In some northern regions of the world, especially those requiring only black and white photography for six or eight months of the year, hockey is equivalent to culture, which is how we define ourselves as a society. A select few athletes demonstrate acts of beauty and brutality, night after night for as long as they can survive what is arguably the most gruelling sporting competition known to mankind. And the fans love it, especially those of the team that wins.
So what is the attraction? For the players, the easy answer is fame and fortune. The fulfillment of a dream that began when they were six years old and repeatedly fell flat on their faces, butts and heads, resembling intoxicated newborn giraffes on a polished sheet of ice. Picking themselves up again and again until they became convinced or concussed enough to recognize no other foreseeable future worth living.
Athleticism is a gift, born of generations of genetic development favouring those who are stronger, faster and smarter. A team sport, like hockey, can build confidence and self-esteem and create a sense of belonging. The synergy of a cohesive team, especially under the tutelage of superior coaching can create extremely positive results for each of the players. To have the opportunity to make a very good living as a pro must seem like winning the lottery.
The difference is that lottery winners don’t receive concussions and broken bones in the pursuit of their good fortune. No one gets cross-checked or speared while waiting in line to buy a ticket. The winners are not expected to fight and body-check their way to the place where they receive their cheque. If you witness the amount of stress most professional athletes withstand, often beginning at an early age, you will recognize that the life of a pro comes at a cost. It may be a cost that many of us would willingly accept given the rewards, but be assured there is a price to be paid. The business of professional sports places expectations and demands on the athletes that transcend that which most careers would require. I may have chosen to swing a stick at my boss or business competitor from time to time if I had know that two or five minutes later all would be forgiven and I would be back at my desk. I can think of a few times during my career that a well placed elbow may have been beneficial, other than the looming consequences. Imagine having twenty thousand people at your workplace yelling at you to work faster or to smarten up. I can just hear the booing now as I took a few minutes out of my day to answer a personal email.
And what about the fans? There are those who are fortunate enough to pay thousands of dollars to attend up to sixteen playoff games and then glue themselves to the television every other night in hopes of watching their heroes hoist the Stanley Cup. For the majority of the riders on the ten-week long emotional roller-coaster ride, their desperate hopes are slashed away in disgust as a series of bad breaks, bad calls and goalposts accumulate to eliminate their favourite team from contention.
Being a fan is as variable as it is confusing. We wear shirts that cost four times as much as our other clothes and it has someone else’s name on the back. Does that mean we have a multiple personality disorder or that we hope to be mistaken for someone who is twenty years younger and is in drastically better physical condition. After we watch the game, we then turn on the sports report for the sake of getting someone else’s opinion of the score. We just watched the entire game. Are we confused about who won? Is four goals still more than two? Perhaps we are addicted to the interviews and their unending cliches. Between games there are the latest news reports, predictions and post-mortems that coalesce into a steady stream of media attention designed to build viewership. This, of course, translates back to the business of money, which is what drives sports, entertainment and society. If it were truly the sport that is the driver, then everyone would be laced up and skating, practicing or scrimmaging some where rather than sitting in an arena, bar or living room being sedentary while we eat, drink and watch someone else exert their energy for our entertainment.
I think we need to recognize what factors are at play when it comes to professional sports. Firstly we are talking about a well orchestrated form of entertainment. The athletes are well paid and once they are developed and while the are still productive, no one is too concerned about them. They perform or else they are replaced and forgotten. Along the way, they reap the rewards of success that few will ever experience. In North America there are approximately three thousand professional hockey players and sixty million hockey fans. That is a ratio of twenty thousand fans for every player, the vast majority of which we have never heard of. The fifty or one hundred names you can actually recall are the real reason that billions of dollars trade hands every year as a result of professional hockey and that is a pittance when compared to baseball, football and basketball. That doesn’t even include the rest of the world where global sports like soccer (football) dwarf the North American cash flows. If you add in individual sports like golf and tennis and non-athletic forms of entertainment like Hollywood, Bollywood, Music, Broadway and Television the cumulative cash flow is staggering.
In our global society, anytime you identify a product, there are talented people capable of monetizing and selling it. Entertainment is a product and there seems to be an endless volume of skilled athletes and performers to feed the business model which has escalated out of control over the past decades. The pertinent question to me is, ‘Would young people be motivated to excel if the ‘fortune’ component was eliminated from the equation? Would self-esteem, personal satisfaction, ambition, achievement and competition be enough of a reward or them to seek the inevitable fame that will always exist?
I believe that the answer is a definite yes. We like to admire talented achievers and humans like to be admired. Why does it need to be any more complicated than that? The monetization of this symbiotic relationship shouldn’t be necessary. It has been demonstrated that money is only a motivator for people who don’t have enough or who fear running out of it. If you offered a struggling artist or a young athlete a life-long average societal wage to continue their careers and have the opportunity to learn, grow and reach their full potential, most would accept, knowing that the opportunity to make millions of dollars would be off the table?
If we demonetize just one of these forms of entertainment there could be enough money available to feed the entire planet. Demonetize them all and we could build an global infrastructure that could provide for a long and healthy life for every person on earth. It seems like a pretty good trade off.
What would be lost? The sports and entertainment would still exist but without the associated costs.
We are living in a world where the so-called ‘one percent’ are considered to be social and political pariahs, deserving no more than to pay higher taxes in response to their success. Meanwhile, this point zero one percent whose fame are created within the entertainment business are our heroes.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves who the real heroes are and what could be achieved by re-thinking where we focus our attention. I have been conditioned to be a sports and entertainment fan, most of us have, but is that a good enough reason not to consider other alternatives. Like focusing our attention on the world that ‘we’ live in. Our children, siblings, parents and friends would all love to receive more of our attention. Maybe we could wear a shirt with one of their names on it.