- Counting the Ways: Wray Vamplew’s Pay Up and Play the Game and Its Importance to Sport History
As far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, humans have worked to fashion sports and athletics into a business enterprise, with established roles in finance, management, coaching, and training, among other areas. There always seemed to be money (or its equivalent) surrounding the competition. For instance, in the first century of the Common Era, [End Page 117] Dio Chrysostom described the scene around the Isthmian Games as filled with babbling poets, lawyers, assorted mountebanks, and “a host of cheap-jacks selling everything under the sun.”1 What would he have said of the World Cup, the Olympics, or the Super Bowl?
Today we assume that someone is grubbing for money at every level of sport. Assumptions were different in 1972 when I began graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. The dominant scholarship in sport history (such as H.A. Harris quoted above) held that in both the ancient and modern eras there was a golden age of purity and amateurism that had been sullied, tainted, and ruined by professionalism and commercialism. Believers like Harris had an outlook and a saying that oozed over their scholarship: “when money comes in the door, sport flies out the window.” This historical notion (now debunked) had consequences for many athletes. Wray Vamplew was among them. In the preface to Pay Up and Play the Game, he recalled how he was stripped in the early 1960s of his eligibility for university rugby because he had played a few games for no pay on a team in the “professional” rugby league. In his words, “What, I wondered, was so special about professional sportsmen that simply to play alongside them, even second-rate ones, was sufficient to contaminate my amateurism?” Lucky for us, this experience prompted Vamplew to investigate the long history of this commercialism and professionalism.2
I had the pleasure of reviewing Pay Up over two decades ago. It is a history of “gate money” sport in Britain from 1875 to 1914. In terms of historical genre, it is largely (in Vamplew’s words) “quantified economic”—although “slightly social”—in nature (p. xiv). Vamplew compiled data from four sports: “football north and south of the Scottish border, county cricket, horse-racing, and rugby league” (p. xv). He examined trends in attendance; revenues; profits; competitive equity; occupations of players, shareholders, and directors; wages; and crowd control. There were three major vectors in his approach. One was a focus on economic issues—the production, distribution, and consumption of his chosen sports. The next was to be comparative across time, space, sport, and organization. The last was to base comparisons on quantitative evidence. He nicely achieved his objectives. He crossed sports and countries, with sixty tables and four massive spreadsheets—an impressive array of data in a narrative of 283 pages. His book was a most worthy winner of the first North American Society for Sport History book award (1989). Vamplew’s book— and his three vectors of analysis—provided a summons and a model for particular forms of scholarship in our field. In this reflection I hope to suggest where and why he succeeded and failed but ultimately why I stand by my statement then: this book “deserves to be on every serious sport historian’s shelf.” Let me count the ways.3
Vamplew hoped to prod more historians into doing similar types of analyses. He threw down a special challenge to economists and economic historians. He sensed that they had avoided sport because they were caught in a “straightjacket of economic theory” and were too timid to push into new areas. The economics of sport, he claimed, was “still in its infancy” in the 1980s, and “hypotheses have not yet achieved the respectability of becoming laws—the material on maximization of crowd attendances is a good example of this.” Historians were not jumping in to lead the search for “laws” (p. 12).
It is fair to say that economic and business historians have continued to avoid the topic. For instance, the recent Oxford Handbook of Business History contains many wonderful chapters, but there are...