Past masters: history and the business of sport

Ed Smith, the international cricketer turned writer, broadcaster and historian, argues that to understand the sports industry today, you must understand its past.

Past masters: history and the business of sport

In my last year at university, I had to choose between starting out as a professional cricketer and staying on in academia. It was a difficult choice because I loved both sport and history. I wish I could have combined the two. But that was impossible, and I chose the pitch over further study.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I have set up a new Master of Arts course – the History of Sport 1800-2000, part of the University of Buckingham’s ‘London Programmes’ – which brings together the two central interests of my life. I hope the MA course will become a unique forum for top-level thinking about sport, drawing together ideas and debate from leading academics, thinkers, journalists and practitioners from across the world of sport.

When I was graduating, sports history was still relatively unfashionable. A distinguished Cambridge historian asked me what topic I was considering as a possible PhD. When I replied that I was interested in how professional sport both revealed and influenced British attitudes towards class, gentlemanliness and status, there was an audible snort from the professor. “For three years I thought you were serious,” he implied, “and now you tell me you want to study sports history.”

But I was right. Sport matters, and understanding how it came to matter so much is a great and underexplored story.

The ascent of sport, its influence and outreach, is one of the most unexplained surprises of social history in the 19th and 20th century. How did sport go from being marginal and declining to the global behemoth of today? Sport has become not only a major beneficiary but also a principle agent of globalisation: sport bounces ideas, fashions and cultures around the world.

Today sport’s system of governance, which was set up to serve Victorian values, now presides over multi-billion pound businesses.

What is surprising is how sports history, both the good and the bad, remains underexplored even inside the sports industry. For example, to understand the problems of global governance that beset so many major sports today – Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) being only two pre-eminent examples – we first have to understand the ideas that shaped the structure of sports when they were first codified and formalised. The clue is in the names: the R&A, the MCC, the RFU, the FA. They were all associations, clubs and amateur groups – literally, rather than pejoratively, “old boys’ clubs” – that set themselves up to police and develop their sports. The defining philosophy was the amateur ideal, which drew on the overlapping concepts of fair play, chivalry and gentlemanliness.

Fast-forward 150 years. Today sport’s system of governance, which was set up to serve Victorian values, now presides over multi-billion pound businesses. By the same jumps of logic, we crave athletes to be “role models” while also expecting them to give up everything in pursuit of total perfection. Sport is two worlds fused together; no wonder it can look like it is coming apart at the seams.

History is equally important in explaining effective sports marketing and branding. It is no coincidence that Wimbledon, Lord’s and the Masters could sell out tickets for their respective events many times over. History drives much of what makes sport powerful. Many people inside the sports industry say they “love history”; far fewer take the trouble to learn some. History is an effective tool.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of setting up the MA was asking myself which ten speakers would give MA students the greatest insights into the history, development and meaning of sport.

Some people picked themselves. Mike Brearley, who is giving the opening lecture on 6th October, followed his career as one of England’s finest captains and strategists with a second career as an equally distinguished psychotherapist. He will address the value of sport, both to society and within an individual life. How does sport draw us in, why do we love it?

Sir Clive Woodward, who played for England as an amateur and won the Rugby World Cup as national coach in the professional era, will explain how professionalism has changed sport.

I also invited the leading academics who shaped sports history as an increasingly established subject. Professor Richard Holt, whose Sport and the British was a landmark book, will set up the historical sweep of the course in the second lecture.

This MA, however, is not limited to sport inside one country. My co-director, Professor Simon Martin, is the pre-eminent scholar of sport in Italy. Professor C J Young is the equivalent expert for German sports history. The MA is international in scope and ambition.

Above all, I wanted the course to reflect the fact that some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about sport, the people I’ve learned most from, have not always led careers inside sport. They’ve been highly perceptive observers, dedicated to sport, but able to bring unique insights from their outside careers. Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England and a director of Aston Villa, is a case in point. He will give an inter-disciplinary lecture on globalisation in sport and finance.

I am increasingly convinced that sport can benefit vastly from better history; and history can learn a huge amount from sport. My only regret is that the course didn’t exist 20 years ago when I had to choose between the two.


Ed Smith is a historian, journalist and broadcaster. @EdSmithWriter He played professional cricket for Kent, Middlesex and England. Details of the MA in the History of Sport 1800-2000 can be found here: