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  • Economists and Sport History
  • Stefan Szymanski†

Economics is all about how people make choices. Sociology is all about why they don't have any choices to make.

James Duesenberry1

Sports history is presently a marginal field of academic enterprise. I am not an historian, so this charge may be considered unfair and unkind, but it is also true that my own field, sports economics, is likewise a marginal branch of economic literature, and much the same may be said of sports sociology. Now, one need not feel disappointed about being unimportant (indeed, the great economist Alfred Marshall argued that unimportant factors of production frequently command the highest prices). But there are reasons to believe that the study of sports deserves to be given more weight. I suggest three reasons:

  1. 1. Sport does not (contrary to the views of many) involve much money, but billions of people derive a great deal of satisfaction from sport: sport matters;2

  2. 2. Because sport matters, politicians pay enormous attention to sport, devising policies and imposing regulations in order to achieve their particular aims; it is therefore important to understand the way that the political process evolves; [End Page 71]

  3. 3. The development of modern sport went hand in hand with the development of modern consumer capitalism, which had become the world's dominant economic system by the end of the twentieth century. But modern sport is not a by-product of modern capitalism, or merely a charming exemplar: its structures and forms co-evolved with the institutions of modern capitalism, and thus the understanding of modern sporting institutions is essential to the understanding of modern society.

The failure to take sports seriously is in my view a consequence of the analytical approach adopted by social scientists who work in the field. These social scientists have tended to argue that traditional sports were adapted by modernists seeking to align sports with modern institutions; in other words, there existed a modernizing program, and sport was simply one of many activities to be reformed. Social historians have provided detailed descriptions of the modernization, while theorists have then used their examples to demonstrate the process at work. Marxists search for examples of power relations in action—a system of exploitation imposed by the ruling groups on the masses; Weberians identify a somewhat more benign modernizing agenda, but still the traditional pastime is constrained by the architecture of modernity, for reasons that seem to have little to do with the sport or its practitioners in and of themselves. The dominant voice of sports social science is passive. In this context, it is scarcely surprising if no one else takes us seriously.

Sport and sports practitioners become actors in the evolution of modern societies if we recognize that to participate in sport is a choice, albeit a choice constrained by our opportunities. Almost all social histories of sport emphasize the voluntarism that characterized participation in modern sports, a development that seemed to contemporaries to be autonomous. Moreover, out of early modern sports there developed a series of movements asserting autonomy, an ideology that has remained firmly entrenched in the rhetoric of modern sports to this day. Voluntarism and autonomy lie at the core of the concept of modern sport, and it is the task of social scientists to understand how and why these values evolved and diffused. Passive theories are inadequate since they do not adequately acknowledge the agency of practitioners themselves. By contrast, mainstream economic theories are capable of accounting for the formation of modern sports and sporting associations. For those unfamiliar with this theoretical apparatus, this article is intended as a short primer and source of further references.

The next section briefly provides some examples of passivity in the analysis of modern sport in the established literature. Then some of the historical features of the evolution of modern sports are discussed, and this account is then set within the framework of a mainstream economic analysis.

The Marginalization of Sport

Marxist and Weberian accounts of the evolution of modern sports have dominated the sports history literature. Sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm provides an extreme example of Marxist theorizing:

Modern sport, organised into national and international sports federations...


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