Former world number one Novak Djokovic came back from six months off the tennis circuit due to an elbow injury to play the Australian Open at the start of the new season. The first of four grand slam tournaments between January and September takes place in Melbourne at the height of Australia’s summer. In recent years, it has become sport’s most dramatic illustration of the effects of global warming. Year after year, daytime temperatures climb to increasingly unbearable levels for the players, many of whom are forced to retire before completing their best-of-five set match.
Early in the tournament, after several hours struggling in extreme heat to defeat Gael Monfils, Djokovic expressed his growing concern. Here is how he describes the state of tennis today: “Our sport has become an industry. It’s more business than a sport. At times I don’t like that. Of course, we’re all blessed to have great financial compensation, great lives. I’m very grateful for that. At the same time, what is most important for us is our health and what happens after our careers, after you’re 30, 35.”
This raises a serious question: Does it make sense to call an individual sport in which two players strike a ball on opposite sides of a net an industry? Perhaps the word “industry” has changed its meaning.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Every human activity from which a profit can be earned. Formerly, industry only applied to those human activities that required high levels of investment and organization to produce and distribute goods.
Sport is one of the mainstays of the attention economy. When traditionally shared social values end up in tatters as a result of ever-increasing consumerist individualism, people turn to competitive sport as an alternative to religion, patriotism and politics — on which no one can agree — to anchor their loyalties and even their identity. The movers and shakers of the attention economy have seized the occasion and progressively exploited the trend to the point at which the athletes themselves have become products and the most successful ones brands in their own right. The uncontested stars of their sport attract far more revenue from their chosen corporate sponsors than from the increasingly well-endowed prize money they earn from competing.
Djokovic doesn’t fail to express his gratitude for the windfall this represents for his own well-being. But in moments like these, when it becomes obvious that the power of commercial interests dwarfs the power and skill of finely tuned athletes and endangers their livelihood, the Serbian champion allows himself to express some minor misgivings about the cynicism of a system more focused on a sponsor’s bottom line than the court’s rectangular white lines and the players’ longevity.
There is a double movement in the modern history of sports and tennis in particular. Amateur sports were long considered the ideal. To qualify for the Olympic Games and to participate in a tennis grand slam (Paris, Wimbledon, New York, Melbourne) one had to be an amateur. Pros were not allowed to compete. As a result, for most of the 20th-century amateur athletes were often held in higher esteem than professionals. Exactly 50 years ago, in 1968, the four prestigious grand slam tennis tournaments became “Opens,” allowing professional tennis players to compete for the first time.
The growing popularity of televised sporting events opened the door to sponsorship on a dramatically new level. Famous athletes had always been courted by commercial interests, but this is when the trend to brand everything began. Athletes themselves became first products and then brands. Today, their image is often managed by their direct sponsors and they are coached to “say nice things” about the sponsors of events, who made it possible for them to compete. The organizers of major tournaments, which attract hundreds of millions of spectators through the media, have become adept at milking every possible profit out of their events and the performing athletes, even when their health may be at risk.
The sport, in other words, has become the window dressing of an industry. The athletes, to a large extent interchangeable — with the exception of stars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have become their cash cow or the goose that lays the golden eggs. Djokovic, followed by Nadal, has allowed himself to wonder out loud how many more golden eggs their industrial masters will allow them to lay.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)