Sport and the Spectacle of Monopolised Surplus Accumulation

What can we learn about modern capitalism from the ‘super league’ fiasco? Phil Hearse takes a look

The European Super League is off the agenda – for the moment. Dave Kellaway’s excellent article on this site succinctly shows why it failed this time around.

But the ESL clearly conformed to the direction of travel of monopolised surplus accumulation at this stage of late neoliberalism. The project, or something very like it, will be back. In any case, the existing Premier League was in its foundation a breakaway of the elite, and is already a monopolised world product, with American and Gulf state owners, Italian, German, Dutch, and Spanish managers, and obsessive fans from Lagos to Shanghai.

Today, vast amounts of the economic surplus are captured at the point of consumption. The key monopoly players in consumption – in this case, the big soccer clubs, but acting just like Amazon, Disney, and Apple – seize monopoly super-profits from competitors and customers alike.

They do it by controlling the content and super-centralising it. Modern celebrity culture fetishises the stars – pop stars, film stars, sports stars – downgrading and de-legitimising those ‘below’ them.

Despite the perpetuation of mass events (Covid-19 notwithstanding), the key distribution of the products of the entertainment monopolists is audiovisual, on television, or other platforms like smartphones and tablets. This is where vast amounts of super-profits are made, but those who capture most of the value extracted from consumers are not the performers or sports clubs, awash with money though they may be, but the infotainment giants like Apple, Sky, Google, and its subsidiary YouTube.

The way this works was perfectly foreshadowed Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation … The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.’[1]

This of course is an exaggeration. But the consumption of sport is overwhelmingly at one remove and priced out of reach of many workers. This is best illustrated by cricket’s Indian Premier League, founded in 2006. This has only eight teams and lasts 60 days, and pre-Covid it played to packed stadiums. However, in a 60-day period, total stadium attendance is only about 3.5 million, compared with 700 million TV and digital viewers who watch the games worldwide.

The IPL business model is clear. The current owners of the franchise, Star Media, sell the TV rights to over 100 TV outlets and audiovisual platforms like YouTube and earn vast profits. The eight clubs, all owned by billionaires, get money from the Indian cricket authorities and advertisers. But if Indian cricket is rolling in money, it mainly comes from TV.

American sports stadiums are huge, there are many of them, and entry prices are lower than in the UK. Nonetheless, the money in Major League Baseball, the American Football League, and the National Basketball League is mainly from TV. These three sports, together with cricket and soccer, are easily the most viewed and richest sports. The most attended league in a single country is baseball in the United States, at about 70 million spectators a year pre-Covid.

The IPL is the most successful example of the recent eruption of a truly global sport based on TV and digital platform consumption. Most of the fans of the world’s top batsman,[2] Virat Kohli, will never see him in person. This ‘distancing’ is true of most mass sports, most of the time, but sport’s distance from live working-class fans has been getting wider, often because of huge admission prices at live games.

Whether or not a revamped European Super League ever comes off, the business model across all major sports is the same – a world product, with world-recognised stars, which drives TV subscription channels like Sky Sport and ESPN, but also more general channels like Amazon Prime, who increasingly want a slice of the action.

Sport is central to these world media empires, and they need recognisable stars.[3] The top sportspeople earn vast sums, like Roger Federer ($106m in 2020), Lionel Messi ($104m), and Lewis Hamilton ($52m), but this is peanuts compared with what they earn for monopolised infotainment.

How does all this fit together with Guy Debord’s concept of the ‘spectacle’ of late capitalism? Debord saw how modern mass media enabled the creation of a fetishised, fantasy dream world that integrated film, TV, fashion, politics, and sometimes business into an alienated conception of the world that invades the inner ‘lifeworld’[4] of the masses – a ‘separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at’.

Like sport, fashion demonstrates this perfectly. The multi-millioned ‘fashionistas’ may never get to go to a show by Burberry or Mugler – they will certainly never get to wear their products. But they can follow the shows, the models, and the styles online and in magazines, engage in online chat, and even set up their own fan sites, which, if very successful, will be bought out by fashion/media giants like Condé Nast.[5] The fact that most haute couture fashion is unaffordable and unwearable is actually structured into fashion shows, which are spectacles to advertise the brand, not fundamentally to show wearable garments.

Fashion is linked into the often hyper-sexualised dream-world of the spectacle at multiple interlocking levels. Top models become highly valuable brands in themselves, with tens of thousands of Instagram followers. Pop singers work as models and models become film actresses. Images of fashion, especially models, become highly valuable commodities. Photo agency Getty Images tries to photograph every significant fashion event, launching giant revenue streams.

Like the Matrix in the Wachowski brothers’ film, the spectacle is simultaneously an illusion and a lived reality. Obsessive fandom – in sport, music, fashion, and celebrities – is the perfect mechanism of integration, psychologically as well as financially, into some of the most morbid features of the spectacle. As Best and Kellner explain it:

‘The spectacular society spreads its narcotics mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialised media culture. This structural shift to a society of the spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonised sectors of social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure, desire, and everyday life.’[6]

At the core of the spectacles like sport and fashion are the cash-rich infotainment and hi-tech platform companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Content providers like the big football clubs are often highly leveraged – swimming on a pile of debt that is probably unrepayable. This is classically ‘fictitious capital’, money created by the banks. As more and more product is captured by subscription services, consumer access is financed by debt – fictitious capital.

Content capture by the giants is demonstrated by the 2018 movie Roma,[7] which won the best director Oscar for Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. This is a brilliant and moving film about the life of an indigenous young woman who is a maid in Mexico City. Roma was made by Netflix and only got a brief run in cinemas, leading to complaints from cinema chains like Vue in Britain, that the movie had only been put momentarily in cinemas to make it eligible for award nominations. Which was true, but in the nature of the contemporary infotainment beast. Netflix is not going to finance a movie, then allow cinemas to capture significant parts of the value it generates. The border between cinema, TV and online films has long been porous and is now collapsing. Independent film producers will have to fit into the Netflix, Disney, and Amazon Prime-dominated world – that is the way things are. If they do create big movie hits, the cash will go elsewhere. Mostly, unless they produce the type of homogenised crime, sci-fi, rom-com, or action thrillers the big platforms want, they will just be frozen out.

As Steve Best and Douglas Kellner put it:

‘For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticisation; it is a ‘permanent opium war’ … which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life – recovering the full range of their human powers through revolutionary change.’[8]

[2] The success of Kohli and the IPL has given impetus to the old adage that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.
[3] This is why Tennis has been so reluctant to let go of the old stagers Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. They are mega-giant stars. And why they were, begin the official tut-tutting, willing to allow Maria Sharapova to come back from doping allegations.
[4] The term lifeworld comes from Husserl, but was popularised in modern philosophy by Jürgen Habermas.
[5] See Tanzi Hoskins’ book Stitched Up, Pluto Press.
[7] Roma her refers to the administrative district of Mexico City, not the Italian capital.

Phil Hearse is a member of the National Education Union and a supporter of the ACR

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