So you think it's sport? It's the money

It’s the money. We haven’t quite got the message yet, which is reassuringly quaint but is not up with the play.

I’m talking of “sport”. Sport used to be exercise, pitching skill and determination in non-lethal competition, helping make mind and body healthy.

“Play up, play up and play the game.” “Taking part is what matters.” “May the best man [sic] win.” You know the good old British sayings.

Or maybe you don’t if you are under 35. Sport is business.

Sure, you can still play for the fun and adrenalin. But for most of those around you the sport that grips is what they watch, not what they do.

What is watched is business. And those who are watched are stars.

The cricketers made the point last week in South Africa. There were national teams once who thought of themselves as ambassadors. Today’s players see themselves as workers on a job, entitled to hoon it up and bag lots of holidays.

Their job is to entertain. Through television and in live shows they inject the “opiate” to keep the masses quiescent, as Karl Marx wrote of religion.

They serve another purpose. In civilised societies war has been sublimated in sport. It’s better to thrash the next-door district or country at football or netball than blitzkrieg it. Not for nothing is much of the commentary in mock-battle terminology.

But mostly, remember, it’s the money.

The rugby union failed to grasp that and lost the hosting of the World Cup. Amateurs thinking they were administering a pastime did not serve the deeper economic imperative: to make money out of holding World Cup games.

Winning the World Cup would be nice and lift popular spirits (the “opiate” in action). But holding the contest here is a business. The Australians understood that — as they understood the business of their Olympics. They go hard at that business.

The same calculus applies to the America’s Cup. It’s great for this country to have held it, to have been a giant-killer, nifty little New Zealand against the huge corporations from rich countries. I have vicariously shared the temporary pride in better technology, design and sailing.

But weaklings kill giants only on off-days. In normal times only giants kill giants. So it is again.

The deeper and enduring value in the America’s Cup for the country has been economic: the business gained. So the economic case in defending the cup was to transform this little enterprise here, by international alliances if necessary, into a giant that would assuredly buy the design, technology and team to keep the business coming.

It’s a global business, as all business is now. So think globally.

Fonterra, controlled by farmers in a small country, might ponder this. Customers, not producers, drive the giants in the food business.

So sport is business. And business is profits. It’s the money.

But sport is also a special sort of business. A well-run sports business can generate national (or provincial) pride. Honourable players can civilise the business and so civilise pride and society.

Governments need civilised and civilising business because they must win votes.

Modern governments know that businesses maximising profits make their countries richer. So they have become more business-friendly over the past quarter-century, here included.

But if governments are to stick with business-friendly policies and also win votes they need people-friendly businesses. Not largesse with profits and good works — businesses are in business to create shareholder wealth, not make people feel good. But businesses that play by rules the public sees as fair. In short, honour.

Business insists a country does better economically if the culture does not stigmatise business failure and so encourages people to have a go. This has long been argued to have been an important ingredient in the United States’ success in the twentieth century.

But in the past couple of decades it seems top businesspeople cannot fail. They can make decisions which are disastrous for their company and still take away enormous payouts. It’s a one-way bet.

There are numerous examples. AMP is one. Since its demutualisation it has made two disastrous investment decisions. That is a fact of life in doing business and is not to be moralised about in itself — we all make mistakes and big people’s mistakes are big. But in a civilised world the chairs and chief executives responsible would eschew their lavish contractual payouts — as did Air New Zealand’s board when the airline crashed.

The point is that most voters work in the engineroom where they may well be fired to make good bosses’ errors. So venal behaviour by already rich bosses does not make a good public case for a longer leash for business (as National will find). It makes it harder for governments, especially of the left, to promote business-friendliness in policy (hence Labour’s wariness).

I was about to say it’s just not sporting. But that would bring me back to where I came in. Have a good time watching the Super-12.