constancy, relationality, opportunity

The professional sport industry — particularly those leagues that comprise the upper echelon of the sports-media capitalist hierarchy — presents a paradox when viewed relative to the flows of capital in other sectors of the global economy. In other industries that require large investments in fixed capital, such as automobile production, plants have increasingly (and rapidly) relocated to countries and cultures in which the costs of variable capital are lower: all that is solid melts into thin air, only to condense and solidify once again in the global south.

In sport, however, the primary product being manufactured is the live sporting spectacle, with its affective experience of the crowd-as-number situated within the multisensuality of the stadium environment proper. It is easy to lose sight of the live event's primacy given the intensity with which the sports industry has initiated joint production processes to manufacture immaterial outputs further downstream, such as television broadcasts or fantasy sport data streams. But it is the live event that creates the paradox for sporting capital mentioned above: the plant of professional sports production — the stadium in its myriad forms — cannot simply relocate to where the costs of variable capital are the lowest precisely because the site of production is simultaneously the site of consumption for a live event, an inseparability that characterizes few other industrial sectors.

Yankee Stadium

While capital desires unregulated flow and the immaterial outputs of sportocratic production also have their own flows and rhythms, at a less complex level of assembly sports events flow to varying degrees as well. Baseball, for example, is a sport that does not flow to a high degree: it is a series of discrete actions — pitch, hit, throw, out or run produced — that are linked together in a form of mutual agreement between all those present. In other words, the structural elements of the game in the sense of codified rules (whether verbally agreed upon or highly codified in written form) facilitate what we might term a weak flow that emerges from the closed nature of the sport. Despite the weak flow that is produced, the discrete elements of the game provide plenty of signifying breaks that may be recorded as metadata about the live event action, which forms the scorecards, boxscores and other archives of the game.

Basketball, on the other hand, is a far more open-ended, flowing sport. Rather than a loosely connected series of discrete events, the action in a basketball game generally oscillates back and forth along the court surface in a fairly consistent rhythmical fashion. Roughly speaking, it is the peaks and valleys of the oscillation curve as it unfolds in linear time that become the events that are marked for the archive — shot attempted, basket made, steal or turnover. Put differently, it forms a strong flow from which signifying breaks have been extracted, in an inversion of the relationship described with baseball.

This means that an event such as a scored basket has as its primary relationality that of the flow. In a pickup game of basketball that relationality is complemented by the game score being passed from one player to another by word of mouth. As we move to more organized, league forms of basketball, the internal coherence or relationality of the flow is supplemented by an external scoring, legitimating and archiving apparatus (referees, official scorer and timekeeper, standardized records). It is this supplementary dimension that forms the basis of the downstream joint production processes mentioned earlier.

As the archival information is "liberated" from the productive energies of the athletes on the field of play, it then enters a constellation of differential signification and relationality completely detached from the flow of that particular game. The basket becomes an entry in a database that may form relationships with an overall "official" score, with other baskets by the same player, with a graphic overlay on a television broadcast, or with a consumer's fantasy league ranking. In baseball, with its weak flow of manufactured relationality, this liberation is not a particularly violent process, but in open-ended sports of strong flow like basketball the violence is far more pronounced.

Whether open or closed, the violence of the immaterial and its disruption of flux is most pronounced in the upper echelons of the sports hierarchy. This is due to the immense salaries that professional athletes are capable of earning — particularly relative to workers in other industrial sectors — as professional sport demands a highly specialist form of labour. Furthermore, the global competition for this talent has heightened dramatically over the past several decades as the number of consumer markets capable of sustaining a domestic professional league has expanded and the financial stakes involved in fielding a successful franchise have increased. Since the sporting capitalist is prevented from relocating the sporting plant to wherever variable capital is the cheapest, one must instead seek world-class specialist labour more cheaply from around the globe and bring it to the site of the stadium. We need only consider the examples of the English Premier League importing association football players from Africa, Major League Baseball importing athletic labour from Japan, or the Russian professional basketball league importing female players from the United States to realize how fully the migration of athletes permeates across sports, cultures, genders and economic vectors.

Given the fixed seating capacity of a stadium and the relative price elasticity of demand for sports tickets, the revenues required to cover rising salary expenses must come from elsewhere. One way of doing this is to increase the number of production runs at the plant, or in this case, to play more games. While there are usually more free dates at the stadium that could be used for live event manufacture, we cannot truly dissociate the athletes themselves from our understanding of plant in the sports industry.

As Michael Hardt has suggested, there is a dialectic between labourer and capitalist in which collective resistance by the former eventually leads to automation efforts by the latter. But professional sport resists such explicit forms of automation as robotic production since it is the athlete him/herself that is the object of fascination and desire. Instead, the professional athlete becomes a hybrid between labour and capital, with standardized techniques of discipline, expensive surgeries and other medical modalities such as oxygen chambers, as well as databased methods of probability and simulation helping to intensify production. Nonetheless, there remains a certain point after which the organic body provides diminishing returns in terms of the number of production runs (played games) completed by the firm.

Instead, we find that the sporting capitalist is forced to increase immaterial joint production efforts to cover these rising salary costs. While this doesn't explain the "origin" of immaterial output in the sports industry, it does provide us one way of understanding the intensity with which sign-value must be extracted from the immaterial. Put another way, the sporting capitalist requires a growing intellectual property (data-object) turnover ratio in order to maintain the same level of surplus-value earned over time. But it also suggests that the relationality of the data-object as it is violently detached from the site of sporting poiesis and entered into other sign systems must be targeted in any praxis by the sporting multitude, insofar as it simultaneously targets the alienation experienced by the consumer-worker, rather than solely that of the producer-worker.

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4 responses to constancy, relationality, opportunity

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  1. sportsBabel » Collective Forgetting says:

    [...] to seven baskets is declared the winner. The game begins, the action moves up and down the floor, always in flux, and baskets are scored. After a while one of the players shouts out the query: [...]

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    [...] that may at times oppose one another, yet still function together as a meshwork to modulate flows of goods, people, information, [...]

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    [...] the big game in person can be an expensive proposition today; it may also be logistically prohibitive. so where does one watch the game with friends: at [...]

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    [...] is a game of discrete operations. Or, as McLuhan used to suggest, the industrial assembly line economy perfected in its sporting [...]

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