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Simon Chadwick

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Are Europe and North America Losing the Game of Sport?

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 10:40 am

Every February Shrove Tuesday (colloquially known as 'Pancake Day') across Britain, thousands of people variously celebrate winter food-stocks historically being shriven. Harking back to medieval and more agrarian times, the day has become marked by activities which include the playing of a form of soccer. Visit market towns across the country on this day, and you will witness hundreds of people, normally men, playing in teams against each other, with goals positioned at each end of towns like Ashbourne in Derbyshire. This form of soccer subsequently evolved into something rather more sophisticated, first being played out in private schools, and then amongst groups of workers who were often associated with factories, employers or urban conurbations.

Hence, if one looks back in general to the 19th century, the history of sport during this first period of the modern era was one of European pre-eminence. During this era, sports such as soccer developed through custom and practice, and were later codified to become the basis of many professional and amateur sports that are still being played today. Indeed, several sporting mega-events, like cycling's Tour de France, were also a product of the era, and many continue to be staged in the 21st century.

Yet, as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, the model of sport as a socio-cultural entity came under threat from a different and clearly distinct, North American model of sport. As one example, the National Basketball Association, now one of the world's leading sport competitions, was not formed until 1949. The NBA's emergence was entirely different to the emergence of European soccer, effectively being based around two key factors: structures to ensure equity and fairness across teams (known as competitive balance); and the commercialization of basketball's sporting properties.

The North American model thus began to gain an ascendancy over the European model, leading to the development of a business and managerial focus on sport. Underpinned by strategic intent and commercial purpose, sport in North America, rather than reflecting socio-cultural custom and practice, came to reflect operating considerations such as the sale of property rights, and the notion of fans as customers. This explains why Americans view sport as an entertainment experience, complete with tailgating and merchandise, whereas many Europeans view sport as a birth-right rooted in pain and struggle.

The emphasis in North America has therefore been upon creating a sporting model that accentuates the core strength of sport: the uncertainty of outcome (not knowing who will win). This has resulted in measures such as salary-capping and franchise location, based upon a foundation of profitability and business growth. This is a stark counterpoint to the European experience, where even today's top sport organizations were often initially set-up as hobby clubs. Moreover, European institutions continue to perpetuate the established model by, for instance, outlawing mechanisms such as salary-capping. This is layered with irony: the more socially democratic Europeans adopt a laissez-faire, market-driven approach to sport while capitalist America actively intervenes in sport to control competitive balance.

That said, over the last two decades the European sporting model has slowly migrated towards that of America. Sponsorship is widespread, the tangible financial value of sports brands, and high-value media contracts drive the success of many sports. Yet while some sports, and the organizations within them, continue to grapple with the ramifications of sport's 20th century model, a new model appears to be emerging. Some might be surprised by the rise of this model, while some may dismiss it as a mirage rather than a meaningful reality. However, it appears that the 21st century will see the emergence and eventual dominance of an Asian model of sport, a model that combines elements of the American model with state-intervention in areas such as grassroots developments through to the development of elite professional athletes, the generation of economic and commercial benefits for nations, and the promotion of sport's role in realizing socio-cultural and health goals.

We already have ample evidence that this is happening: for instance, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing was notable not just for the financial commitment of the Chinese government to the event, but also for the way in which a sporting mega-event became the focal point for the re-branding and symbolic re-birth of a nation. More recently, Qatar has won the right to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an achievement that signifies how important the Asian model is becoming.

The Qatari experience is an interesting one: just as some countries may seek to invest in manufacturing, electronics or tourism as the basis for building and sustaining economic activity, so the Qatari government has adopted sport as a central strategic pillar. By investing in this way, Qatar is creating foundations for the development of civic infrastructure such as roads, houses, shops and industrial areas. In parallel, sport is simultaneously being used to boost participation in sport amongst the population, improve health and lifestyles, promote social cohesion, enable the generation of country branding opportunities, and provide the basis for international networking and political influence.

There is also a Qatari intention too that the new and emerging Asian model of sport will produce the kind of elite athletes that could propel Asian countries to the top of leaderboards across the sporting world. The nature and scale of state intervention in sport does not, nevertheless, preclude the continuing global commercial development of sport, and so we are witnessing the on-going development of issues in the business and management of sport. Indeed, Qatar's first sport hedge-fund has recently been set-up, with the purpose of analyzing global sporting investment opportunities.

So, whither European and American sport? At this stage, talk about the death of European and North American sport would appear to be somewhat premature. The pervasive nature of the world's European sporting heritage should not be dismissed at random. Consider soccer: it is still the world's most popular game, is still played according to rules founded on the continent, and most of the globe's biggest and best known teams are European. At the same time, the market for sport in the United States remains the world's biggest and most buoyant. Indeed, with the NFL Super Bowl imminent, one is reminded of the scale, magnitude and impact of U.S. sport.

But the times, they are a changing. Endowed by resource wealth and motivated by concerted government strategies, Asian sport is on the move. There is already ample evidence that Asian sport is on the move: from investments in clubs and teams, through to successful bids for sporting mega-events. The next big challenges though for most Asian countries will be to extend their political influence at international level, demonstrate tangible impacts of sport upon society, and to deliver a succession of top-level elite performance athletes. In these aspects, Europe and North America are still ahead. The future of global sport is therefore going to be an interesting game.