The Ryder Cup matches return – but why?

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The 2014 Ryder Cup matches begin tomorrow.

The Ryder Cup is a challenge match between the United States and Europe (originally, in 1921, with just Great Britain). Though it has always been a competition among professionals, there has never been prize money. The original international competition (for which there wasn’t even a trophy) and the ensuing Ryder Cup were meant to be about something other than direct financial gain.

So what’s it about? Which team wins the competition? Which players win their matches? They way the teams unite, or don’t? The way the players compete? The way they handle themselves: when they are up in their match, down, or dormie; whether they win or lose? Is it “national” honor, pride, or bragging rights?

Why would professionals elect to play without pay? To defend their country’s honor? To make their countrymen proud? To follow the millions of heroes (i.e., military personnel) before them who have staked it all to have gone and tested their character and mettle – rather than to shy away for lack of courage or want of financial advantage. See King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.

To be clear, the participants have a lot to gain by playing:

One category of motivations: Being selected worthy of representing one’s country is a special honor. Joining a band of brothers united in the common goal of winning for one’s country is a richly rewarding experience, even in defeat. And for professionals who compete almost exclusively as individuals, playing as part of a team is a meaningful variation on the theme.

Another category of motivations: Simply being selected to this exclusive group raises one’s brand’s stock. Capturing headlines during the competition only multiplies that effect. Surely, every sponsor realizes that although its stable of players won’t be displaying the company logo during this competition, having those horses’ stock rise is a good thing; and (given that these guys aren’t playing in the NCAA) that value generally makes its way back to the horse in terms of lucrative corporate sponsorships.

For whatever reason, the Ryder Cup matches, despite being fiercely contested, have been associated with good sportsmanship. Certainly in the modern era as the value of sponsorships has skyrocketed beyond prize money, professionals know that their overall value only partly hinges on success in tournaments; the value of sponsorships rise and fall with issues of character, on and off the field. So, when Phil gives a thumbs up to Justin’s valorous comeback, he is both showing his sportsmanship – his belief these matches are about just that kind of steely success – and also making his sponsors happy about being seen as a good guy in the eyes of millions of consumers.

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I’m not at all cynical about this arrangement; everybody wins! Fierce, sincere competition, compelling match-ups, great golf, and genuine sportsmanship, win or lose; all playing out before millions of amateurs who subsequently might be that much more likely to play their sports in a similar vein. And since Big Business makes money off this whole display, it will continue to be broadcast widely, at a nominal price of admission.

This is a positive impact of pro sports on amateur players and – if you’ll allow that gestures of sportsmanship can generalize into daily life – the general, non-playing, audience.

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