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The Beginnings of Commercialism in Sport (Or was it always There?)

The Beginnings of Commercialism in Sport (Or was it always There?)

By Professor Wray Vamplew

University of Edinburgh

Sports historians generally accept that ‘modern’ sport and commercial activity were intertwined from the mid nineteenth century, but I would argue that sport had a commercial aspect many centuries before if we accept that any of the following featured.

  1. An element of commodification in which someone was willing  to pay to play or watch sport.
  2. The employment of professional sportspersons, talented performers paid to entertain an audience, act as vehicles for gamblers, compete for prize money, and earn fees for coaching less-skilled athletes.
  3. The promotion of sports events to stimulate economic activity in a particular locality by attracting visitors to the area along with the spending involved in constructing facilities and putting on the show.

Bread and Circuses

Commercialisation of spectator sport need not involve the selling of tickets. The thousands of spectators who flocked to the Colosseum in Rome in the first century CE to watch gladiatorial combat were not paying for their pleasure. This day of thrills and deaths would have been funded by a patron. The profit-makers were gladiatorial managers who ran establishments of fighters and hired them out to promoters organizing combats. The hiring fee was 10% to 20% of the gladiator’s value, but the full cost had to be paid if he was killed or seriously wounded. This explains why less gladiators were killed than has been supposed.

Gladiators were highly-trained, skilled, professional sportsmen, but rarely free men. There was a career structure and a tyro, if successful, could work up four ranked grades to become valued at 15,000 sesterces. As well as being housed and fed by the stable manager, win or lose they were entitled to 20% of their hiring fee as a wage and often obtained a share of any prize money awarded. Taking around twenty bouts as a norm and applying the highest hiring rate available, career earnings come to just 60,000 sesterces, less than two year’s wages for an unskilled worker.

Gladiators were not the first professional sportsmen. They had been preceded by the Ancient Greeks as all Greek elite performers (athletes, wrestlers and charioteers) were professional, not in the sense of sport being their full-time occupation, but in that they competed for prizes, some of which could be valuable. The 100 amphoras awarded to the victor in the Panathenaic Games footrace was the equivalent of 847 days wages for a skilled craftsman of the time. Better than being a gladiator and less risky!

There were enough festivals available for freelance professionals to undertake tours combining local games with one of the more significant and highly lucrative events. Some cities even paid appearance money to attract star performers to their festivals. Evidence indicates that states would sponsor talented athletes and, for the more successful, who brought renown to their city, offer pensions after they retired from competitive sport.  So keen were some states to gain victories that they persuaded star performers to change their citizenship.

Roman charioteers also changed allegiances when the money was right. In Roman times chariot racing became systematically professionalised with its staging becoming the responsibility of four factions which procured the horses, maintained the stables, trained the drivers and provided the chariots. Drivers who survived the dangers of the racetrack could do well financially out of the prize money that they won. A prime example was the Spanish charioteer Diocles who, during a 24-year career won 1,462 of his 4,257 races and accumulated over 35 million sesteres.

Moving into the Byzantine era, the emperors dropped the Roman gladiatorial contents and brutal animal sports but continued the tradition of chariot racing. Emperor Constantine finished the construction of the Great Hippodrome in Constantinople, capable of seating over 100,000 spectators. Byzantium chariot racing became a government enterprise with emperors defraying the costs of some fifty racing venues including the salaries of the charioteers, the training of horses, interval entertainment, and the feeding of the audience.

Knights in Shining Armour and Tennis Players

A prevalent images of medieval sport is the knight on horseback ready to engage in jousting, but knights also took part in mock battles in which horses, equipment and men could be captured and held for ransom. Some of these events were large spectacles: that at Lagny-sur-Marne in 1179 had around 10,000 participants, some 3,000 knights and their retinues, the rest fighting mercenaries. Knights themselves were mercenary soldiers, so these tournaments enabled them to hone their martial skills with the bonus of making material gains. By the early fourteenth century the tournament was a well-established sporting fixture in virtually every corner of Europe: one estimate is that a knight could tourney once a fortnight or so.

In fourteenth century Europe knightly tournaments became widely publicised spectacles with spectators, some of whom had travelled considerable distances, attending specifically for the show. The number of spectators often necessitated the erection of grandstands and the fencing off of areas to accommodate them. By the mid fifteenth century short-term sports tourism was a common phenomenon in Europe. No one paid to watch the tournaments, but towns vied to host them because of the associated consumer spending of thousands of spectators. Others who took advantage of the commercial opportunities included vendors of a variety of merchandise, livestock sellers and horse traders, land agents, moneychangers, freelance blacksmiths, bonesetters, pickpockets and prostitutes.

In the meantime another set of professionals had emerged, those who taught sporting skills to private clients. Admittedly senior gladiators had acted as instructors to tyros but that had been an in-house service obligation. Some of these tutors taught non-utilitarian skills in tennis-like ball games such as the salaried resident professionals in the Italian princely courts in the late fifteenth century onwards. There were also freelance players who provided a betting market for their backers and onlookers


The author is working on a model to determine the level of commercialisation in sport historically. If it demonstrates a long-run involvement of sport with commerce, it may undermine the view that the modern influx of money into sport has changed the character sport as it used to be played. Moreover, if it shows that sport was a common exchange commodity well before industrialisation there will be implications for economic history not just sports history.


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