As the expansion of Big Ten and LIV Golf show, loyalty is always for sale
Look almost anywhere and you’ll notice an erosion of engagement, which was once a fundamental sporting principle. Loyalty is a musty concept in big budget sports. It’s not just about how fickle participants have become, with free agents and trade-demanding stars manipulating pro team building and a college athlete revolution spurred by transfer portal and name, image and likeness free for all. Players receive a disproportionate share of blame, but institutions become just as mercurial. Everyone and everything is open for business, which makes nothing sacred. We will consider this period as a final assault that eliminates our ability to romanticize high performance sports.
College football is in the midst of a second straight summer of realignment madness. Again, this is the poaching of certain cardinal members of the power conferences. A year ago, Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC. Now, USC and UCLA will soon abandon the Pac-12 and deliver the Los Angeles market to the Big Ten. For regional purists, this is an absurd alliance. Still, that won’t stop the TV money from piling up. But it’s just the latest failure in a sports market full of players shying away from long-standing alliances.
LIV Golf Invitational Series defectors dominated the conversation in men’s golf. The NBA is going through its annual star player movement soap opera, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant appearing to be on their way out of Brooklyn. NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his disappointment with the situation involving Durant, a generational talent who requested a trade when he had four years left on his contract.
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Fresh off winning the Wimbledon women’s singles title, Elena Rybakina has been representing Kazakhstan on the court since 2018, despite being a Moscow native and resident for most of her life. Her Kazakh tennis nationality – a choice she made four years ago to seek better coaching facilities and resources – has allowed her to take part in this year’s tournament. In April, Wimbledon officials responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by banning players from Russia and Belarus from participating. This further emphasized Rybakina’s duality, and in a year that continues to challenge the way we view loyalty, allegiance and custom in sport, she made the champion perfect and complicated.
Subsequently, the journalists not only wanted to know more about the identity of the late blossoming 23-year-old. They asked about whose she was. It was an extreme, geopolitical, wartime example of the enigma of sport right now.
“I don’t know,” Rybakina said when asked if Russia would politicize their triumph. “I’ve been playing for Kazakhstan for a very, very long time. I represent them in the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which was a dream come true. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, it’s always news, but I can’t do anything about it.
The issues she’s had to deal with are far greater than scrutinizing Durant’s legacy now that he’s a wandering basketball mercenary or worrying about what happens to the Bedlam rivalry after Oklahoma left Oklahoma State. But Rybakina’s story still manages to underscore the awkwardness of that time.
Regardless of the circumstances, these seemingly dissimilar sports stories intersect in devotion. In this capricious rejection of old norms, who owes what to whom? We are compelled to consider what devotion means now and its place as power dynamics keep changing, money keeps rising, and everyone involved continues to opt for business. strenuous rather than for classic sporting values that often require greater sacrifices.
The current atmosphere oscillates between seemingly refreshing and liberating, especially for athletes who have been abused and exploited by ancient, and sadly catastrophic, practices.
It might be impossible to keep college athletics from rumbling toward a superconference era. While that might prove useful in the short term for TV executives dreaming of an NFL-like inventory of elite, big-school matchups, regionalism is the soul of college sports. Domestic competition is a sweetener. Grass has always mattered the most. It defines rivalries and recruiting bases. This stirs the passion of the fans. Historically, regions have influenced the style of play, but nationalization has already changed that a lot. More charm will be lost as geographically insane megaconferences take shape. Past realignment has shown that to be true, and those mergers weren’t nearly as shocking as inviting two Southern California teams to Big Ten country.
I am not a rigid traditionalist. There’s nothing wrong with thoughtful, well-intentioned change. But money-grabbing decisions sold to the public as survival tactics are not seen as thoughtful or well-intentioned. It’s also unwise to consider a leadership vacuum as permission to make a power move when it’s so disruptive to the fan experience.
In sports, loyalty is often a word thrown around for control purposes, to shame people for doing what is right for the institution. A player empowerment movement has democratized the athlete-team partnership, making the commitment as enduring as the skill level on either side. Customer loyalty is the link that really matters, and it’s the biggest concern of these money-driven changes. Because as obsessed as sports fans are, it’s a lot to ask them to adjust and compartmentalize all the instability.
Many grew up developing their love of the sport because the stars stayed in one place for a long time, because the rivalries were eternal, because of the traditions around which they built a sense of community. Consistency is an important part of escapism sports. While real life is crazy and unreliable, there is a lot of reliability in the sports world. The results may be unpredictable, but you can navigate everything else with your eyes closed. Uninterrupted routine inspires faith.
Now all parties are loyal only to their commercial interests. And so the last vestiges of the enchantment are disappearing for major professional and college sports. They have long been too big and lucrative to delight as they once did. The ultimate concern is what they turn into – and how increasingly disenchanted audiences will receive them.