The complexities of ownership in sport competently dealt with

Mark Brooke
Centre for English Language Communication
National University of Singapore

Andrew Adams & Leigh Robinson (red)
Who Owns Sport
129 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-24988-5

Who owns sport? is an erudite collection of scholarly essays examining, as its title suggests, claims over sport. In the introduction, the editors clarify that they are not exploring ‘who owns sports’: this would be to only consider commercial, formalised property rights, and present a ‘rich list’ (p. 4) of owners and commodities. ‘Who owns sport?’ is in fact a much more complex question and needs to be considered from a multi-disciplinary perspective. It entails an exploration of the relationships between individuals and institutions as well as the power of grassroots participants. Therefore, the authors state that the book is of interest to scholars and students from a range of fields, including sport and society, sport management, policy development, political science, economics, philosophy and development studies.

The first paragraph of the introduction is a powerful beginning to the book. It starts with reference to the 1975 dystopian film Rollerball and describes how the protagonist, Jonathan E, played by James Caan, manages to win the hearts and minds of men and women spectators, and turn the people against the owners, a dictatorial corporation. In this film, in classic Gramscian terms, we see the subaltern speaking out against a regime that is becoming increasingly commercialised through violence, and consequently a reduced focus on skills. Jonathan E’s final laps during the last minutes of the final game, accompanied by massive crowd support at the game and beyond, are symbolic of how individual agency can have transformative power, and even lead to momentary transfer of ownership of the game. In this example, we witness a shift in cultural hegemony from the bottom-up. What is particularly interesting about this edited volume is how many of the chapters consider how notions of ownership encompass grassroots participants.

Chapter 1 is a philosophical conception of ownership. Sport production is not easily aligned to neoliberal individualism which provides conditions to exercise self-chosen activity. In the neoliberal context, legal ownership and the signing over of deeds, or natural ownership, as when a person has created or found a thing, are predominant. However, sport ownership is deeply connected to an active communitarianism. The meaning of ownership in this context is much more related to sustaining a social practice. Therefore, sport must consider the external good, and define itself in terms of nurturing the practice that sustains it. Hardman, the author, views this collective approach to ownership in sport as part of a utilitarian good.

It is from the global North that international organisations such as UN agencies tend to operate, despite the need for national ownership of SDP in the global South if sustainable development is to be facilitated.

Chapter 2 provides a historical overview of sport starting from pre-modern ruralised forms of sport to the modern-day contemporary sport forms we know. The author takes the reader through ownership and control, ownership and clubs, ownership and patronage and then finally ownership and entrepreneurship. These different forms of ownership represent the development of sports such as football from its origins to the modern-day. In this chapter, the author Vamplew also argues how fans can claim ownership of a club or sports event because without their involvement and funding, there is no sport. In the chapter, the author also interestingly debunks the myth that it is Britain who owned modern sport as its inventor. Only 6 or 7 out of 22 significant modern sports can be seen as having uniquely British origins. Germany, the Soviet Union and Scandinavia are cited as also being instrumental in the process.

Chapter 3 examines the rise of corporate ownership of sport and its unprecedented growth in commercialisation and advanced technology, specifically in relation to the developed revenue stream and delivery of a product to a global audience. The chapter attempts to define what corporate ownership of sport is, how it works, and whether it is an appropriate form of ownership for sport organisations. It explores the challenges that come with balancing on-field and off-field agendas such as stock-market, supporter trust and foreign ownership models. In the end, the author states that these models are likely to be challenged if they do not respect the fans’ perceptions of how the club is run.

Chapters 4 and 5 share common subject matter. Chapter 4 illustrates some of the complexities of understanding ownership within a community sport context, specifically voluntary sport. It presents how voluntary sports clubs are essential for sporting opportunities in the local communities. It also explores how these might be viewed as being owned by their members at the grass roots level. However, in addition to this, other stakeholders such as sports policy makers, national and local governments, and sports governing bodies are also involved in shaping the activities clubs undertake. Often these need to meet broader governmental health and social objectives, and can produce tension, even lead to loss of funding if locals do not agree. Similarly, chapter 5 discusses how consecutive UK governments have taken sport from community ownership as part of policy initiatives for health, crime reduction, and social inclusion. The chapter brings up issues about access rights diminishing and how, over time, sport for all has declined, and with it the ‘love of the game’. Thus, grass roots participation and ludic enjoyment have been subsumed.

One essential element of the book that they reiterate is how sport experience cannot be possessed; another is that the practice of ownership can be a force for change.

Chapter 6 explores Sport for Development and Peace (SDP), defined as ‘the intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development objectives in low- and middle-income countries and disadvantaged communities in high-income settings’ (p. 70). The chapter seeks to reflect historical, social, political and economic conditions in contexts which have significant implications for ownership in respect of SDP. The author, Lindsey, concludes that there are deeply embedded problems related to ownership in SDP. These problems are the imbalances of power between the global North and South. It is from the global North that international organisations such as UN agencies tend to operate, despite the need for national ownership of SDP in the global South if sustainable development is to be facilitated. In fact, Lindsey cites research that states that sub-Saharan African countries lack the necessary political commitment and leadership to drive policy. However, in spite of these issues, the author argues that there are a growing number of studies demonstrating how in-country NGOs are exerting capacities for independent action irrespective of their ties with international donors. This is a welcome development and one that will help to reduce the imbalance that exists between the donor North and the needy South.

Chapter 7 applies stakeholder theory to examine sport mega events (SME) and their ‘ownership’. According to Toohey, ownership of SMEs does not belong to one stakeholder group but several, including event owners, nations and cities, the media, host city communities, protest groups, athletes and volunteers, sponsors, organising committees. Interesting in this chapter is the exploration of how hosting an SME is a political act, which can marginalise and discriminate. SME-related ventures have caused evictions of low-income communities; they have also been wrapped up in sweatshop manufacturing of clothing. Sponsors are also quick to relinquish ownership lest they be equated with the SME if something of this ilk occurs. For example, the FIFA scandal of 2015 saw Visa reassessing its sponsorship. With their active opposition to these SME ventures, and the consequences this may have on groups such as sponsors, protest groups can be seen to take ownership.

Chapter 8 applies the non-absolutist Bundle of Rights (BoR) metaphor to examine contested aspects of ownership. As in chapter 1, natural ownership is problematised. In fact, ownership using the BoR, can be viewed as a highly complex process, embedded in a set of social relations and contingent on legal, social, political, economic and cultural factors. Despite this complexity, Adams presents with clarity a conceptual framework for describing ownership (p. 112). In particular, the author states the need to consider the experiential dimension including such concepts as the ‘psychic income’, in the form of support and encouragement, supplied by fans. Thus, again ownership is brought back to the grass roots of sport fandom in this chapter.

The editors, Adams and Robinson, rounds off the book very clearly in the conclusion. The content of the book has been explored through three specific configurations of relations, namely, the public, the private, and the voluntary sector. Because of this complex configuration, the authors reinforce the notion that sport is a many-faceted and malleable global cultural phenomenon. One essential element of the book that they reiterate is how sport experience cannot be possessed; another is that the practice of ownership can be a force for change. As the book attests, fans, and even protest groups, can own sport also. Different stakeholders possess in different ways in these three sectors.

‘Who owns sport?’ is an extremely complex question seen from the multi-disciplinary perspectives that the authors in this book take. There are many eye-opening sections in the book moving us away from thinking that ownership is only a legal concept. I agree with the editors in their conclusion, that more needs to be done to explore these different structures and practices in sport contexts and to align theory and practice. By thinking in this multi-faceted way about ownership, researchers can link more effectively the relationships between policy makers and practitioners. I recommend this book to sport scholars as it is essential to have an awareness of the power dynamics that exist in different sport contexts.

Copyright © Mark Brooke 2020


Table of Content


        1. Ownership of Sport: Philosophical Perspectives
          Alun Hardman
        2. Ownership and the History of Sport
          Wray Vamplew
        3. Corporate Ownership of Sport
          Daniel Plumley and Rob Wilson
        4. Who Owns Community Sport?
          Ruth Jeanes and Ryan Lucas
        5. Politics, Policy and the Ownership of Sport
          Ceri Wynne
        6. Ownership of Sport for Development and Peace
          Iain Lindsey
        7. Who Owns Sport at Sport Mega Events?
          Kristine Toohey
        8. Towards a Framework for Understanding Who Owns Sport
          Andrew Adams


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