Local to Global: The Globalization of Sport

A few weeks ago Canadians celebrated their victory over Russia in World Junior Hockey Championship. Ten teams took part in the tournament from nations around the world. While thousands of Canadians were able to attend the games in Montreal and Toronto, and thousands of others travelled the long distance from their own countries, millions more tuned in to watch the games on television. While sport is primarily a community activity, over the last century and a half it has expanded its international reach considerably. It has managed to straddle the local and global with remarkable ease.

Competing against others in some form of physical activity has been a constant presence in societies throughout history. There is a vast variety of sport stretching back thousands of years, from wrestling in Sumer, to Greek Olympics, to Mesoamerican ball games, or Aborigine Woggabaliri. Today sport is a common activity for billions, either playing or watching, and has become a cultural product and commercial commodity. It is an integral part of our communities even as larger commercial enterprises become more and more involved in its economy and production.

Sport is a part of our culture. From the small local or school leagues to the billion dollar leagues of the National Hockey League or Major League Baseball, sports are played for the enjoyment of its players and its audience of millions. National communities across the globe have integrated sports into their national identities – just look at hockey in Canada or American football south of the border. Communities rally to cheer on their team or athletes – be it at the local baseball diamond, an arena, or their nation’s athlete(s) at an international competition on television. Watching these athletes has created a space for fans to experience a game collectively in stadiums, bars, and in the privacy of their own homes. At the same time, the popularity of sport has made it into a commodity. Billions of dollars are made from and spent on sports. Team owners, sporting goods companies, athletes and fans participate in the consumption of sport as a cultural and commercial product.

Part of the reason behind the expansion and success of sport is its global reach. The Olympics are the most famous example of international sport, but fans celebrate international tournaments like the Junior Worlds or the FIFA World Cup as well. We are the tail end of a long history of sport globalization, which first went global in the late 19th century. The first Olympics Games, held in the summer of 1896 in Athens, Greece, brought together 241 athletes from 14 nations to participate. In contrast, the 2012 London Olympic Games had 204 nations send 10,568 athletes!

The opening ceremony of the 1896 Summer Olympics via Wikipedia.

The opening ceremony of the 1896 Summer Olympics via Wikipedia.

The first process of sport internationalization emerged from a push for global standards to make sure that all players were playing the same game, as well as encouraging international competition between teams. One of the first international sports outside of the Olympics was Cricket. The English game spread across the world through its empire, as its colonies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India adopted the game from their colonial motherland. Alongside cricket, Europeans also increasingly played football at home and throughout their colonial territories.

Another sport to first develop a strong global profile was (surprising to us) tennis. As early as 1878, Dr. James Davis organized a semi-official tennis tournament in Newport, Rhode Island. He invited players from the United States, Canada, and England to participate. The Newport tournament continued to expand and was the original tournament eventually called the US Open in 1968. In 1900, one of the first international tennis tournaments was established, the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy, and American doubles champion Dwight Davis donated its prize: the Davis Cup. It was open to any nation that had created an official tennis association. In its first year, only the British Isles, Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, and the United States could participate. The sport continued to gain an international profile and by the 1920s, had some of its first sport celebrities: Suzanne Lenglen from France and Bill Tilden from the United States.

The globalization of sport has continued through the twin expansion of the technological and the commercial. Newspapers, radio, and television have all been key in communicating the results of sporting matches, or actively listening to games as they’re played. FIFA first televised the World Cup in 1956, and in 1960, so were the Summer Olympics. Television increased both the exposure of sports to a wider international audience, as well as the capability of commercial advertisement to profit from them. Advertising rights during events that attracted a high viewership (or listeners as the case may be) were proportionally worth more to advertisers and the organization hosting it. They paid to air commercials and corporate involvement become a key and profitable facet of sport as a result.

Likewise sponsorship by teams and players was another source of revenue, though it too is an old idea. In 1898, Nottingham Forest, the English football league champions, secured a commercial contract with the beverage company Bovril. In 1910, Gillette hired American baseball star Horus Wagner to sell razor blades and in 1926 Coca-Cola bought product-sampling rights for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games. Today, athletes appearing in commercials is a regular occurrence. One of the most prominent sponsors of sports is an obvious one: sporting goods companies. Nike, Reebok, or Adidas all employ athletes to sponsor their products, sometimes with great success. Any basketball fan knows of Nike’s Air Jordans. Sponsorship has also nurtured sport celebrity culture, where superstars like Michael Jordan, Pelé, Wayne Gretzky, or Peyton Manning (to name a few), are household names.

Sport continues to evolve alongside technology and their global audiences continue to thrive. Some events are almost required national spectacles, especially during the major world tournaments, but others have taken advantage of increased global reach to build up thriving fan bases. F1 Racing for instance has no centralized fan base in a single nation, but across the world it can attract 500 million viewers for its events. The internet has increasingly allowed new audiences to stream their favourite sporting events online, and provide yet more opportunity for advertisers to push their products to sports fans and continue to expand the sport economy.

Another new aspect of sport, which may be somewhat controversial, is the rise of so-called “e-sports.” Of course, whether or not it is a “sport” with so little physical activity is worth asking (its proponents might argue that quick reflexes are a physical skill) but otherwise e-sports are developing along similar lines with other sports. Competitive video games, like League of Legends or Starcraft, are attracting larger and larger audiences. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship saw the number one team win a $1 million prize as 27 million viewers as tuned in throughout the tournament. Like other sport leagues, corporate sponsors abound, though instead of sporting goods companies, you are more likely to see computer or gaming companies logos during the event.

Sports will continue to evolve and perhaps one day e-sports will be a profitable and well known part of them. The last century underlines a crucial aspect of any sport: its power to bring communities together. Even as different sports have become global sports, perhaps even losing local interest in playing them, they remain an important collective experience. They suggest that globalization does not always fray the ties of local communities, sometimes it just reorients them outward rather than inward.