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US sport: A marketer’s dream

This weekend, I watched a cricket match. I don’t mean I joined some fellow South Africans and crammed into one of the few pubs in the city that broadcasts cricket and rugby. No, I mean I watched a live cricket game, which, in the US, is about as rare an event as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t anything major, just a modest Saturday club match, with both teams made up of Brits, South Africans, Australians, Indians and Pakistanis all melted together on the same team. If it were an international game, they’d all be sworn enemies, but it seems that when the point of commonality is that you’re lucky to even find others who play the same sport as you do, even the most fundamental rivalries can be set aside.

As I spent the afternoon watching the red ball being smacked around within the sea of cricket whites amid calls of “howzaaaaaaaat!”, I have to admit that after a year and a half of watching American sport, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Before the critics jump up and down saying how ungrateful I am to be here, I promise you I am not. It’s simply that I have a permanent, incurable condition: I’m South African. That means that I grew up on a diet of cricket and rugby, not baseball or American football. So to sit for a day and watch a sport with which I am completely familiar with was unusual, and something I realise I took for granted before I moved here.

Sure, I’ve learnt the basics of American sports, but I don’t have the nuanced knowledge that you can only really have if you’ve grown up around a particular sport and that, to me, makes it interesting to watch. So because I don’t know the intricate details, and I don’t have a particular affinity or allegiance to any team, I’m never really invested in what I’m watching. I am sure Americans living in South Africa feel the same way, and also ask the same stupid questions about cricket (how do they know when to stop running between the bases, I mean, wickets?) that I ask about baseball (oh so you mean the teams switch when only three players go out?).

But I digress.

The main reason I felt relief was because I was watching a game where it was still all about the sport. It reminded me of going to Newlands, whether for rugby or cricket, where even if you’re watching provincial or international games, you’re largely left in peace to watch, besides the odd billboard and sponsor logo. That may sound like an obvious statement, but here, commercialisation of sport is on another level altogether, for the viewer especially. If you watch a live baseball or basketball game, every minute of your time is catered for. It’s more than just a game; you’re watching a production, a show complete with support acts and intermission gigs. Downtime during the game for the live crowd (perfectly timed for commercial breaks) means a constant barrage of sponsored songs, singalongs, trivia quizzes and contests on big screens around the stadium. Sometimes I get the feeling that the only reason the sport is being played is so that the sponsors have a medium through which to advertise. Even at college level, it’s big business. This is no Ikeys vs Maties on the UCT fields. College football games are televised, there are big deal sponsorships, contracts, betting odds and business interests.

I know that sponsorships make the sports world go round. They help players earn a living, and keep the teams in business and the games on television. But here, it’s more than just paying the athletes to survive. Media companies pay big money for broadcasting rights, and advertisers pay a premium to promote their brand during an event’s screening. Star athletes are paid multi-million sums: basketball players Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal both earned over $30million in 2007, and some US sports teams are franchises that are worth more than the gross domestic products of some African countries. At this level of commercialisation, in a country where you already have to deal with a daily onslaught of interruption marketing on a grand scale, to be a spectator amid all this is at times exhausting.

Of course it’s not just American sports that are like this. Most professional sports the world over are sophisticated marketing machines, and one only has to look at the salaries of top European footballers to see evidence of this. But at its most basic level, we watch sport to enjoy the superior skills on display by the best athletes in their field. And while anyone watching the last NBA final can hardly dispute the skills on display, I can’t help thinking that the essence of why people enjoy sport is being diluted and distracted here with all the marketing baggage that comes along with it. Or, maybe this is just the way sport is in a capitalist country: its partner, the commercial sponsor, is a necessary evil, no matter how in excess it may be.