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29 January 2001

How Michael Jordan disproved a Marxist theory

By Robert Winder

One of my favourite statistics of the past few years was the one that revealed the basketball ace Michael Jordan was paid more money for endorsing Nike shoes than the company’s 30,000-strong workforce of cobblers in far-off Indonesia. It seemed, on the face of it, exotically indecent – a really dismal unfairness. But that could well be an abstract and utopian view: in practical terms, who was being unfair to whom, exactly? Maybe Marx was wrong about the surplus value of labour: in this case, the value of the shoes clearly did not reside in the industrious care that went into their manufacture. No one wore Nike trainers because they admired the artistry of those quick-fingered Indonesian stitchers. If anything, Jordan’s fee was an understatement of his value to the company. In the ghoulish logic of market forces, it was only thanks to him that those busy Indonesians were employed at all.

Jordan’s happy arrangement has since been trumped by the same company’s dizzy £90m deal with Tiger Woods, for sporting its snappy range of golf equipment. The clothes he endorses are probably made in Indonesia as well – or in some other low-wage sweat-nirvana. Yet Tiger, too, is a bargain. After his three major tournament wins last year, Nike’s share price surged. Paunchy businessmen all over the world went out and bought Tiger-flavoured rainwear or shoes, hoping that some of his glamour and skill would seep through the stitching into their own clumsy hands. The Tiger effect, analysts were pointing out, added several hundred million to the company’s value.

Such are the wages of modern sport. The back pages of our newspapers look more like the financial section every day. In the past week or so, they have brought news of a spat over the £50m sponsorship of the Premier League; a damning judgement on the former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar for accepting a bribe; word that Hansie Cronje was appealing against his life ban for taking cash from bookmakers; and plenty of speculation about David Beckham’s new contract. The Iraqi football team withdrew from an international tournament in a row about pay; and, in Australia, a millionaire tennis player, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, made a public bid for more money, only to be slapped down by his rivals. “He should take the prize money,” said Pete Sampras, “and go buy himself some perspective.”

Self-evidently, the sums paid to modern sports stars are out of whack with what most of us can dream of. But what all modern sportsmen want, and now get, is a representative slice of the profits they make. Perhaps Marx wasn’t wrong after all: in one sense, the rise and rise of the millionaire sports superstar is a classic Marxist fable. As it happens, last week was the 40th anniversary of the players’ strike (led by Jimmy Hill) that toppled the maximum wage imposed on footballers by the cartel of professional clubs. The wage in question was £20 per week: not quite enough to propel a player into the Ferrari-driving fast lane. That campaign now seems a model example of classic industrial action: the players threatened to withdraw their labour, and won their case. All they wanted was a bigger (fairer) share of the cash flow their own efforts inspired.

In the intervening years, that cash flow has multiplied exorbitantly. But that’s down to us, the television audience. Last weekend, couch potatoes could watch cricket, football, rugby, golf, skiing, darts, horseracing, ice hockey, bowls, snooker, figure skating and boxing. But at a price. According to the latest estimates, sports fans will soon be paying around £1,000 per year for access – through televisions, mobile phones, computers and so on – to their favourite sports. If sports stars end up being paid like film stars, it’s only because that is exactly what they are.

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Interestingly, the people who shudder at the plebeian idea of “player power” often resemble those who like to joke that the workers are revolting. And it isn’t always easy to see that the cash bonanzas waiting to fall into the pockets of a few lucky players represent an odd sort of victory for the proletariat. But perhaps sport can provide us with a model for industrial relations in other areas. Maybe other trades and industries can band together, sell the all-important television rights to broadcast their big events, and start raking in the endorsement proceeds. Fishermen from Hull and Plymouth could form themselves into a premier league, with a Saturday night highlights package (Catch of the Day). The same might go for bakers (Batch of the Day), locksmiths (Latch of the Day), even chicken farmers (Hatch of the Day). Would it be refreshing to live in a world of celebrity nurses and firemen, glamour-puss teachers and street cleaners? Or would we simply wonder what on earth they had done to deserve it?

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As for the idea – see under Grobelaar and Cronje – that all this big money is attracting corruption into our beloved games, we need to think twice. In cricket’s case, it is the relative poverty of the players, compared to other sports, that has led them astray. They look at golfers and footballers, scooping up treasure chests for minimal exertions, and feel hard done by. Nor, in the case of football, is it anything new. Corruption can rear its famous “ugly head” in hard times as well as lush ones. Back in the 1960s, three Sheffield Wednesday players were banned for life for accepting £100 in return for deliberately losing a match. A sad story. But let’s look on the bright side. That happened in 1965, just one year before England’s sole triumph in a World Cup. Could there possibly be, as we footballers like to say, a little omen there?

Hunter Davies is on holiday