredibly.
Even with all the borrowed money and accumulated debt, can intangibles really be ignored? If so, the Olympic Games become null and void. The symbolic, iconic flame; the world tour; the desire to unite the world peacefully through sport: all used to imbue a sense of national pride, and to show that we all deserve the same rights and opportunities. Equality and respect across gender, ethnicity, and political creed: that is the crux of this grand competition. The US-Soviet battles played out at the Games, but unlike in politics, a mutual respect and admiration was fostered.

South Korea’s development came to the world’s attention in 2002 when they hosted and reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup. Cheering for the little guy, the appreciation of hard, honest determination, the win-some-lose-some blunt truth that sport exhibits; this purity resonates louder than dollar signs and reckless violence. Look past it, through it, to the soul behind the spectacle.