Review of American Sports in the Age of Consumption

Hillman, Cory. American Sports in an Age of Consumption. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.   Pp. 204.  Notes, References, Index.  $29.95 softcover.

Reviewed by Rich Loosbrock

Not even a casual observer of American sports could fail to see the element of consumption at any major sporting event.  Jumbotrons scream at the spectators, splashing constant advertisements amidst the scores and player profiles.  Logos are visible everywhere in a stadium, and sponsor names on the stadiums themselves attest to the role of spectator as consumer.

Commercialization

McFarland, 2016

In this compact book, American Sports in the Age of Consumption, Cory Hillman examines just how the sporting experience is dictated by the market.  Hillman holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communications Studies.  Thus, his interest lies in the interaction between sport and its audience.  In five chapters, Hillman explores how the experience of sports is deflected by commercialism.  The market’s intrusion into sport has changed the way both the games are played experienced.

He begins with an analysis of the venues in which sports are viewed: stadiums.  Hillman provides a solid overview of the stadium construction fad that intensified in the 1990s and continues today.  It is a familiar tale of owners who use public funding for facilities that only increase their own bottom line. American professional franchise owners seek facilities with expanded retail concourses, increased seating, and an ample supply of revenue-generating luxury boxes.  Owners have frequently used the threat of relocation in order to shake the public down for new stadiums.

This trend has abated to some extent–note the private funding of many recent NFL stadiums, for example–but Hillman provides a highly readable and informative account to comprehend the trend.  More significantly, however, is Hillman’s assertion that the new venues have often priced lower-income fans out of the parks.  Here, in subtle ways, the fans attending the games have changed, and attendance itself becomes a marker of economic status.  He also shrewdly observes that owners often try to market the game environment as “family friendly,” which is code for “middle class” or “respectable.”

Hillman then turns his attention to fantasy sports.  He traces their rise from early rotisserie baseball leagues to the competitions that now involve the masses.  Implicit in his assessment is the idea that players of fantasy sports watch and follow sports differently than previous sports fans.  They are following individual players and statistical columns, instead of teams with a tribal loyalty.  But he also emphasizes that many of these fantasy leagues have gone beyond simple competitions among friends to gambling for significant amounts of money with strangers.  The popular sites FanDuel and DraftKings draw most of his attention, but he suggests that the rise of fantasy sports has been driven by a profit-seeking and entrepreneurial spirit that is at the heart of consumerism.  Since these games are about building effective rosters through the draft and trades, it has also made general managers and owners stars alongside the athletes.

Hillman’s third chapter is really two chapters in one.  He surveys the history of sponsorship in sports and considers how advertising draws attention away from the contests and actually shapes sporting experiences.  The growth of the internet and cable television with specialized sport channels has made events with large audiences rare, the Super Bowl being the exception.  This survey sets up the second part of the chapter: video games.  Here, not only can money be made from the product, but further revenues can be made by including advertising in the game itself.  Players are essentially a captive audience, and viewers cannot skip through commercials.  Starting with the wildly successful Madden NFL games of the 1990s, the new video games further normalize consumption culture.

Next, he considers sporting apparel.  The sale of shirts, jerseys, and other fan gear represents a significant income stream for manufacturers and sports franchises.  Simple t-shirts have given way to expensive jerseys and multiple color schemes. Hillman suggests that the University of Oregon and its primary booster, Phil Knight of Nike, has led the revolution to entice fans to buy more gear by presenting a variety of looks during the season.  In particular, garish and gaudy color schemes draw younger fans who seek a unique appearance, and it has made Oregon a national brand name.  It has allowed many schools and universities new ways to capture the dollars of loyal fans, or attract nonfans to the team’s look and style.

He concludes with a chapter summarizing how consumerism and marketing cheapen and trivialize sports.  What happens on the court or field seems incidental to capturing additional fan dollars and bombarding fans with advertising. Meanwhile, fantasy leagues and video games seem bent more on making consumers of the players than actually giving them an authentic experience. Perhaps most significantly, the culture of modern sports does not encourage activity but, rather, inactivity in order for the fan to absorb advertisements and make them good consumers.  He suggests one solution, which is public ownership of sports franchises.  He cites the suggestion of Dave Zirin, a writer of great influence in this book, where municipalities could seize franchises through eminent domain in the case that owners may operate against the public good.  Hillman argues that if sports could be separated from its rampant consumerism then they could offer hope for a more progressive, and even more democratic, future for the U.S.  That is a bold assertion, but the value of this compact book is to offer an insightful and informative survey of the relationship between sports and consumerism.  It is well worth reading.

Reviewed by Rich Loosbrock, Professor of History, Adams State University

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