This Christmas marks the 100th anniversary one of the most beautifully tragic moments in the history of sport. On Christmas Day, 1914, German and British soldiers removed themselves from their trenches to exchange gifts and fraternize. Many groups played football and far too many of these men would be killed over the next four years of war. This was not the first time sport and war crossed paths. The British played cricket on the eve of Waterloo and soldiers during the American Civil War played baseball, with one Union game reportedly watched by 40,000 soldiers.
Sport in all forms is generally thought to be a proxy for combat. In certain societies it is part of religious ritual or a test of masculinity. It has always been a source of social entertainment. To that end, there are few subjects that inspire a nostalgia stronger than sports. The “I saw this great player” or “I watched that championship team” or “I visited that stadium/arena” are conversation topics that have graced the generations of sporting societies from the Olympic-mad Greeks, hipball-mad Mayans and gladiator-mad Romans to today’s football-mad Europeans, football (of the more violent variety)-mad Americans and cricket-mad South Asians. But as generations, cultures and societies change, so do the sports that provide their entertainment.
Predicting what sports will look like ten or twenty years down the road has become somewhat of a cottage industry. These articles are generally split between either the science of future athletics, for instance the technologies that allow athletes to become to go faster, higher and stronger, and the differing ways in which vast sums of money can be made from those athletes. None (at least that I’ve found) have taken a serious look at what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “global sports landscape” will look like further down the road, say 100 years from now. This is probably because many of these predictions, like this one from 2000 looking at sport in 2010 and envisaging ‘gene-doping’ and a global soccer league, are often far too future-centric and ignore the fact that sport, prior to the decades surrounding 1900, had changed very little for centuries.
So what exactly did the global sports landscape look like 100 years ago when Tommy and Fritz went peacefully “over the top”? For the sake of brevity, let’s narrow this conversation to five of the currently most popular sports in terms of attendance, revenue and participation: football/soccer, American football, basketball, cricket and baseball and call them the “Big Five”.
Well, for all intents and purposes there was no “global sports landscape” that anyone today would recognize. Most profound though was the fact that professionalism was just becoming accepted practice after decades of derision at the hands of amateur purists. While the first professional baseball league was founded in the late 1860’s and cricket – both professional and amateur – had been an international spectator sport for over 50 years (the first international match was between the US and Canada, representing the British Empire, in 1844), paying players was outlawed by the Football Association until 1885 and only came into rare practice in the American version in the 1890’s. Basketball, invented only in 1891, was quickly spreading across the US via the YMCA network and became professional in 1898. The fact was that sport was an amateur pastime, played by local clubs or schools against rivals. Sport itself was rarely a for-profit business (sports gambling was another story entirely), let alone a global industry.
The great divide that existed between professionals and amateurs was a result of the stratified class structure, which – along with the rest of society – was left shattered by World War I. While thousands of athletes fought in the trenches, their leagues – both professional and amateur – were paused or shrunk, but upon their return home, professional leagues were given a new boost. The first radio broadcast of a sporting event was a professional baseball game in Pittsburgh in 1921 and following that came the first televised sporting event, the 1936 Olympics.
Yet even with the beginnings of what we, today, would recognize as our sporting landscape, the games themselves looked very different. The forward pass in American football was just one of many changes forced on the game around 1905 due to the increasing number of crippling injuries and deaths. In basketball, the continuous dribble was instituted in 1909 and the current incarnation of offsides in European football was not codified until 1925. All of these produced enormous tactical and strategic adjustments (for football’s tactical evolution see Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathon Wilson) not to mention aesthetic changes that took decades to develop. In the process, sport became safer and more entertaining, and thus more marketable. In the thirty or so years surrounding the turn of the last century, the global sports landscape changed more than it had in the previous several centuries. Over the next 50, it would change even more.
The birth of the modern middle class in America and Western Europe in the years directly following World War II and the accompanying economic growth cemented the professionalization of sport alongside modern fandom. This symbiotic relationship defines today’s global sports landscape. The third quarter, to borrow a term, of the 20th century (roughly 1950-1975) saw the rise of Europe-wide football competitions, the absorption of two other professional American football leagues into the NFL, the foundation of the National Basketball Association and merger in the 1970 with the short-lived American Basketball Association, the expansion of Major League Baseball into the western US, and the abolition of amateurism in cricket. As the leagues and industries surrounding the sports became more powerful, television rights and sponsorship money flowed in.
The results of all this would shock the founders of the leagues and sports, let alone the amateurs of a century ago. In 2014, revenues for the global sports industry from tickets, media rights and sponsorships will be roughly $80 billion. If you add in sporting goods, apparel, equipment and health and fitness spending, that number balloons to about $700 billion, totaling 1% of global GDP (via).
So where do we go from here?
With this much money on the line, the establishment of all these sports will be keen to keep the fans, their perpetual ATMs, pleased while maintaining the economic status quo and opening new sources of revenue. This means the types of rule changes and rapid evolution that were seen in the early part of the 20th century are extremely unlikely unless they are absolutely necessary.
Of the Big Five, perhaps only cricket, with the advent of the Twenty20 revolution in the past decade, has fundamentally changed since World War II. Basketball has instituted the three-point field goal and shot clock but these are really only superficial additions. American football has simply skewed its rules to favor the offense while football and baseball, those bastions of traditionalism, have only just recently managed to institute technological aids to officiating, a concept the other sports instituted over a decade ago.
The real trend line for the Big Five and their respective leagues is in finding new markets for their product (after all, that is what sports have become this century). For football, the job is easy; the sport has touched and been accepted by nearly every corner of the globe. Even the US, long a global outlier for football fandom, is slowly coming around to the English Premier League and the game in general.
For cricket and American football, the goals seem to be similar: break out of their traditional markets and find fans that didn’t know they liked the sport. The NFL is currently attempting this in the UK with marginal success after several attempts to break into Europe and ESPN, now an international broadcasting powerhouse, has targeted cricket as a product worth investment.
The NBA perhaps saw the opportunity for globalization first and has over the past two decades invested in spreading to China, becoming one of the “most popular brands” in the country of 1.357 billion. Finally, Major League Baseball, while seeing a steady increase in revenue, has experienced a plateau in attendance and seems content to rest on its traditional base (pun somewhat intended) in the US as well as parts of Asia and Latin America.
The truth is that economic systems worth as much as the sports industry do not change easily and are targets for critique, much of it well deserved. The NFL and American football in general is having to take a hard look at itself in light of recent scandals surrounding head injuries and its hyper-masculine culture. FIFA, football’s governing body, has been racked by allegations of corruption and match-fixing has reared its ugly head in ways that the sport of cricket is all too familiar with. Baseball is having trouble connecting with urban culture and has seen a drop in African-American players in recent years in addition to the aforementioned attendance plateau, which may foretell a larger malaise. These problems will be dealt with once sponsors or governments start to become involved. There is too much money is on the line for them to be ignored for too long.
In all probability, we will recognize the global sports landscape in 2114 a lot more than our great-grandparents in 1914 would recognize today’s. Barring any global revolution or catastrophe, the Big Five are best situated to continue to dominate the global market while inventing new ways to provide their product to their fans. Niche fandoms like auto racing, rugby, hockey (both ice and field) and growing spectacles like mixed martial arts and electronic sports (yes, video gaming, backed by the gaming industry, is becoming an evermore influential player in the entertainment and sports world) will survive on the periphery and compete for a larger slice of the pie with maybe one and possibly two emerging to make a Big Six or Seven. For better or worse, the now 60ish year-old structure of the global sports industry was built to last.
One thing is for sure: as they have done for centuries, men and women (not robots) will be pushing their bodies to ever-higher/faster/stronger limits in competition against other men and women (again, not robots) for the entertainment of many and – as the case has been for at least the past 50 years – for the profits of a few.
 The FA is the original governing body for European football/soccer and is still the national federation for England, i.e. the FA Cup