The Sportocratic Apparatus

Michel Foucault suggests that an apparatus "has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need" (1980, p.195, emphasis added). I would argue that the demands of twentieth-century capitalism, particularly the Fordist system of mass production, created an urgent need for an apparatus that could effectively stimulate consumption and sell mass-produced goods; here I will introduce the concept of the sportocracy as one apparatus that evolved to meet this urgent need.

The first task is to define the sportocratic apparatus. Foucault (1980) describes an apparatus as "a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions — in short, the said as much as the unsaid" (p.194). Each of these elements contributes to the formation of the sportocracy and will be examined in turn.

As Shogan (1999) notes, there are many discourses that influence sport and the production of sport products, but the two that are most relevant to this discussion of the sportocratic apparatus are the discourses of sportification and the star system.

Sportification is a term used to describe the transformation of pre-modern ritualized play into modern rationalized sport (von der Lippe, 2001). Modern societies reproduced existing sports and created new sports in the fashion of the rationality seen in early capitalism; characteristics of these sports included secularism, equality of opportunity, specialization of roles, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, and the quest for records (Guttman, 1978). The sportification process standardized rules, the dimensions of playing spaces, etc., so that clubs from different towns could play against each other in a rational pre-determined fashion. While the rationality embodied in sportification may essentially be a non-universal construct of hegemonic masculinity (von der Lippe, 2001), it is nonetheless an essential element in the genesis of modern sport and the creation of the sportocracy.

As modern sport became commodified and developed a symbiotic relationship with the media, there arose a modern class of sports celebrity, the superstar athlete (Andrews & Jackson, 2001). While sports heroes had been feted in other historical eras, the rise of the modern sport superstar occurred at precisely the time in capitalism that a mechanism was needed to sell goods. The mass media discovered that sports games, and the heroes who played them, were an excellent means to sell more newspapers, which in turn also increased the value of advertising. These economies of scale achieved by the recognizability of the star athlete have increased with the introduction of new media into society, from radio and television to the Internet.

The institutions that sustain the discourses of the sportocratic apparatus include the professional sports leagues and their corporate sponsors, the media conglomerates and the videogame production companies, the sporting goods manufacturers and athletic footwear businesses, the International Olympic Committee, NCAA, and other sport governing bodies around the world, athletic therapists and orthopaedic surgeons, nutritional supplement manufacturers, player agents, and other related interests. Given the economic impact of sport globally, these institutions exert great force in sustaining sportocratic discourses.

Physically speaking, the sportocratic apparatus is supported (in the context of the sportification/superstar discourses) by a televisually panoptic stadium architecture. The evolution of the modern stadium created a class of disciplined spectators that allowed sport to be commodified (Bale, 1993). The addition of video cameras to this architecture accomplished two tasks: first, closed circuit television monitors made rowdy spectators more docile (Bale, 1993); second, television cameras broadcast games as highly-immersive mediated sports products beyond the confines of the stadium, which disciplined athletes and spectators at the stadium to act in disciplined fashions.

In keeping with Foucault's definition, the sportocratic apparatus also consists of a host of regulatory decisions, such as baseball's antitrust exemption and free agency, as well as scientific statements of score and statistics that allow for philosophical statements of Truth, which are based on winning and "putting up numbers". Moral propositions abound, but may be summarized in the debate surrounding "unethical" performance enhancers: the problem with the latter is that even though many of these are naturally-occurring substances, they undermine the essential philosophical premise of modern sport, a search for Truth.

The idea that sport represents some objective Truth is characteristic of modernity, and the heterogeneous elements of the sportocratic apparatus have evolved to support that idea. As Foucault notes:

"The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge" (1980, p.196).

I would argue that the rational nature of modern sport, and in particular its preoccupation with equality, quantification, and the quest for records, has created a sportocratic apparatus in which a particular type of knowledge — numerical score and statistics — is the determinant of Truth; in turn, the ensemble of forces within the sportocratic apparatus support this type of knowledge, most notably through economic reward. Athletes, then, are conditioned by the sportocracy to discipline their bodies in ways that most efficiently produce the numerical output that supports the rationality of modern sport. In doing so, a third discourse is beginning to make its presence felt in the world of professional team sport: the hybrid identity of the cyborg.

References:

Andrews, D.L. & Jackson, S.J. (2001). Sport stars. the cultural politics of sporting celebrity. London: Routledge.

Bale, J. (1993). Sport, space and the city. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Harvester Press.

Guttmann, A. (1978). From ritual to record. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shogan, D. (1999). The making of high-performance athletes: discipline, diversity, and ethics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

von der Lippe, G. (2001). Sportification processes: Whose logic? Whose rationality? Sport History Review, 32. 42-55.

The Creation of Cyborg Athletes

As major professional team sport has become increasingly mediated as part of a multi-channel distribution strategy, the ratio of the sports product mix has changed as well. Whereas uncertainty of outcome was almost exclusively the entire sports product many decades ago, the demands of post-industrial production have shifted the ratio in favour of the production of images and information. Though uncertainty of outcome still retains primacy in the sports product mix (and always will?), images and information have assumed increasing economic value as raw inputs in the fabrication of such upstream media products as: newspaper columns, radio and television broadcasts, highlight videos, Internet web sites, computer videogames, fantasy sports simulations, and a host of other applications.

This wealth of images and information, which is owned by leagues and other sports organizations and licensed to third-party manufacturers, is predicted to appreciate in our new media environment with its lowered technical barriers to entry (Hoskins et al., 1997). In essence, the leagues with the most archived history (in the form of images and information) will have a competitive advantage in the saturated marketplace of professional sport.

A recognition of this fact has increased the relative importance of image/information production for sports leagues and franchises, resulting in progressively more robust secondary media products. For those secondary media products that are interactive and role-playing — namely, sport videogames — this raises the question of how the participant-spectator dialectic has changed. Certainly, post-structuralist theory would suggest that the boundary between the two is permeable, and in effect, the performance distance between the two groups is closing (Hemphill, 1995).

Given the efficacy of the star system as a discourse in creating a consumer desire to be that individual, the robustness or "authenticity" of the simulation is paramount for commercialization. A cycle of dependency is created in which ever-more images and information are required in order to meet the demands of innovation in shorter product development windows. In meeting the demands of this dual production model of images/information and uncertainty, athletes assume a hybrid identity of competing discourses and metamorphose into cyborgs: half information-producing machines, half uncertainty-creating artists.

The notion of the cyborg — a hybrid entity that is part human, part machine — has been explored in art for over 150 years (Grenville, 2002), and has recently begun to creep into the humanities as well (see for example: Haraway, 1991 on feminist cultural discourse; Mirowski, 2002 on economics; or Mann & Niedzviecki, 2002, on wearable computing). Even more recently, the cyborg has been explored in sport: based on Haraway's (1991) landmark manifesto of cyborg identity, Shogan (1999) suggests that recognizing "all athletes are cyborgs produced by technology helps to dismantle the ability-disability binary and makes it possible to recognize other ways in which athletes are hybrids" (p.73). The context of her insight was in undermining the fashions in which sport (re)produces repressive structural ideologies, such as race, gender, or sexual preference. But the cyborg metaphor is even more fundamental than that. Not only are technologies of discipline productive of skilled bodies, but in concert with other biophysical and communications technologies, these skilled bodies are themselves productive of more highly-processed sport products for consumption as well. They are true factories.

As the gaps in sporting performance continue to be filled by the disciplinary technologies of space, time, and modality of movement, a tension arises between certainty and uncertainty in the production and consumption of sport, which is manifest in the cyborgian athlete. This tension calls into question the survival of the aesthetic in sport, as the post-industrial economics of images and information lead to full scale sport simulacra. And given McLuhan's assertion that "games are media of interpersonal communication, [that] have neither existence nor meaning except as extensions of our immediate inner lives" (1964, p.210), it also calls into question a posthuman future.

References:

Grenville, B. (2001). The uncanny: experiments in cyborg culture. Vancouver Art Gallery: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge. 149-181.

Hemphill, D. (1995). Revisioning sport spectatorism. Journal of the philosophy of sport, 22, 48-60.

Hoskins, C., McFadyen, S., & Finn, A. (1997). Global television and film: an introduction to the economics of the business. Oxford University Press.

Mann, S. & Niedzviecki, H. (2002). Cyborg: digital destiny and human possibility in the age of the wearable computer. Toronto: Anchor Canada.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: New American Library.

Mirowski, P. (2002). Machine dreams: economics becomes a cyborg science. Cambridge University Press.

Shogan, D. (1999). The making of high-performance athletes: discipline, diversity, and ethics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

The Multi-City Franchise

We are getting closer to the day when high-speed bandwidth will be an everyday reality for those in industrialized nations. Some wonder what applications can possibly exist to utilize all of that bandwidth. I can suggest that one of them will be establishing independent television channels for professional sports franchises or other organizational entities in sport (ie. PGA Tour). In essence, while each team currently may have a direct media channel to the sports fan via the Internet — that is, a web site — in a competitive landscape of fibre optic bandwidth, that channel will become televisual. This has serious potential implications for professional sport.

One of the most interesting is the possibility of the multi-city franchise. As economic globalization continues and any team can have its own television channel, the spatial boundaries of stadium are fragmented and the audience decentralized. Or, to paraphrase McLuhan, electric media implodes a fragmented audience to the stadium. That stadium does not have to be in one place, however. With the availability of a decentralized media channel, franchises can play games in a variety of markets and build fan bases in each — geography becomes less important.

An example of this principle at work may be found with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE — get the 'F' out of here…!!!). There are myriad reasons why the WWE works on so many fronts, but one of them is due to the multi-city franchise principle. Using the framework developed by Aaker and Joachimsthaler (2000), the WWE consists of various sub-brands under a master brand working synergistically: fans come to see individual wrestlers, such as The Rock, Hulk Hogan, or Chris Jericho, which gives the WWE master brand legitimacy; however, this legitimacy allows the WWE to boast the best stable of wrestlers, which suggests that any new wrestler sub-brands must be worthy of the master brand name. The key for this strategy to work is that there are so many sub-brands available for the WWE to use — none of which are anchored geographically. So at the firm level, the WWE can offer events in big cities and small towns all over North America, developing decentralized audiences for the sub-brands in each market, while imploding the rest of the audience via television to the event in question.

Modern professional team sports struggle to match the branding elegance of the WWE, as the geography inherent in the former adds a layer of complexity to the branding equation: is the value-driving brand the league, the franchise city, the team nickname, or the team's star athlete(s)? I would suggest that as our team sporting cultures become more postmodern, the branding of the franchise city is subordinated to the other three.

The case of the Montreal Expos may prove illuminating. The Expos, which drew just 812,000 fans at home last year and don't have an English-language television contract, will play 22 games of their 2003 schedule in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Associated Press, 2002). I presume that the league will make some sort of effort to have the rest of the Expos' games televised in Puerto Rico, and the "stickiness" of their visits will make for interesting research.

How does the sports fan identify in the situation of the multi-city franchise? Dewq calls it transientity, while I have chosen chameleontology. The general idea, though, is that traditional place-based fan identity is on life support.

References

Aaker, D.A., and Joachimsthaler, E. (2000). Brand leadership: the next level of the brand revolution. Free Press.

Associated Press. (Nov. 20, 2002). MLB - Island fever: Expos playing 22 in Puerto Rico. ESPN.com. Retrieved online: http://espn.go.com/mlb/news/2002/1120/1463782.html.

Vox4Jox?

smithers:

[Aside] I have been receiving about 5-10 visitors a day to this site for the past six months, which is kind of neat. However, I would love to have you [add your voice] to any of the posts you read — let me know if you agree, disagree, or think I'm completely out to lunch. In many ways, this is my journal of theory, so any insights you might have would only help the material get better. Thanks in advance.   :)

Yours in sport.

[Exit]

Gymprov

In continued pursuit of alternative sport/art syntheses, I am wondering: can improvised pickup basketball be merged with improv acting to create artistic basketball theatre? I am envisioning a five-on-five pickup game of Good versus Evil, where ten actors play the voices of the ten basketball players and improvise dialogue depending on what happens in the action (over microphones, they are not seen — akin to the skit on Whose Line is it Anyway? in which Ryan Stiles does the sound effects for Colin Mochrie). Throw in stage lighting and costumes and you've got a pretty neat performance art.

Linds had the great suggestion of the classic Christian tale of Jesus' temptation by the Devil as a potential candidate for this concept, with the best player on each team in the lead roles. I would also like to see something Shakespearean attempted, or perhaps West Side Story. The story's characters would already have to be well known to the audience for this to work, since there would be little time for character development with players only hitting jumpshots every once in a while.

Obviously, the whole thing lies in the talent of the actors to generate intelligent, emotional, and appropriate improvised dialogue — they must react to the players. However, as the performance gets better, the players would also be able to react to the dialogue; therefore, it is necessary to have players that can be expressive with the way they move their bodies on the basketball court. The final person that would need great improv skills would be the lighting technician, who could modify the stage lighting in response to both players and actors — but now I may be getting a little too far ahead of myself.

The cool thing about this is that the theatre would have a different ending every night. Can you imagine playing the role of Jesus and missing the last-second buzzer beater from 20 feet? And if the emotion had been built up properly during the game, can you imagine how empty the crowd would go home feeling knowing the Devil had won?

Experiments in Logos: The Deification of LeBron

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