By George Charlson
Most sports at different times go through periods in which they are dominated by one individual or team. Nicklaus and Woods. Federer and Sampras. Manchester United and Liverpool. Ali and Tyson. The names are easy to reel off; such is their primacy in the pantheon of sporting greatness.
A sport can be in one of two states of affairs. The first is where there is one star player or team that utterly transcends their sport due to the stupendous nature of their achievements. The alternative is that there are numerous contenders for glory, none particularly more accomplished than any of the others. The question of which of these two states is better not only divides sportwatchers but also is one on which few seem consistent. A friend of mine, a staunch Manchester United fan, recently claimed that he did not want Tiger Woods to win this year’s Masters because “he’s won enough already”. The irony was palatable, but the inconsistency was not unique. Most of us, for rational or, more often, irrational reasons, choose to support the dominant party in one sport, while rooting for the underdog in another. So, the question is: is dominance of a sport by one party positive for that sport?
Golf under the reign of Tiger Woods from 1997-2008 is a classic illustration of the first advantage of a period of dominance. When Woods began his phenomenal rise to the summit of golf with that twelve stroke win on a hot day in Georgia all those years ago, interest in the game rose just as fast. When Tiger topped the money list in 1997 his winnings were $2,066,833. Last year, Matt Kuchar, who did not win a single major, won more than twice that. As well as this, the average earnings from sponsorships on tour has rocketed. The advantage of Woods’ presence in golf, therefore, is obvious: it has brought with it an increase in earnings for everyone on tour, not just those, like Woods, who stand at the very top of Mount Golf.
Furthermore, the increase in remuneration associated with a period of dominance also has the effect of increasing participation in the sport by top school and university athletes. While this at first might seem a strange thought, on second glance it makes sense, especially in relatively less mainstream sports like golf or Formula One. Many people who excel at sport play, and are successful at, a number of different games in their youth. Increased earnings in golf, for example, has tempted those athletes who at one stage would have tried their luck as baseball or tennis players. This increases professional participation within that sport, which in turn promotes competition.
Even in sports with very high participation rates, like football, dominance is likely to eventually increase competition. The success of Manchester United in the 1990s led to huge investment in the Premier League. It also gave birth to a generation of teams, like Arsenal and
Chelsea, who were even hungrier for success than they already would have been. Both of these factors have led to the league being home to much of the world football’s top talent, as well as regular participants in European cup finals. Dominance by one team led to an improvement in standard of all the teams in the league, so that it is almost certainly the best in Europe.
In the face of the evidence against their position, those who favour a more level playing field claim that dominance by a single party is dull. They might concede that there are economic and competitive benefits to dominance, but that it drains all the interest out of a sport: the ennui of the Sampras and Schumacher eras are examples here.
The people who quote these instances of seemingly boring periods of dominance are at least partly right; predictability is a recipe for tedium. But the point these critics of dominance miss is that sport is ultimately the pursuit of perfection in spite of the inherent imperfectness of human beings. Both mind and body are famously and obviously flawed. Those who dominate a sport have come as close as is possible to intertwining the operation of the two so as to overcome those flaws. One of the real joys in sport is watching records tumble as one individual or team leave the rest of the field in their wake. You feel as if that person or that group of people is creating a history to which you are privy. And that is a truly special feeling.