Sport as Entertainment – 2. Professionalism and Commercialisation of Sport

Mass spectator sport had its roots in the late 19th century. During that era, most of the games and competitions we know today were codified and organised. Clubs and stadia sprung up, fuelling the growth of sports with huge spectator appeal.


To some extent this growing spectator cohort comprised people who were also participants in the sport. Their interest was driven by an understanding of the physical demands and skills of the sport they watched. However, more importantly, sports that attracted large crowds derived much of their appeal from being integrally connected to the culture and identity of the communities represented by individual and team participants, be they schools, colleges, ethnic groupings, cities, states or nations. This fostered a fierce tribalism and rivalries that were directly connected to those communities’ sense of self. Sport as a mass spectacle derived from these community connections – essentially the crowds were communities supporting their representatives on the field. Contests were important rituals within the broader structure of community life.


For at least a century, the appeal of mass spectator sport stemmed largely from these two factors: appreciation of the spectacle derived from direct experience of playing; and, caring about the result out of a sense of tribalism. They acted as strong and long-term drivers of spectator appeal for the sport itself that could easily override considerations about the quality of the spectacle. For example, extended dull periods of test cricket or dour scoreless draws in soccer were accepted and tolerated because the spectators understood that they are inherent possibilities in these sports and often tactically crucial within matches or competitions. This gave rise to a following that was generally knowledgeable and loyal.


In turn, this state of affairs was accepted by sports administrators and promoters. They regarded a constant, informed and enduring fan-base as the life-blood of the game. This was, therefore, the most important (perhaps the only) target group for the sport’s organisation and such promotion as was necessary. In an era in which commercial influences in sports were relatively small, this approach was rarely questioned.


The catalyst for change was, of course, money. Most mass spectator sports have undergone the shift from amateur to professional in recent decades. The patterns of this evolution have not been consistent in each sport. Some have been smooth and gradual, some abrupt and tumultuous. But the essential ingredient was the same: a growing flow of money from commercial interests (chiefly advertisers and broadcasters) as they came to realise the lucrative potential of mass spectator sport.


The obvious consequence of this has been the professionalisation of numerous sports as participants demanded, quite reasonably, a fair share of this increased revenue. For the spectators, the fact that our heroes were now plying their trade for money rather than love didn’t make much difference to our adulation for them. They still performed the feats that made our hearts soar and as they became more professional, their skills usually improved. But then, as professionals do, they started to trade loyalty for the pursuit of more money and opportunity. This tested the fans’ tribal instincts until they saw their own clubs bartering and trading their players like so many commodities and we realised that the tribes themselves were no longer behaving as they once did. We didn’t lose our tribal allegiance, but as the professional motivations of clubs and players became more apparent, it became cooler and more dispassionate.


The more important consequence for “consumers”, as spectators are now referred to, is that sporting bodies have come to the realisation that their sports are not just enjoyable pastimes but competing “products” in a crowded market. This fundamentally alters their attitude towards the traditional fans, as they are now regarded as “rusted-on”. In the game of market development, they’re the cash cows that don’t require any special cajoling to part with their hard-earned. The focus has, instead, switched to attracting new market segments. This can be seen in the staging of games themselves, where every effort is made to make the sport “accessible” to newer, less informed audience members. Some of this is sensible and straightforward, such as announcements of batting and bowling changes in cricket. However, a growing trend is the use of breaks in play to provide diversions to our focus on the game itself, whether it be advertising, sponsor promotion masquerading as fan competitions, or other forms of distraction. Whatever the case, there are a couple of consistent factors. One is that there must never be a gap in audience stimulation lest they grow bored (or perhaps enjoy a brief moment of reflection or independent thought about what they’re witnessing). The other is slick presentation in every announcement, every gimmick that reinforces the brand in question and the audience attachment to it. Subtle word use like “make some noise for your Melbourne City” is not accidental. It’s the lingo that pushes brand loyalty without us really noticing it.


Inevitably, there is a price tag to all this, and, as much as there’s lots more money sloshing around in these professional sports, the punter still has to contribute. Here too, the experience of sport has become more akin to entertainment. For starters, even at relatively cheap sports like AFL, the cost of attending games has risen. As one goes up the hierarchy of sports to those where demand greatly exceeds supply, the cost of attendance can be prohibitive, assuming that there are even tickets available. The old days of getting to the ground early to get the best vantage point have long gone. These days, the best vantage points can usually be secured at the last minute – provided you’re prepared to pay the cost of a “premium” seat, or you sign up in advance to one of the many tiers of memberships of your club of choice.  Attending top level sport is now more like subscribing to the theatre or going to a celebrity concert than the quaint old days of throwing your coins in a bucket at the gate.


The further consequence is that most spectators necessarily become more choosy about their attendance. There is generally a degree of planning involved because of the expense, the variable timing of games and the difficulties associated with logistics – meeting at the venue, sitting together etc. At the top end of the scale, such as internationally renowned competitions such as Premier League Football in the UK or the National Basketball Association in the US, attendance, if it can be achieved at all, is at a level of cost and organisation that categorises the game as an “event”, a one-off occasion to be savoured.


“Event” status is now an important part of marketing for many sports as it creates a demand that didn’t previously exist. Melbourne’s spring racing carnival, for example, has, in recent years attracted huge crowds that, perhaps, with the exception of the Melbourne Cup, have not been seen over these race meetings’ long history. Interestingly enough, the growth in attendance has come in an era when racing clubs have substantially increased admission prices (it used to be very cheap to go to the races). It’s as though the price tag, combined with clever marketing pitched at a newer, younger demographic, in which horse racing features only incidentally, has created the impression of an occasion where being there is more important than the result of the contest around which the occasion has been created.   A new form of entertainment if you will.


The focus on growing new markets – geographic, demographic or both – is occurring locally and globally and the emphasis on expansion and diversification has occurred irrespective of whether the sport in question has been in the doldrums or flourishing. The commercialisation and professionalisation of sport has had significant consequences for audiences in the way they attend sport, with a key development being that, financially and logistically, it’s becoming harder to be a regular attendee.


A solution here is the second of my “forces at work” – technology – which I explore in the next instalment.

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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. david stiff says

    Spot on Stainless

    As well as your nicely made points about the commercialisation of sport, I also lament that it’s increasingly becoming just another career choice for young athletes. It seems to me that fewer professional athletes now compete to master their sport, rather, sport has become a vehicle to enhance their personal brand.

    I understand that professional sporting careers can be short, and it’s difficult for retired athletes to begin a new career if they cannot directly leverage their sporting IP (e.g., as they can in media, coaching roles etc) but I still find it dispiriting and sad. I wonder if the ancient greeks felt the same way.

  2. Stainless, when you use terms like consumers and commodities you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Commodification in all aspects of our life reflects our contemporary world. We are no longer citizens, nay part of a community, instead we’re deemed as consumers, with the sole nexus in our existence determined by cash exchange for personal gain.What did Thatcher say abou there no longer being such thing as society,about us solely being individuals.

    Part of this change is the emphasis on instant gratification. You mention draws on test cricket,nil all draws in soccer were once excepted as people understood why. I don’t follow soccer so i can’t comment on it, but in first class cricket a draw is anathema. The growth of T20 is not about spectators having a nuanced understanding of the encounter, it’s a form of standardisation premised on instant gratification and sale of consumer goods.

    I’m enjoying your series. It’s an area of great interest to me, as we work longer, harder, and less securely, but are required to constantly spend on being ‘entertained’. Keep up the good work.


  3. Hi Glen
    Thanks again for your supportive comments. I’m pleased that this series is resonating with a few readers as I feel the subject goes to the heart of what the Footy Almanac was set up to think and write about.
    I suspect you may take issue with my conclusion in my last instalment – (spoiler alert) that we as consumers have partly brought the transformation of sport to entertainment upon ourselves. But bring on the debate, I say!

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