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As a cultural phenomenon, sports resonates throughout societies, nations, and the world. As participants and workers in sports and sporting enterprises, athletes, particularly athletes who are celebrities, play a major role in this process.
Scholars have argued that celebrity is a very difficult concept to define, and its definition is slippery (Andrews & Jackson 2001; Turner, Bonner & Marshall 2000, 9). The word celebrity has Latin roots in “celebrem” and “celere,” indicating a situation where the individual possesses both particularity and fame (Rojek 2001, 9), that is, a special ability and a fleeting renown. It is possible to “treat celebrity as the attribution of glamorous or notorious status to an individual within the public sphere” while recognizing that celebrities are cultural fabrications involving many actors and agents helping create personalities with enduring appeal for fans (Rojek 2001, 10-11). Celebrity is the result of a well-designed process developed in the mid-twentieth century that involves an industry that both gains from the manufacturing of celebrities and brings profits to the companies that use celebrities.
Celebrity is linked to a public that has volatile opinions. The process of “celebritydom” dynamically draws the attention of the media and constructs celebrities to represent other people’s fantasies of lifestyle, luxury, consumption, and display (Whannel 2002, chapter 15). Determining when “celebrities” first emerged is difficult, but in 1959, an International Celebrity Register containing 2,200 names was published in the United States (Ponce de Leon 2002, 11). Pre-1960s
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the print media helped create an industry of leisure out of “spectacles.” Spectacles such as those involving extraordinary sporting events satisfied the newly created commodified needs of those with disposable time and income for leisure. Sports, along with visual artistic activities such as theater and opera, were thus transformed into profit-making functions with vast paying audiences. Ponce de Leon (2002, 7) points out that stars emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century when famous-personality journalism matured around 1900.The making of stars was contingent on the creation of media empires, mass-readership magazines, wire services, and feature syndicates. Show business and sports-renowned people emerged when newspapers and magazines began to cover these events in detail and to show the personalities who played in them. The renown of certain athletes increased when many major newspapers created a discrete sports pages and sections in the 1880s. Sports writers fashioned a way of thinking about sport that cut across social classes to reach wider audiences and sell more papers. As the sports columns were syndicated, they reached an even wider audience outside the big metropolitan centers, broadening the knowledge of sports stars who were a key element in these pages. Then, the use of photography in newspapers further aided in the creation of sport stars by individualizing athletes (Whannel 2002, 31). This coverage of sports stars helped to sell tickets to sports spectacles and to sell newspapers and magazines, which continues. The conventions of journalism established then remain the paradigm of celebrity creation today.
By the 1910s and 1920s, a new capitalism of mass production and mass consumption emerged, sometimes referred to as Fordist capitalism. Hollywood became important at this point. Dyer (1979) marks the year 1912 as the year of the first conscious attempt at manufacturing a movie star, the beginning of the deliberate marketing of stardom. The sports industry followed a similar path. By the 1920s, in addition to the print media, radio contributed to the promotion of sports and sport stars. The commercialization of sports climaxed in massive spectacles in the United States. Among these, baseball and boxing offered opportunities for entrepreneurs and media moguls to profit. These events depended on male stars. In baseball, Babe Ruth drew multitudes in the early 1900s, and in boxing Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney attracted 120,000 people to a Philadelphia stadium to watch the World Heavy-weight Title fight in 1926. Driven by the search of profits, sport entrepreneurs and newspapers attempted to build images of celebrity athletes as both naturally talented and hardworking but also “sportsmanlike.”
Sport stars and sports then grew in importance, to such an extent that they became symbols of nation, democracy, race, and politics. The 1936 Berlin Olympics proclaimed Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete, as a sport star, an icon of the American democratic supremacy over Nazi ideology of “Aryan” superiority. It is ironic and telling that, at the same time, the United States was steeped in racial segregation.
Although sports celebrities in the first half of the 1900s reaped some benefits from stardom, they were secondary actors in sports spectacles. Television started to bring the spectacle of sports to broader mass audiences. In 1950, there were only five million television sets in the world, mostly in Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR. In 1956, the Melbourne Olympics were the first ever televised, and in 1962, the World Football Cup in Chile was televised for the first time. Thus began the era of what some scholars have now called the “televisualization of sport” and “sportification of television”
(Miller et al. 2001, 93). In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the superstar status of athletes and their personal fortunes were still relatively limited; their personal lives were kept more apart from their sports identities, and their influence was limited to the particular sports they practiced. This started to change in the 1960s. The boxer Muhammad Ali best illustrates this period of transition. Ali was well known, in part, because of the marketing of his boxing abilities and in part because of the politically and ideologically controversial positions he took. Hence, he has also been described as a “trickster” who embodied both the “bad” in personal terms and the “good” as a sports person (Lemert 2003, p. 35).
In the 1970s and 1980s, there were economic, political, and technological changes. The current period, which is called post-Fordist capitalism, consists of the dominance of transnational corporations, just-in-time production and the microchip, real-time communications and global media empires, globalized consumerism, and branding, all of which have transformed sports, athletes, and celebrity athletes. Cultural globalization has been one of the results of post-Fordism.
With cultural globalization, particularly of the media, there has been an extreme commercialization of sport and the creation of a global sport industry that is marketed across cultures (Westerbeek & Smith 2003). Some scholars have called this a “global media-sports-culture complex” (Miller et al. 2001, 68-71). In contrast with the pre-1960s, celebrity athletes now have a team of specialists who help make them into cultural products and become companies in themselves, with agents, managers, and other employees who deal with their multiple businesses and investments. What this means is that these athletes are “commodified” for a global corporate sports complex that operates in a media culture where the spectacle is dominant (Kellner 2003, chapter 1).
We have chosen two of these celebrities, Michael Jordan and David Beckham, to illustrate the new roles, because they have been the epicenter of the transformation of sports celebrity status in the post-Fordist era.
As a basketball player, Michael Jordan was nicknamed “Air Jordan,” and off the court he soared by forging a new role for celebrity athletes in a globalizing world. As Klein (2002, p. 50) notes, “Any discussion of a branded celebrity leads to the same place: Michael Jordan . . . who has incorporated himself into the JORDAN brand.” His presence has been almost universal. For example, Chinese children ranked him at par with founders of the Chinese Communist party as figures of the twentieth century. Jordan has been given a deity stature as people kneel before his statue in Chicago (LaFeber 1999, 27). A few other National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball players had similar characteristics, and other sports were more popular than basketball, but what made Jordan significant has been the convergence of several developments. First, in post-Fordist capitalism, sports has become one of the most important forms of entertainment and is centered around celebrities, much as in Hollywood. Second, before the 1980s, sports spectacles generated profits primarily by capturing audiences to attend the actual event. This evolved to a situation where worldwide audiences, via satellite, could watch the spectacles in real time. Third, many large transnational corporations began to sell their products globally. In addition to Coca-Cola and a handful of already existing companies that aimed at global markets, many other companies began to draw a sizable part of profits from selling their products to consumers throughout the world.
Jordan’s celebritydom was crucial in this process. He was directly associated with the large entrepreneurs who owned these companies such as Phil Knight (the former CEO of Nike), and Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner (media moguls), and with corporate names such as McDonald’s and NBC. Before the 1980s, basketball was not as popular as baseball and football in the United States. A concerted marketing effort around a few celebrity figures allowed the NBA to become a successful league and business. For example, one popular marketing strategy was one of a “race contest” between African-Americans, epitomized by Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, and whites, symbolized by Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. When Jordan was hired to play for the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1980s, the business of basketball was already beginning to flourish. At the same time, the post-Fordist system of production and sales was globalizing into a network of production facilities throughout the world and this included Nike, then primarily a maker of sneakers massively sold during the jogging boom of the early 1980s. At the end of this boom, Nike embarked on a project that used particularly talented athletes as its central feature. These talented athletes also include established superstar golfer Tiger Woods and emerging basketball player LeBron James to name a few, but Jordan was the company’s main early promoter and superstar.
Klein (2002) offers a glimpse of the process that ensued and gave sports celebrities parity with movie and pop stars. Nike first re-packaged sports stars to make them celebrities in Hollywood fashion. Then, in a complicated process involving ideas of body, work, resistance against rules, and branding, Nike became one of the largest transnational corporations in the world, with a name brand and logo recognition similar to that of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. In this process, Nike boosted Michael Jordan to the same level of renown as stars in show business entertainment.
Jordan thus brought sports into the high levels of entertainment as technicians used close-ups and quick cuts to make him appear suspended in the air. Jordan’s special quality was established both on and off the court. He was portrayed as the ideal sports performer who met the standards of a show business celebrity through radio, television, newspapers, and “specialized” sports magazines. His commercial presence was enhanced by commercials that were in turn sold by his guise and persona. He became Nike’s main asset. Jordan became a special type of athlete, and he diversified into commercials endorsing Hanes underwear, McDonald’s restaurants, Gatorade, and Wheaties cereal. McDonald and Andrews (2001) called Jordan “hyperreal.”
As David Stern, the owner of the Chicago Bulls, put it, when Jordan commenced working for the Bulls, “the globalization of sports hadn’t yet occurred” (LaFeber 1999, 153). When Jordan retired, basketball was a global phenomenon. He had become a semi-god, and Nike was a global phenomenon that dominated the sports product market. In turn, millions of spectators worldwide watched NBA basketball. Basketball, and sports in general, had become an integral part of an entertainment world that depended on images and commodities and that was made possible by the new global media sports complex. This complex includes magazines, newspapers, tabloids, television networks, cable and digital television, and film studios—all of which provide a global framework for entertainment and spectacles. Jordan not only sold products through his charisma and business acumen but had himself become a product, or a commodity, that sold other commodities. There has been a consumption of Michael Jordan’s image as a celebrity as he became an American commodity sign (McDonald & Andrews 2001, 21, 33). The Jordan-Nike nexus reminds us that the media is one of the most important places where cultural icons are created as part of the sports/entertainment colossus (Kellner 2003, 89).
As an iconic figure of the celebrity world, David Beckham was recently considered as becoming a Jordan (Cashmore 2002, 141). Beckham has fine skills as a footballer (soccer player), but he is much more than that. He is an icon that exists outside time and space in the imagination of people as “le beau ideal” (Cashmore 2002, 4). In some parts of the world, he has reached demigod status—chocolate and gold leaf statues of him have been erected and worshipped (Beckham & Watt 2003, Statue, 31). A sculpture of Beckham was put in a spot of the Pariwas Temple in Bangkok that is normally reserved for minor deities. Like Michael Jordan, Beckham is a rich and famous global phenomenon who is, above all, a commodity. He is an image and a person who has been packaged to be a product to be consumed globally. He also sells other brands and logos. Thus, also like Jordan, he is also a giant corporate enterprise in and of himself but also directly linked to the global media-sports-culture complex.
Beckham’s celebrity status is partly because of Australian-born Murdoch, who has been instrumental in making sports a major part of show business through celebrity status. Murdoch’s early ownership of British newspapers, such as the Sun, Times, and Sunday Times, used “full computerization and color printing… towards a collage style in which headlines and photo displays came to dominate” (Cashmore 2002, 67; Whannel 2001, 35). This permitted visual highlight stories of individuals that repackaged them into personalities and celebrities. Moreover, in the 1980s, the global visibility of sports became the fulcrum of spectacles such that the selling of “sponsorships” became the major source of revenue in the 1982 football World Cup and the 1984 Olympics. Television was central to this process, and Murdoch emerged as one of the major forces in television. Cashmore (2002, 64-66) argues that Murdoch created football anew, making it into an overblown spectacle and that since then, football is not just a sport anymore. Giant media companies have integrated vertically, buying sports clubs of different kinds; in many places, football clubs have become large capitalist enterprises. These include the Manchester United (Beckham’s former team) and the Real Madrid (Beckham’s team at the time of writing), both of which depend on their celebrity footballers to make profits. Football, like basketball, attracts huge audiences throughout many parts of the world that can be sold many commodities. Companies that manufacture these products pay for television spots and sign these footballers, such as Beckham, to endorse their products. Through these ads, Beckham has become one of the most watched, admired, and recognized figures of the planet: He is the main character of Barclay’s Bank propaganda machine, of Brylcreem hair products, of Sondico shin pads, of Adidas’ roster of sport celebrities, and of Pepsi Cola. Since his deal with Adidas, Beckham has been represented by a publicist who specializes in show business public relations. Beckham’s public image has been attentively created to show him as a family man and a common mortal too, one who is even “tempted” by extramarital affairs. Thus, he is marketed with the image of an extraordinary man, but one who could perhaps be imitated. All his career moves have enhanced his business interests, including his branding, his magazine, and his cookbooks. His 2003 transfer to the Real Madrid team adds another mammoth brand in the form of a football team. His marriage to Victoria Adams, a Spice Girl (a British band) and a brand in her own right, was an astute career move that has strengthened his image and his logo. Thus, as Cashmore (2002, 13) argues, Beckham can be depicted as the epitome of the late twentieth century to early twenty-first century post-Fordist capitalism.
Unlike most ordinary citizens, many sport celebrities are affluent transnational persons living and working in many countries and for multinational corporations. Jordan and Beckham are American and British citizens, respectively, but they are also transnational citizens. Jordan and Beckham have played for their national teams, and both the United States and Britain are intensely nationalistic societies; the media has represented both men as the norm of world citizenship. Thus, the creation of celebrity athletes has become part of the globalization process. Jordan and Beckham are associated and symbolized with the consumption of global brand mass products that are easily recognizable by their logos.
Inasmuch as an individual celebrity athlete is a cultural fabrication and invention, he or she will inevitably have a cultural death. This is currently happening to Michael Jordan and will eventually happen to David Beckham. The point remains, however, that celebritydom and celebrityhood will likely continue unabated, and new celebrity athletes will emerge. This process of the celebritydom of a few select athletes is intricately tied to the global media and corporate sports in post-Fordist capitalism. Their celebritydom is a part of the resonance of sports in the social, cultural, and economic relationships of humanity.
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