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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Book Reviews

National Pastimes

National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist. Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2005, 263 pages, $26.95.

Courtesy Brookings Institution Press
Pick up any serious book on sport these days and you’ll find it focuses on one or a combination of three themes: economics, globalization, and national identity. This is not surprising given the transformation that sport experienced in the late twentieth century. The growing importance of corporate sponsorship took center stage at the expense of old-fashioned concerns about fair play and sportsmanship, or even latter-day problems such as political boycotts.

The commercial success of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, for example, meant that they are remembered not for the Soviet-bloc boycott that was a tit-for-tat for the Western bloc’s earlier boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Rather, they are known for inaugurating a new era in which international sporting events, including the Olympics, relied more and more on corporate sponsorship and less and less on government funds. The trend toward global economic integration accelerated by the Cold War’s end also accelerated the trend toward internationalization of sport. In 1990, the Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz in the opener of the National Basketball Association’s season in Tokyo. Since then, NBA teams have played each other in regular games in Japan and Mexico and preseason games in Europe, Asia, and Israel. In 2004, England’s flagship soccer club, Manchester United, claimed it had 75 million fans worldwide, with 4.6 million in the Americas, 5.9 million in South Africa, 23 million in Europe, and 40.7 million in Asia.

Crowds waving national flags in anticipation or celebration of a national team’s victory in an international tournament are proof enough that the new era has not eroded national identity in sport. In fact, some observers argue that globalization strengthens national sentiments because the more international the context, the bigger the stage on which to showcase national capabilities. Fear of the effects of globalization can also cause an affirmation of national exceptionalism. In his How Soccer Explains the World, for example, Franklin Foer made the case that the anti-soccer lobby in the United States is driven by fear that the spread of soccer there will undermine sports that are quintessentially “American” and, by implication, pure, competitive, and manly.

Pointing to tangible proof of the constitutive triad in sport of economics, globalization, and national identity is much easier than making sense of the synergy between the parts and understanding how their interaction unfolds both locally and globally. Here is where National Pastime makes a huge contribution: it offers a persuasive account of the evolution of two major sports, baseball and soccer, and, in doing so, explains how sport developed throughout the twentieth century and reached its present, globalized condition. The authors argue that “tracing this evolution…leads us to a diagnosis of baseball’s and soccer’s current problems and to identifying some solutions that are gleaned from each other.” (p. 8)

Yet this book achieves even more than it sets out to do because by comparing and contrasting the evolution of baseball and soccer—itself an innovative and fruitful exercise—it explains how economics led to globalization, but also preserved the dimension of national identity in sport. Given that the two authors are economics professors, Stefan Szymanski at Imperial College London and Andrew Zimbalist at Smith College, it is not surprising that their account places economics firmly at the base of their analysis. While this base was conditioned by national cultures, it dictated the extent and shape of globalization as it developed along with the growth of professional sport.

The concentration on economics is the major strength of this book, if only because the authors’ premise that the differences in the economic organization of baseball and soccer are crucial to their history and their present is so persuasive. The primacy of economics is also responsible for the book’s few weaknesses, however: in some parts, the focus on economic hard facts could have been leavened by reference to the deep cultural resonance of both sports, and to the passions they ignite, as, for example, in the otherwise excellent chapter on achieving competitive balance and making leagues more exciting.

National Pastime opens with an account of the differences in how the founders of professional baseball in the US and professional soccer in England and the rest of the world conceived of their respective sports’ organizational structure—despite the eye cast over the Atlantic by British soccer administrators to see how baseball was being established. Baseball was run as a closed, monopolistic league focused on ensuring the financial success of its members and the elimination of rival leagues. Professional baseball thus quickly, and quite explicitly, evolved into a business. Soccer’s evolution was very different, with a conscious effort made to retain as much as possible of the old, amateur spirit. The teams were run as clubs, not overtly as economic enterprises, their purpose being to make moderate profits and establish deep roots in their communities. A league was organized into several tiers divided hierarchically, with the teams finishing at the bottom being relegated to the lower division, while the top teams in each lower division were promoted to the higher one.

These two radically different organizational models owed their inspiration to the respective business cultures emerging in the US and Britain in the late nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, the US saw the rise of values “of self reliance, the work ethic, and aggressive individualism” (p. 44). In contrast, already industrialized Britain, at its imperial apex, was “a society in which distinctions of class and etiquette could be as influential as money” and, therefore, “any innovation was required to fit into the social order, not least because that order was seen to be so successful.” Moreover, the two economists note, “Napoleon’s taunt that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers still rang true, an empire built on ‘small’ rather than ‘big’ business” (p. 45).

This opening chapter that outlines the different structures of baseball and soccer is the cornerstone of the analysis that follows. In the next chapter, Szymanski and Zimbalist explain that professional baseball experienced a very limited international diffusion mainly because it was too concerned with fending off challenges from potential business rivals and ensuring the continued well-being of the business model put in place. In contrast, the British elites, who saw soccer less as a financial project and more as part of their national culture, were in fact eager to promote the game throughout the world, either as a means of cooptation in the case of their colonies or as a way of spreading their influence elsewhere around the globe. Imperialism, we should note, was the only way baseball spread as well, to a smaller number of countries, if only because the American imperium has governed historically more often indirectly rather than through direct rule and colonization.

The following chapter discusses the development of the baseball and soccer labor markets, arguing that they, too, were influenced by the original conception of their respective leagues but that, over time, they became more and more similar. This discussion involves a fairly technical set of issues, and, although the authors introduce us gently to them by reference to the similarities in earning power of a star baseball player (New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez) and a star soccer player (Real Madrid right winger David Beckham), the chapter may be heavy going for some readers. Yet, it is worth persevering because it is a most helpful presentation of the economic fundamentals of the two sports, the difference between trading and transferring players in baseball and soccer, respectively, baseball’s reserve clause and free agency, as well as soccer’s wage caps and the present mobility afforded by European Union regulations following the ruling that enabled Jean-Marc Bosman, a minor-league player in Belgium, to move to a team in France. In that December 1995 decision, the European Court ruled that soccer was not exempt from the European Union’s commercial laws and therefore had to adhere to Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome, which mandates unrestricted freedom of movement of employees (including soccer players) in the EU.

The analysis then moves on to inquire, “why baseball clubs make money and soccer clubs don’t.” Szymanski and Zimbalist do an excellent job of explaining why Major League Baseball, which operates as an unregulated monopoly, and its individual clubs are very profitable although owners also have many ways of hiding their profits. The influx of money, however, and the success of expanding tournaments—in search of even greater profits—has increased financial instability for European soccer because there is much more regulation. Part of the problem, as the next chapter explains, is that television networks overpaid for broadcast rights in the 1990s and when the TV soccer bubble burst, many clubs that had overspent and over-borrowed were left in the lurch. Yet baseball has, on the whole, profited from television, although less so in the case of small-market teams, whose future, the authors warn, may be precarious.

The penultimate chapter raises the question of how to make baseball and soccer championship races more competitive and exciting for the fans. It may just be that this is such an important issue that it could not be contained simply in a single chapter, as this one seems to burst at the seams with a rich analysis of how competition has been achieved more successfully in baseball. Yet, as the authors explain, despite the dominance of a few big clubs in most European countries, soccer remains immensely popular and fans remain riveted by the championship races. One of their examples is Greece, where they mention the near-monopoly exercised by AEK, Olympiakos, and Panathênaikos (p. 183).

This phenomenon of fandom trumping competitive balance could have been discussed much more extensively, although perhaps it leads away from strictly economic considerations. It has been treated by several authors in the case of Spain, a country whose intense regionalism generates strong identities, with a long list of clubs headed by FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. But probably the best-known accounts of this passion are Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and the even more captivating A Season With Verona by Tim Parks. There are no similar accounts by fans of any of the top Greek clubs. (In the movie made of his book and released last year, Hollywood transformed the object of Hornby’s tale of mad love from London’s Arsenal to the Boston Red Sox[!]—an ironic, if confirming, case of the cultural untranslatability of “national pastimes.”)

Szymanski and Zimbalist conclude their study by examining the current problems faced by baseball and soccer, including baseball’s not-so-subtle stagnation and soccer’s recurrent financial instability. They make several recommendations that amount to proposing that each of these two major sports borrow some of the other’s ideas in order to survive and prosper. In brief, they suggest that baseball become less of a business and more sensitive, both to the grass roots and to the need to become more international, while soccer should become more of a business without losing its local roots. If that cross-fertilization should happen (one suspects that, with its greater global reach, soccer stands to do and gain more), then, perhaps, we can talk of the globalization of sport not merely as a trend but as the status quo.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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