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Pay Up and Play the Game: Professional Sport in Britain, 1875-1914.

Pay Up and Play the Game: Professional Sport in Britain, 1875-1914 Histories of sports and games are not new, but for the most part they have tended to concentrate on the social function and activity of sports. Or they have been very much about the development of particular games themselves, of more interest to the enthusiast than to a broader body of historians. Few have been concerned with the economic history of sport--with sport as a commercial and professional activity. It is Wray Vamplew's aim to begin to correct this lacuna in economic history. He offers a plea that serious economic historians pay attention to the study of recreation as well as to material creation. His goal in this book is largely fulfilled.

Although the book deals with the development of professional sport in general, it is a specifically detailed account of the commercialization of four major sports: association football, or soccer, rugby league, cricket, and horse racing. By the last he means flat racing; there is virtually no mention of steeplechasing, which was also subject to profound commercial influence during the time of his study. There might be some danger of making too parochial a choice. Soccer is the most popular game in the world; horse racing is equally ubiquitous, but rugby league originated in northern England, and, although popular now in other parts of the world, is still unknown to many. Criket is very much a game of the old empire and remains a mystery to much of the world. They are nonetheless interesting case studies in the British context, for they range over aspects of class discrimination and the long-running disputes between amateurism and professionalism. The myth of the amateur has long been exploded; all these sports were always professional in some form or another.

Vamplew traces the development of these four sports from early, "pre-industrial" days and shows how they were adapted to suit the expanding consumer market of late Victorian Britain. Rules were changed to add to spectator appeal; spectators had to pay to watch organized games in enclosed stadiums or race tracks. Professionalism became more widespread. This in itself was by no means new: there had always been hired hands in sports and games, well before the nineteenth century. Jockeys and cricketers were among the first professional sportsmen in Britain. Identifiable professions emerged, however, only in the last years of the nineteenth century.

Vamplew's thesis is that sport followed the trade cycle in that it developed as a profession and as a business as the market expanded. This is not a new idea, but it is examined here in impressively documented detail. Businessmen were quick to cash in on the upward movement in real incomes in Britain. There had long been material interest in sports, especially because of gambling, before the amateur myth of "playing the game" for its own sake, but it was in the late nineteenth century that sport became business. In exploring this development, Vamplew is able to cast doubt on negative assessments of British entrepreneurs in the late Victorian era. The growing public interest in games presented opportunities for commercial venture, and British businessmen were quick to take advantage of them. Interestingly, not all such entrepreneurs were profit maximizers. Some were utility maximizers, involved in the game as much for love as for money.

This is a detailed, thorough survey, making extensive use of statistical evidence as well as of varied and sometimes unusual archival material. There are sixty tables in the text, which are generally to the point, but I wonder if it is really necessary to know the rank order correlation between gate receipts and championships, 1895-1913, to learn that sporting success led to spectator appeal. This is not the only explanation; spectators' interest was likely to have been influenced by the weather, a well as by their own economic position. Despite the detail of evidence, however, Vamplew does not have the readers looking at their feet rather than at the road ahead. He has a lightness of touch in style that makes the book very readable.

Pay Up and Play the Game is not a "business history" in the conventional sense, but it is worth reading by those with an interest in the subject or in economic history in general. It brings to its subject techniques of analysis that have rarely been applied in this way before. It should broaden our perspective of the history of commercial and material life and invite further examples.

Roger Munting is lecturer in economic and social history at the University of East Anglia. He has published research on Russian economic history and is the author of Hedges and Hurdles: A Social and Economic History of National Hunt Racing (1987) and of several articles on the economic history of gambling in Britain. He is currently working on a book-length study of the history of gambling.
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Author:Munting, Roger
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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