July 2023. A summer rant. Because, surely, enough is enough.
The world is a mess, a global pandemic barely in the rearview mirror. In its place remains war on an endlessly cruel scale, as well as the perils of climate extremes, famine, and racism. Never mind gross economic, health and social inequalities.
For millions, sport has been, is, and can be a salve. It has the potential to do so much good, as a teacher, as a form of exercise, as a pillar of community. As a source of regional, provincial, and national pride. It provides endless talking points, highs, and lows. Joy and disappointment. Risk and reward. Raw emotion. Fosters an identity. Is a source of motivation, creativity, and artistry.
And yet, certainly at the professional level, it threatens to price itself out of existence.
Take basketball, hockey, football, soccer, baseball. Seasons reach a crescendo. Champions are crowned. Then comes a frantic and frenzied reordering, complete with over-hyped drafts, trade demands, actual trades, transfers, free agency, outrageous new contracts. Billions of dollars change hands in the blink of an eye as costs and salaries spiral madly out of control.
It is all getting a bit ridiculous.
By way of argument, take Bruce Brown. My favourite NBA player. Tough, adaptable, and versatile. A high character, 6’4” blue-collar wing, the type of reliable, fearless performer no successful team can do without. One who plays big, who screens, rebounds, and defends. This past season, as a pivotal member of the victorious Denver Nuggets, he puts himself in line for a healthy payday.
Happily, ever the exception, he announces that he plans to remain in the Mile High city. For the chance to win. For a team on the cusp of becoming a league dynasty.
“Money is not everything,” he declares.
Until it is, as days later Brown triples his wages, finding $US 45 million reasons to sign a two-year deal with the lowly and rebuilding Indiana Pacers.
Much more is to follow, and on the unlikeliest of stages. After months of rumour, conjecture, and speculation, Inter Miami FC, a bottom feeder in North America’s Major League Soccer competition, trumpets the acquisition of a legend.
Unveiled as the city’s latest sporting superstar, he is arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. Fresh off winning a 2022 World Cup title with Argentina, scorer of more than 700 goals for European giants Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, another 103 for his country. Awarded the coveted Ballon d’Or, the sport’s most prestigious individual honour, a record seven times.
The money involved is simply staggering. Serious salary cap gymnastics, in relation to his designated player status, are required. Messi signs for an annual salary approaching $US 60 million, an amount greater than the 2023 combined team salaries of the Salt Lake, Orlando, New York, St. Louis, and Montreal franchises.
Also in the deal are equity in the club, as well as a proportion of league earnings from major sponsors Adidas and Apple.
Messi’s impact, at least off the field, is immediate. Twenty thousand supporters gather in pouring rain for his introductory press conference. The team quickly becomes the fifth most-followed American sports franchise on Instagram, numbers leaping overnight from 900,000 to almost nine million. Jersey sales skyrocket.
Moreover, standard prices for the remaining Miami home games this season rise by 700%. In addition, various ticket reselling websites ask an unthinkable, incredible, and unprecedented $US 110,000 entry fee to his first Leagues Cup appearance in Inter colours, July 25 vs Atlanta.
I hope the fans, and the league itself, are not too easily seduced. Despite the boatload of cash coming his way, Messi the player, now 36 years old, is on the decline. World Cup fame notwithstanding, past his prime. On field at least, unlikely to be a modern-day messiah. Mesmerizing to watch when he springs into action, calculating as always on opportunities to pounce, for lengthy periods he otherwise wanders about. Others must compensate for his lack of defensive interest or prowess. And all this for a poor and limited Miami side already wallowing deep in the basement of the league’s East Division, miles away from any possible playoff berth.
Perhaps, in the bigger picture, it is all of little consequence. Just more of the same. An underrated combo guard moves to Indiana, a soccer celebrity helps raise the profile of his sport in America. As is also the case with numerous other professional athletes in a restless and transactional era, at the very least their respective deals make each one of them much wealthier. No doubt, all can and will derive some short-term satisfaction in their achievements and earnings.
Yet, for me, major concerns remain. When will enough actually be enough? Players constantly shifting teams. The outrageous, obscene money involved. Bewildering and ludicrous ticket prices, which basically rule out all but the most affluent from attending games in person.
And even more to the point, the overall condition of modern sport. Indeed, marketing, sponsorship, player movement, and individual interests too often eclipse what actually happens on the court or the ice or the field.
So, when feeling tetchy and disenchanted, I again take refuge in the words of Rudyard Kipling, the celebrated English novelist, poet, and journalist.
He councils to “beware of overconcern for money, or ego, or position, or glory. For someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”