Lightweight footwear under one hundred grams; swimsuits designed by experts in hydrodynamics that “cut” through the water with maximum efficiency; sensors placed in different accessories that calculate heart rate and provide other real time information; rackets that reduce vibration transfer resulting from the impact of the ball...
These are just a few glimpses of the advances of the global sports goods industry, which is evolving as fast as the strides of Usain Bolt, or the strokes of Michael Phelps, icons of the athletic world who, in particular, have enjoyed the benefits of this huge production empire and, in addition, have contributed to its constant development.
Historic brands such as Adidas, Puma, and Nike, or the emerging Under Armor, four of the large consortia that sponsor and dress various competitors, completely control the sports market and have a direct impact on the main sporting events, from the Olympic Games to the World Cup - the two events that attract the most global attention.
The manufacture of sports goods saw early development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the industrial boom, the proliferation of clubs and the consequent professionalization of sports changed the essence of what today cannot be described as anything other than a business, given the huge network of companies it involves.
According to studies conducted by Plunkett Research, specialized in “market research, business analysis, industry trends, statistics,” according to its website, the value of the global sports industry can match that of annual U.S. exports, and exceed the GDP of entire nations. In addition, powerful soccer and baseball clubs see revenue of more than 500 million dollars, and a single boxing match can generate more than a trillion dollars.
The figures are shocking, especially when in this day and age, a high percentage of the world’s population continues to live in extreme poverty and need. However, they also make clear that sports is a profitable business for the major powers and brands, which invest, generate, and receive huge sums of money through television contracts, advertising, licenses, merchandising, and tickets.
But beyond the impact of these firms on athlete representation and their transformation into true cult heroes according to their results, let us pause for a minute to think about their real scope in terms of the equitable growth of sports.
Can Puma’s state-of-the-art products really reach a poor kid from a favela in Brazil, or the most remote villages in Central America or Africa? Does the unbridled competition between Adidas and Nike really pursue, at least as a secondary objective, the discovery and financing of emerging talents in underdeveloped countries?
The answer to these questions is a resounding no. Rather companies have used sports as an ideal source of prosperity; they have fostered inequality and increased the economic gap between rich and poor, the latter with very few opportunities to acquire equipment or develop infrastructure for the practice of any discipline.
The fact that the main sports goods firms pursue the same goal and have similar effects in underdeveloped countries does not mean that there is any sense of alliance or cooperation among them; on the contrary, their relations are marked by grudges stemming from past gimmicks, and competition in areas of technological research, development, and advances.
The emporiums of Adidas and Puma, for example, have their origins in Germany. In fact, they arose following the breakdown of relations between the Dassler brothers (Adolf and Rodolf), who had founded Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) in the 1920s.
The company gained worldwide fame in the 1930s on signing Jesse Owens, the stellar Black sprinter and long jumper who won four Olympic gold medals in Berlin 1936, before the defiant and frustrated gaze of Adolf Hitler. However, the Dassler brothers’ project disintegrated after WWII, leading to the creation of Adidas and Puma. Paradoxically, from that moment on they were never at peace.
The height of their run-ins came during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, for which the two powerful rival brands agreed to what became known as the “Pelé Pact” - a mutual agreement not to approach the Brazilian star to sign a sponsorship deal.
Despite the pact, a representative of Puma took advantage of the fact that the legendary striker had no knowledge of such an agreement, and signed him up without the company’s approval, which later gave the go-ahead. The move unleashed an ongoing fight with Adidas, which didn’t turn out very well for Puma, as in the last 20 years, the brand of the three bars has completely overtaken it in the market.
Nike emerged much later, and for a long time looked askance at the struggle between the two flagship brands, until Michael Jordan changed the fate of the U.S. brand forever with his Air Jordan shoes, a success all over the world. Since then, Nike has been Adidas’ rival par excellence, in an all-out war that constantly engages millions of consumers.
The competition has reached such a degrading point that personalities like LaVar Ball, the eccentric former U.S. football and basketball player, attempted to spark a bidding war over his son Lonzo Ball’s feet, to see which of the two firms (Adidas or Nike) would offer the most lucrative contract in exchange for the player wearing its sneakers in his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Modern sports are sold on a daily basis as a lavish spectacle, while millions of people simultaneously consume the brands that sponsor the events, and the athletic product itself. This practice has been established through and through, especially thanks to communications monopolies, which bombard all competitions with advertising, no matter the level.
It is precisely these commercial advertising commitments (for which millions are paid) and the sponsors that determine to a large extent how, when and where competitions take place. This has completely changed the situation for athletes, who must prepare to face an increasingly high competition volume.
These demands, to which we must add the constant and universal pressure of their followers, have led an endless number of athletes to resort to other means (doping, bets, match-fixing), all to secure six or seven digit advertising contracts - a privilege reserved for a minority group that reaches economic and publicity “glory” in line with its results in the competitive arena.
Commodification and commercialization have attacked the sports world, and its protagonists are treated as mere objects, sometimes pushed to sacrifice their prestige and values to achieve a result, even risking death by consuming prohibited substances. It’s an endless cycle, a loop in which often not even the athletes themselves can appreciate that they are trapped.
Developing nations generally excel in sports thanks to specific talents but, frequently, that success fades, as it lacks the solid foundations to support it.
It’s not surprising that this happens, as underdeveloped countries suffer from limited access to all the facilities of an overly classist sports goods industry, which views the athletic world as a source of easy and safe revenue.
Surviving this neoliberal approach is not easy, but Cuba has achieved it and stands at the forefront of the most disadvantaged nations, even now when its sports movement is not enjoying its best moment.
What has its formula been? In this small Caribbean archipelago, sports has been defended as a right of the people, as a source of health and well-being, a dignified concept that has allowed us to consolidate an organized and successful system in multiple disciplines – a real achievement if we consider our scarce economic resources and the limitations imposed by the most powerful country on the planet.
Without the benefits of the big brands, without access to cutting-edge technologies developed in the specialized laboratories of these companies, Cuba has not only exalted its virtues, but has also charted a path for nations with the same limitations.