Sports stars as brands
Celebrity and money have created sports stars who are more "brands" than individuals--down to the trademarking of personal phrases.
THE YEAR before England won the 1966 World Cup, I interviewed its captain, Bobby Moore. Having not long arrived from the antipodes, where "soccer" was a minority sport beloved by Italians and Croats, I didn't have a clue about the game.
Nevertheless, I had been assigned to write a "human interest" piece on the West Ham star by the same convivial assistant editor who had hired me believing I could play cricket, because I was Australian, and so assist the Daily Mirror team in its grudge match against the Express. I could swim and row and had done time in a rugby scrum, but cricket, no. (He forgave me).
I met Bobby Moore outside West Ham tube station, and we walked round the corner to a greasy spoon that was filled with Woodbine fug. People beamed and shook his hand, reinforcing my impression of a gracious, modest man. Here was a star in every sense--talent, looks, fame--and yet he seemed genuinely surprised by the fuss.
In the queue for tea and coffee, he patiently engaged an elderly fan who was hard of hearing. When I unwisely feigned knowledge of the game, he let me down gently. As we parted, he said, "Look, this is a bit embarrassing, but I've got this agent and he's asked me to ask for 50 quid for the interview." I said I would pass it on to my editor; I don't know if he was paid, and I doubt if he cared.
I remembered Bobby Moore when I read about another sporting star, Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian tennis seed and famous air-puncher. For all his classy, often tireless play, Hewitt's behavior on court has always been difficult to watch, because he gives the impression only he matters. His aggressive "C'mon!" and fist pumping are his trademark, literally. He is not merely a tennis player; he is Brand Hewitt, which is owned by Lleyton Hewitt Marketing Pty Ltd., which owns the rights to two "C'mon" logos.
Lleyton Hewitt Marketing, or LHM, recently suffered a defeat against a sports fan in Australia, Josh Shiels, who since 2004 has used "Come on" to promote his struggling sportswear business. In a statement, LHM says that it has no problem with other parties owning trademarks incorporating "C'mon" and "Come on"; however, having been "threatened" by Shiels and asked to "surrender" its own trademarks, it requested that the Trade Marks Office cancel one registered to Shiels on the basis that he failed to use it.
At an intellectual property hearing in Canberra, Shiels said that his wife and daughters had designed the logo and his business had sold "about 10 shirts." He pointed out that "come on" had been a popular catch cry in Australia since world series cricket began in the 1970s; there was even a song. The hearing officer decided that, however meager Shiels's business, he had the right to make use of the words. Shiels is left fearing he will face a re-match.
THE STARK contrast between Bobby Moore and Brand Hewitt is telling because it represents what has been lost and is a reminder of the ubiquitous nature of extreme corporatism. It seems that no idea, no event, no talent, no personality, no resource of nature has value unless it is owned and branded. When the public water supply of Bolivia's second city, Cochabamba, was sold off to a foreign consortium, rainwater was included. The clouds became the property of multinationals--until the people fought back, and won.
The pursuit of profit in sport seems unrelenting. Having said goodbye to foreign sports writers and their platitudinous eulogies for the "rainbow nation," the South African treasury reckons it put $5 billion into the World Cup while corporate sponsors took home more than $4 billion in tax-free profits.
All those corporate parties, free tickets, kickbacks and other "gifts" merely indulged a post-apartheid elite which presides over the most inequitable society on earth. Since 2008, during the feverish building of stadiums, several of them unnecessary, more than a million people lost their jobs. In the wake of the World Cup, 1.3 million public sector workers have struck for a living wage.
The South African police now have paramilitary powers comparable with the apartheid era. A new Protection of Information Bill before parliament will conceal the corruption of the ruling African National Congress "wabenzi" (identifiable by their large silver Mercedes). "If journalists have to be fired [or go to prison], because they don't contribute to the South Africa we want," said the ANC spokesman, "let it be."
In India, a similar re-branding is under way for next month's Commonwealth Games. In the country that has most of the world's malnourished children, the capital Delhi has been re-branded a "world class city" at a cost of $2.5 billion. A school for 180 slum children has been bulldozed so that a vast estate of luxury apartments can be built for visiting athletes. "They told us we were a security threat so we had to go," said the headteacher. "All my children were crying."
It is one of many demolitions; over 100,000 families have been evicted to make way for "security zones" around the Games and facilities that will mostly benefit India's small but powerful managerial and technocratic class who, besotted with all things corporate, prefer not to be reminded that 77 percent of their compatriots are dirt poor.
Corporate sport has enriched Rupert Murdoch, corrupted cricket and much of football, subverted numerous other play and appropriated the Olympics and similar spectacles. Its language is that of business schools, PR companies, consultancies and banks. Its "philosophy" is that everything is for sale and monopoly rules. Just wear the logo, pump your fist and bellow, "C'mon!"
First published in the New Statesman.