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3 October 2015


Tag(s): Sport
The Rugby World Cup has moved me to consider the subject of Professionalism. This eighth World Cup has broken all previous records for ticket sales, commercial revenues and TV audiences. Commercial revenues are up 60% from the 2011 World Cup, with World Cup Rugby forecasting £240 million by the end of the tournament. More than £150 million of that will come from television contracts covering 205 territories, 15% up on four years ago. Corporate hospitality sales for the tournament in England are more than 50% greater than were sold during the London Olympic Games in 2012. 90,000 hospitality packages have been sold compared to 60,000 for the London Olympic Games.

Much of this no doubt relates to the increasing Professionalism of the sport. I wrote on the subject of Professionalism in sport in my chapter on Professionalism in my book The 20 Ps of Marketing.

“It is interesting to see what has happened in so-called Professional sport. Organised sport was largely introduced to the world by the British in the late nineteenth century. Their gifts were two, a genius for codification which meant that games of similar origin could be played between schools, then towns or regions, and finally nations.  All sorts of football were played all over the world but the British codified a version of the rules as Association Football and now it is the world’s most popular sport. The second gift was a love of sport for its own sake which was an amateur idea, i.e. you did not play for money but for the love of the game.

Rugby was only an amateur game and when some players sought to take money they broke away to form a different version of the game called Rugby League. That has never achieved the same popularity as Rugby Union, as the original code became known, which is not to say that its players do not play to high physical standards – they do – but the game does not have the same joie de vivre. However, Rugby Union has now turned Professional, partly to legitimize existing underhand practice, partly to exploit its great popularity.

 I once discussed this with Will Carling, the former England captain and suggested to him that the game would become more violent as a result because once winning is the only objective then players will push the rules to their boundaries and beyond. He disagreed but it is a moot point which of us was right. However, a conference into the issue at the University of Glamorgan in October 2010 heard that the amount of injuries in rugby has risen from 67 per 1000 playing hours in 1994 to 91 in 2009.

The Olympic Games were conceived as an amateur contest where according to the founder, the French idealist Baron de Coubertin:

“L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'être bien battu.”

“The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

 This has come down the years as “it is not winning but the taking part that is important” and this amateur ideal survived for the first few Games. In the film Chariots of Fire the distinction between the amateur ideal and Professionalism is already being tested in the 1924 Games in Paris where the film contrasts the amateurism of the Lord Andrew Lindsay, (played by Nigel Havers) a Cambridge student runner based on David, Lord Burghley with the early Professionalism of Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) who illegally, or at least unethically, hires a Professional coach, the great Sam Mussabini (played by Ian Holm). The film depicts Lord Lindsay training for the hurdles in the grounds of his stately home with a glass of champagne resting on each hurdle. This was based on actual practice by Lord Burghley although he was not an exact contemporary of Abrahams and did not compete at the 1924 Games but at the next ones in 1928. Interestingly both Harold Abrahams and Lord Burghley went on to play important roles in the administration of British athletics which clearly could accommodate their two differing attitudes. The modern Olympic Games which are now fully ‘Professional’ have become bloated, corrupt and monstrous, riddled by drugs and politics.

 Cricket is a sport which accommodated both amateurs and Professionals for many years. The amateurs were denominated as ‘gentlemen’ and would be listed in the scorecard as Mr A.B.C. Batsman, while the Professionals were denominated ‘players’ and were listed as Bowler D. An annual fixture was played at Lord’s cricket ground, the spiritual home of the sport, between Gentlemen and Players. First played in 1806 it was keenly fought and not discontinued until 1962 when the concept of amateurism was abolished and so, at least in theory, all players became Professional. 

 Ed Smith, a fine cricketer turned thoughtful journalist, wrote a fascinating article on the subject of Professionalism, “Are we too Professional?” published in Intelligent Life 2009.  He starts by quoting a John Humphreys interview on the Today programme: Humphreys asked a young nurse what she considered the two most important qualities in her job. “Being caring and being compassionate, “she replied.  “Not being Professional?” Humphreys countered emphasising that her answer was very unusual.  “No, not being Professional”, she confirmed. 

Smith asks how did the concept of Professionalism become so dominant and further, why is it assumed to be innately desirable.  He asserts that “in the space of a hundred years, the words “Professional” and “amateur” have virtually swapped places. At the end of the 19th century, an amateur meant someone who was motivated by the sheer love of doing something; Professional was a rare, pejorative term for grubby money-making. Now, amateurism is a byword for sloppiness, disorganisation and ineptitude, while Professionalism – as Humphreys suggested- is the default description of excellence.”

 He recalls from his 13 years as a cricketer that every captain under whom he played called for ever increasing Professionalism but with no obvious return. “Professionalism wasn’t so much a real process as a form of self-definition.” Only the occasional maverick would challenge the widely held assumption that Professionalism was the gold standard by suggesting that actually it might inhibit natural flair. Smith believes that Mark Ramprakash, the most talented batsman of his generation, was held back by this and only late in his career threw it off and started to score freely averaging 100 as a batsman and winning Strictly Come Dancing with no previous experience but natural enthusiasm and agility.

 Luis Felipe Scolari, the football coach who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup said “My priority is to ensure that the players feel more amateur than Professional. Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much Professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.”  The issue is that if every team is using the same methods of hard work and extra coaching then it is necessary to find a new way to compete and that might be by appealing to the innate freshness and talent of the players.

 Smith shows that over-Professionalism is everywhere. Teachers are instructed to Plan their lessons weeks in advance and in three minute segments thus eliminating any spontaneity. Journalists at several British national newspapers are encouraged to submit weekly work-Plans, even though the stories haven’t happened yet. Diplomats are made to measure the inputs of their task causing the distinguished ambassador, Sir Ivor Roberts to write in his valedictory telegram when retiring as ambassador to Italy “Well conducted diplomacy cannot be properly measured. We manage or contain disputes; very rarely do we deliver a quantifiable solution. Indeed we should be sceptical ofpermanent” solutions or models.” Lord Patten, the former Hong Kong governor, said “it was sad to see experienced diplomats trained to draft brief and lucid telegrams …terrorised into filling questionnaires by management consultants by the yard.”

 Smith even calls on the cult television drama series “The Wire” to support his thesis.  “The Wire” describes the battle against the drug gangs in Baltimore. The best policemen are defeated not by the criminals but by the bureaucracy in their own police department which awards promotion based on the number of arrests not their significance.”

This comes from Chapter 18 of my book The 20 Ps of Marketing. There is a link to order it on the home page of this website.

My son, who played Rugby for Surrey as a schoolboy and later played to a high standard in the Spanish League, believes that professionalism has restricted the development of the game in lesser countries. The rewards are now so high in developed rugby nations that the tier two and tier three countries can’t catch up. Japan did pull off an amazing win over South Africa, described in one newspaper as the greatest shock in sporting history, but that is an exception.

I am writing this in the week before England plays its make or break game against Australia. Lose and England will become the first host nation to leave the competition before the knock out stage. England has been in a similar situation before in the 2007 World Cup. In the Group stages England, the defending champions,  lost to South Africa 36-0 but won its other matches, beat Australia in the quarters, host nation  France in the semis and then lost again to South Africa in the final in a much closer game.

But this time I am not so confident. I think it’s about preparation. You have to time it right for a World Cup and have an experienced winning side ready and confident to beat the rest of the world.  This England team is far less experienced than all its major competitors, most of which have twice as many caps. It has had fourteen different pairings at centre in Stuart Lancaster’s four years as coach but he has picked one centre with less than a season of first class rugby. By the time some of my readers read this we will know. But I am not optimistic.

Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved

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