Commercialisation of Sport and Entrepreneurialism – An Interesting Dichotomy

by Alice Gallop

Toucan founder, Rasha Khawaja asks, “Why is it not possible to reconcile commercial gains ‎and a social conscious? Today it is imperative for all companies to consider the social impact that they can create through the work they choose to do.”

Commercialisation of sport is a bad thing…right?  Well, maybe. The point is that today we can enjoy Wayne Rooney’s antics on the pitch as we watch the match on Sky Sports, with our little brother wearing the latest Man U strip, whilst he eats Walkers crisps with Gary Lineker’s cheesy grin emblazoned over the packet. Commercialisation of sport has allowed many millions of people across the globe to get into sports which otherwise would have been closed to them and share comradery and fun whilst massively benefitting consumerism and the balance of payments all at the same time. And yet there is still something distasteful about the concept of commercialisation of sport.

The trouble is that money alters the equilibrium. Cash and its incentives lead to non-sporting behaviour. We can see the huge commercialisation of the Tour de France, with ‘Team Sky’ leading the way, creating a super knock-on impact on the entire cycling industry. But we wince when we hear about the endemic drug-taking of the cyclists themselves. However, the commercialisation of sport is nothing new. The original Olympics, back in 700BC, were all about full time professionals who were showered with cash by the city-states they represented. Curiously, the ancient Greeks didn’t even have a word for ‘amateur’… amateurs.   

Now, how does this commercialisation of sport compare with our favourite topic of entrepreneurialism? There seems to be an interesting dichotomy. In sport, we seek fairness – an equilibrium between opposing sides; whereas, in entrepreneurialism (at least, historically) we have been happy to accept a ‘winner takes all’ outcome. In fact, history treasures our entrepreneurial winners and rarely do we find much reference to those who came second – how many times have you been asked if you are on MySpace in the past year? In sport, we are amenable to applying handicaps to provide fair outcomes – the dreaded yellow and red cards. In business, this is rarely desirable.

But are things changing in the world of entrepreneurialism? Are we now beginning to crave a more sportsman like attitude? Perhaps, today, we only wish to applaud those who are able to take forward ideas which don’t crush those around them, who don’t destroy our planet and who create as much non-remunerative benefit for the citizens of the world as cash and fame for themselves. Of course, I am thinking of social entrepreneurialism. Years ago, the world’s acclaimed entrepreneurs would not think twice about treading on the fingers of those beneath them in order to rise up the ladder. Once successful, they would then think about diverting cash to charitable foundations – perhaps the Ford Foundation is one of the best known. Today, we expect new ideas and businesses to work in symbiotic partnership with those around them from the start.

Whilst the traditional entrepreneur typically measured performance solely in profit, revenue and (dare I say it) fame, social entrepreneurs take into account a positive return to society by blending broad social, cultural, and environmental goals. It is unlikely that John Bird had riches beyond his wildest dreams in mind when he founded the Big Issue. There are two reasons for the changing face of today’s entrepreneur versus the historical counterpart. First, society now demands it – the traditional face of ‘dog eat dog’ entrepreneurialism is now simply socially unacceptable. Secondly, the entrepreneur actually desires it, alongside their aspirations for success. 

Perhaps the next time we think of the commercialisation of sport and sigh wistfully at the thought of times gone by, we can at least salve our angst with the thought that today’s business entrepreneur has made equal moves in the opposite direction. Despite the fact that the structure of a modern baseball match is built around its ‘rest periods’, which neatly coincide with US TV stations commercial breaks (perhaps the epitome of modern sporting commercialisation), the arrival of today’s social entrepreneur somewhat outweighs this.