Professional sport. A dominator of media outlets. A magnet attracting thousands of fans who flock to mass events on any given weekend. A creator of bonds between like-minded fans; a cultivator of rivalries against the opposition. A generator of those longing feelings of involvement, validation and belonging. The athletes who grace the sporting arenas are often put on pedestals, and subsequently praised and revered for their athletic capabilities – and in most cases, rightly so. Some of the best athletes in history have captured the imagination of many with their ability, skill, winning mentality and desire to compete successfully in their respective fields. Fueled by passion and professional pride, athletes use the stage they are on to exhibit their talents and realise years of hard work. But the world of sport in recent years has taken a sharp turn away from the integrity and passion of honest sporting competition, towards the economically-driven world of corporate commercialism. Ownership of large sports franchises, eye-watering sums of money generated from television rights and merchandising, corporate sponsorship and athlete management have all contributed to the monster that is the commercial side of sport - more money than ever is changing hands across all forms of professional sporting competition. This level of corporate and commercial influence has changed sport forever, and it begs the question; is professional sport now purely an entertainment industry? Or does it remain a realm where the main focus is on the integrity and professionalism of athletic competition on the biggest stage?
A look at the burgeoning commercial side of sports could lead us to believe that the primary focus is to entertain consumers; rising prices of live sports tickets, merchandise and television packages are some of the ways in which commercialism has manifested itself in sports. Perhaps most intriguing are the eye-watering figures that the top sports leagues command for television rights; this certainly makes a case for sports simply being a product that is bought and sold – and as a provision of entertainment above everything else. The ongoing media coverage of global sport is another form of sports consumption that has grown incessantly, and it continues to deflect attention away from on-field competition, to the various talking points, narratives and hypotheses that derive from said competition. This has led to the on-field feats of the athletes almost becoming an afterthought, and instead the debates and talking points that provide entertainment have, at times, taken precedence. We can also look to the treatment of today's athlete as a near-commodity in today’s global sporting scene as further evidence that professional sport can be seen as a form of entertainment. Players in large sports leagues are bought, sold and traded on an open market and often not for use value; but rather to make a ‘statement’ - or with resale value in mind. And how do the media respond? By inflating the importance of these transactions, generating continuous fanfare and creating talking points – again, with the entertainment factor a possible catalyst.
But, beyond all of this, there still remain profoundly strong arguments for sports to not be seen simply as a source of entertainment. The origins of sport in its purest form have, time and again, revealed its individual and collective virtues. Sport should be respected for its continued ability to generate and nurture character-building virtues such as leadership, teamwork, passion and dedication. These intrinsic values of sport still remain rooted in competition at the highest level, regardless of the continued media sensationalism that – unfortunately or not – continues to surround it. We can also take into consideration the strength of the legacy left by top athletes, past and present. Despite the continued presence of global commercialism in modern professional sport, the fact remains that world-class athletes are remembered for one thing and one thing only – their performances and athletic aptitude. Past greats such as Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona and Jonah Lomu captivated audiences for years with their ability to do stellar things in their respective sports, and the reality is that they will be remembered for these feats for years to come. So even in the face of continued sporting hyperbole from media and consumers alike, the performance levels of the most valued athletes of our time remains timeless. Another factor which can separate sports from entertainment is the fact that sports cannot be predicted. Unlike a music concert, where legions of fans see a revered artist play out their greatest hits, or a movie with familiar actors and predictable plot-lines, the beauty of professional sport is that we have no idea what is going to happen until the match is officially over. The capacities of these athletes are responsible for producing the result - either individually or as part of a team - and this fact shouldn’t be forgotten, regardless of whether their skills and talents are sensationalised for entertainment value.
It’s difficult to not be enthralled by professional sports in one way or another these days. Whether you consume it in a way similar to movies and music and love the spectacle created on a weekly basis, or you pay world-class athletes homage to their outstanding feats on the field, court or the ice – there are a multitude of opinions about professional sport in its various forms. The digital age we now live in has elevated sports into a realm beyond anything seen in the past, and this has contributed heavily to it possibly being viewed as a primary source of entertainment. But we can’t forget what sporting figures are capable of. Their competence and efforts on the big stage lead to accolades, achievements and rewards, and the best of the best leave legacies that remain for years. The consistency of the top athletes in professional sporting competition is not something to take lightly, and whilst their sporting qualities have the capacity to entertain us – we perhaps shouldn’t be so quick to label sports as entertainment. Or should we...