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date: 15 October 2019

Mobility and Value in Global Sport

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Sport offers a unique path to mobility to men—and to a much lesser degree women—who are members of disadvantaged groups and whose options for seeking a better life are otherwise limited. This mobility may be either social class mobility—as in basketball as a way out of racially segregated ghettos in the United States—or geographic mobility—as in the migration of soccer and rugby players from the Global South to the Global North in order to play in professional leagues there. Sport mobility potentially differs from the mobility based on manual and menial labor that is the more common path for such groups because successful professional athletes are regarded as heroes both by urban elites in their transplanted homes and by their compatriots back in their home neighborhoods, villages, and countries. At the same time, the hope to migrate to a successful career is often thwarted by the same structural conditions that thwart ordinary migrants’ mobility.

Different sports are associated with different social values that reflect the race, gender, social class, national, and global structures of power that underpin them. Until the past few decades, sports acquired their social value through a process of distinction in which gender, class, racial, and other differences were exaggerated by strategies of inclusion and exclusion. These differences were most closely guarded in sports organized by exclusive clubs, but they were also defended by other types of organizations such as schools and professional leagues. In the West, where most global sports originated, this produced a system of contrasting relationships between sport meanings: for example, golf, tennis, figure skating, and equestrian sports signified elite social status, while soccer, boxing, and—at least at the elite levels—basketball, baseball, and American football were identified with athletes from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. In this way, sports produced an embodied social value in the form of the bodies of individual athletes, and until the last decades of the 20th century, this value was largely traded in the realm of symbolic capital and not economic capital—with the exception of a comparatively small number of athletes in professionalized sports. Furthermore, the embodied values of sports varied greatly between localities, nations, and world regions, shaped by the class structure, history, and culture of the body in a given locale.

However, at the end of the 20th century, the embodied values of many—if not most—individual sports became increasingly unmoored from their local, regional, ethnic, or national values and more tightly embroiled in global sport systems that have become increasingly commodified. Team sports, such as soccer, baseball, basketball, rugby, cricket, and ice hockey, and individual sports, such as tennis, golf, track and field, gymnastics, figure skating, and boxing, saw a large increase in the transnational mobility of athletes and coaches. These developments in the sports world reflected global changes in the global political economy: revenues from television broadcasting rights fees skyrocketed as television networks were privatized and proliferated; corporate sponsorship and advertising expanded along with the new television platforms; increasingly multinational sources of capital (such as corporations and billionaire team owners) were infused into sports; and elite athletes’ salaries, sponsorships, and transfer fees increased vertiginously in the most popular sports and seeped downward in the system. Clubs and teams began searching for talent further and further afield, bringing over players from the developing world. In US college sports (an anomaly on the world scene), the training of children toward the goal of gaining athletic scholarships became a growing industry that has even extended into China. In the Global South, at the same time, neoliberal development policies resulted in the reorganization or, in some cases, destruction of local agriculture and other forms of local production, as well as the social and economic relations that had been attached to them. Young men, who were particularly affected, now had to migrate to find employment and thus achieve the ideal of productive adult masculinity. These two factors produced a remarkable increase in the number of athletes from developing countries seeking employment as professionals in the industrialized world. For ever greater numbers of athletes, then, the embodied value of the body was no longer limited to symbolic or social capital but was all about economic capital.

The commodification of the sporting body and the transnationalization of the structures that determine its value provide novel and instructive insight into the changing nature of the global political economy since the end of the 20th century.