The Sports-Industrial Complex

A review of Craig Calcaterra, Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2022).

English-language books about sports by lefty writers are rare. I read every new release with great interest. Now, Belt Publishing has released Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game, authored by Craig Calcaterra.

Calcaterra is a seasoned baseball writer. Unsurprisingly, many of the book’s arguments are illustrated by baseball references. In general, this is a book that revolves around US sports. While there is an epilogue that chronicles Calcaterra’s attempt to embrace soccer by watching the English Premier League, the sports that regularly appear alongside baseball are American football, basketball, and, to a lesser degree, hockey. There are also frequent references to US college sports, a very US-specific phenomenon.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One, “The State of Modern Fandom”, outlines the problems that a lefty sports fan has to deal with on a regular basis: the commercial exploitation, the use of sports as a jingoistic propaganda tool, the abuse of public funds for corporate interests, and more. I like the term “sports-industrial complex”, although the critique could have been deeper. The negative aspects of modern sports are not the result of evil owners and businessmen, they are deeply ingrained in capitalism itself. The standout chapter in Part One – at least for a union organizer like myself – was “Balls and Strikes”, in which Calcaterra sketches the history of union organizing in baseball and rightfully argues that reducing strikes by high-paid professionals to “millionaires wanting even more” doesn’t do justice to the conflict at hand. Even if professional athletes might constitute an extreme form of a labor aristocracy, the structure of the conflict between them and the bosses remains the same as everywhere: it is a struggle about the just division of profits. Furthermore – and this is much more pronounced in European soccer – the labor struggles at the top end of the ladder affect those at the bottom, where thousands of people play and live under precarious conditions (poor pay, short-term contracts, few or no benefits, weak legal protection), not least when they are migrant players whose residence permits are dependent on the clubs that employ them.

In Part Two, “How to Be a Fan in the Twenty-First Century”, Calcaretta turns to the ways in which lefty sports fans can reconcile their passions with the reality of the sports-industrial complex. Unfortunately, most chapters offer purely individual solutions: being a “fair-weather fan” and a “casual fan”, supporting individual players rather than teams, or embracing “metafandom” (kind of a nerdy relationship to sports rather than a passionate one) might help you turn on the television with less angst and better conscience, but they won’t rub the sports-industrial complex a bit. Luckily, there is also a chapter about supporting activist athletes, which at least takes steps toward trying to change the structure.

In a book about fandom, it would have been interesting to read about organizing attempts among fans. However, I understand there aren’t many such attempts in the US. In European soccer, fans organize from their local Ultra group to continent-wide networks such as FARE (originally, Football Against Racism in Europe). Next time, Calcaretta might want to turn his attention there. The Premier League, to be honest, is hardly worth it.

Gabriel Kuhn

(April 30, 2022)