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State-funded sport, like the NHS, has become something Britain can celebrate

The National Lottery has fundamentally altered the economics of sport in the UK.

As a Brit living in America, I was pleased to see the Olympics succeed in London. But as an economist, I have to say that the financial benefits are limited. We have already seen that the alleged tourism bonanza was a mirage. The boost to GDP is a drop in the bucket – £10bn spread over seven years equals about one-tenth of 1 per cent of GDP per year – and the development benefits to east London are not likely to be significant, given the size of east London’s problem.

Still, one thing we can all agree on is that Team GB’s medal count was impressive, particularly when you consider the progression over the past six Olympics. We won 20 medals (five gold) in 1992, then 15 (with one gold), 28 (11), 30 (9), 47 (19) and now 65 (29). This is a step change in performance, and it is due largely to government intervention initiated by John Major. The Conservative prime minister insisted that the National Lottery, which he created in 1994, should give a significant percentage of its revenues (5.6 per cent back then) to “sporting good causes”.

Culture change

The National Lottery has transformed the administration of British sport. In 1997, the rather lame and well-intentioned Sports Council was bulked up to become UK Sport, a well-funded and ruthless body committed to winning. UK Sport currently distributes roughly £100m a year, about half of it to governing bodies that use the funds to foster “grass-roots” sport. The rest goes to elite athletes for their training programmes. The key point is that the elite athletes and their federations get the support only if they get results – if they fail, their funding is cut off. This brutal approach has been wildly successful; expect delegations to flock from around the world to learn the British secret. Even the Australians are envious.

The mid-1990s will be remembered as the point when British sporting culture changed for ever. In essence, the National Lottery provided the funding to transform British sport from amateurism to professionalism. To understand how peculiar this change is, one has to understand a little sports history.

In the modern world, there have been two models of sport. The first, which emerged in Germany and Scandinavia at the beginning of the 19th century, was primarily focused on preparation for military service. The father of modern gymnastics was a German nationalist, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who witnessed the defeat of the Prussian army by Napoleon at the Battle of Jena in 1806 and concluded that this resulted from a lack of fitness. As well as inventing gymnastic equipment such as the horse, he promoted associations for young men to practise gymnastics. Their increased physical prowess contributed to the German revenge over the French at Sedan in 1870. The French soon followed suit and, by 1900, governments across Europe were promoting various sports for their martial virtues (in France, even cycling was endorsed with wartime in mind).

Even after the Second World War, the conscripted armies of Europe and elsewhere placed an emphasis on the benefits of sport. As the welfare state grew in the 20th century, governments came to promote sports for broader social purposes. In the 1700s Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the public practice of sport would foster a sense of citizenship and responsibility.

The second model of sport evolved in the Anglo-Saxon world. If military gymnastics is purposeful, then cricket is essentially purposeless. In Britain, sports such football, golf or tennis developed as private pastimes (it is doubtful that the Duke of Wellington ever said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton – the attribution was first made by a Frenchman three years after the Iron Duke’s demise). Individuals formed their own clubs, and then voluntarily gathered under governing bodies such as the MCC or the FA.

Even when professionalism came to sports such as football, the involvement of the state was almost completely absent. When protesters argued in the 1960s that the government should prevent the MCC from sending a touring side to play in apartheid South Africa, the government could say with some justification that it had no leverage whatsoever.

The American system evolved as a variant of the British model. Non-Americans tend to notice the professional sporting organisations – Major League Baseball, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) – but the most important organisation in American sport is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Attendance at college football matches is three times larger than at the NFL, and college basketball attracts twice as many people as the NBA. A large number of athletes, both American and non-American, train in US colleges. Most professional athletes played in college first.

Imitation of strife

The NCAA jealously guards its amateur status, and the college athletic departments have budgets that would put most European football teams to shame (Michigan’s athletic department budget is about the size of Aston Villa’s – and there are dozens like it). All of this is done without the direct intervention of the federal government. Indeed, the suggestion that it might have a role in funding sports is met with horror in the US.

While the American system evolved in imitation of the sporting rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, that model never developed in the UK. Arguably, British universities’ reliance on state funding after the war made them less interested in developing a sense of sporting loyalty, something that, in turn, generates alumni giving in the US. Equally, it may be that there is just too much sport in Britain to sustain a viable collegiate system.

Whatever the case, Britain has moved decisively in the past 20 years towards the state-funded model, and, judging by the British response to the London Games, people are happy with it. State sport, just like the National Health Service in the opening ceremony, has become something to celebrate.

Stefan Szymanski is professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. His research on the evolution of modern sport can be downloaded here


This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide