Sunday, August 17, 2008

There's Gold in them Thar Hills: The Sports Machine

The August 16th New York Times editorial “Our Idea of Gold” is a flawed analysis of an important political topic: the role of government in sports.

It is true that Sport occupies a special status in most cultures around the world, and in our society in the United States. It is at its core entertainment, but also serves an educational role. As the Times observes, there is an obesity epidemic in the United States, and there are health benefits to exercise that we value. But the conclusion that there are better uses for $130M in federal funds than the USOC lacks understanding of this special status.

For sure, $130M is a lot of money, but not in comparison to what the Government spends on a regular basis. In my home of Seattle, WA, I note we now have two monolithic, state of the art athletic stadiums, one specifically each for professional Baseball and Football. Both were built in large part with WA state public funds and tax benefits to their owners and lessees. The teams that use these facilities are huge economic engines of commerce; generate huge profits for their owners; and corresponding huge salaries of the stars that play there. And fairly, the government doesn’t fund each and every request for extravagant public works projects for these sport-entertainment enterprises. Witness the relocation of the Seattle Supersonics upon being denied a government subsidy of an arena to showcase their professional product.

When considering the role of government in funding success in sports, we can’t ignore the fact that the spectacle appeals to many people. The young want to “be like Mike.” (And it is significant this week that there are indeed many young that will not be exactly sure which “Mike” they want to be like.) Never mind that these young are told the need to be like Mike by purchasing a special brand of shoe (or high tech swimsuit?) or that the cereal they get mom to buy at the grocery store is better because it has his picture on the box, or that all the kids at school emulate each and every move from last nights game on the playground (or at the pool?) The fact is that they react to such messages, and act on them. Those of us removed in years from school playgrounds thrill to Dana Torres, who at 41, is still winning Olympic medals against competitors that could easily be her children, and at French cyclist Jeanne Longo, who a few days before her 50th birthday missed an Olympic medal by less that 2 seconds against competitors that could be her grandchildren. If that doesn’t make you want to hit the pool or buy a bike, or even tune in for more TV coverage, well…perhaps nothing will. Suggesting that an after school program or daily gym classes for school children will fill this role equally well ignores the obvious – kids (and adults, for that matter) have much to choose from to occupy their discretionary activity time. When faced with “go play video games, or surf the internet, and thereby become good with computers to become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates billionaire” or go hangout in a smelly gym to shoot some baskets with kids too inept to actually understand academic pursuits while the PE teaches steps outside for another smoke, which do you think most kids will choose? But put a good coach that inspires achievement with a in a well appointed, updated facility, with good equipment (supplied by Nike?) and tell the parents (or the older adult wanting to feel better) “this could lead to a chance to compete on a world stage”, the balance shifts. Where parents or tired professionals are asked to invest time, effort and money out of a family budget, they rightfully ask what their child or they personally will gain from the experience. Sure, many times that balance is a hard call for parents and overwhelmed adults to make, and many times there can be some denial on the part of parents who think their kid is going to be the next Michael Phelps, but none will want to make that large in an investment of resources in something that is essentially pickup games that cost nothing. The conclusion that we don’t need to invest in Olympic or professional sport achievement, because we can replace it all with after hours school or gym classes is absurd, and ignores lacks reasoned analysis of important factors involving participation incentives.

Consider who will benefit from that gym membership with a pool, or purchase of that bike, or that rowing skull. The gym, the bike shop, and a boat manufacturer for sure, but others as well: those purchases are taxed, along with those shoes, the cereal, and the gas to take the kids to soccer practice. Coaches and trainers find employment. Clothing manufacturers that provide accessories as well. It adds up quickly.

There is in fact some reasonable debate about the “savings” healthy lifestyles will return to our health care system – healthy people live longer, and therefore need more heath care over the years (see: “Healthy People Cost a Bundle”), but is it not in our government’s interests to provide reasonable health care to all citizens? Don’t we all aspire to long, productive lives? Isn’t the safety of all citizens, including protection from the predictable ravages of old age, a role of government?

The Times opinion is that $130M shouldn’t be built in building a sports machine. Quite the contrary: the sports machine may be a great investment. Many people will make sacrifices to have access to the sports machine, and they will benefit directly from it. Ask the executives at NBC if having the US in Gold Medal rounds at the Olympics makes their ratings go up, and if those rating have any value to their shareholders. Ask the makers of HDTVs if sports competition drives their sales around Super Bowl time. Ask a ski resort owner in Utah if his property is worth more because the world came to SLC in 2002. Should a rich benefactor augment the US Federal investment? Indeed they should, and they do. But how many more rich benefactors will there be to do so if the US invests more in the infrastructure they will derive direct, albeit long-term, benefits from? Would a trucking company benefit from US federal funds being spent on roads, or an airline benefit from more airports? I’m not an economist, but this seems reasonable.

I don’t dispute that there are many other things the US Federal Government can and should spend $130M on. But in an era of trillion dollar annual budgets, I believe it specious to argue that we can’t do those things too. Do choices have to be made, and some of them difficult? Surely. But making those choices requires reasoned consideration of all the factors. And of course, international sport, and the Olympic Movement in particular, are irrefutably tied to global politics. If we seek international amity, what bad result can come from athletes discovering, on a world stage, that even if they don’t speak the same language, or have the same values as other athletes, they all have something in common – their evolutionary urge to compete? Isn’t diplomacy predicated on finding common ground first? What bad result can come from competing fiercely and with dedication, but fairly and with understanding that respect for other humans and our mutual rules of interaction? Isn’t this “a collaborative, less arrogant diplomacy?” And if the price tag is only $130M, I say it is a bargain.

I recently watched a short segment of beach volleyball on NBC. It included a description of how the Chinese hosts maintained the beach sand. They used “sandbonis:” automated robot devices to groom the court. I immediately wondered how a nation of 1.3 billion people could eschew using a few guys with rakes in favor of costly technology that has limited application. Then it dawned on me that perhaps there is actually a market for such machines, given that beach volleyball is now a worldwide sport (with rich benefactors in corporate sponsorship?) Given the choice between employing people with rakes or putting those people to work building sandboni’s to groom beach sand around the world, what seems like the kind of thing that will lead to economic, long term growth? Indeed, one has to wonder how many Chinese could be fed for the cost of building the WaterCube arena, but how many Chinese will be fed because they built the WaterCube?

No comments: