The US is going to South Africa. As I followed Grant Wahl’s twitter feed of Saturday’s game from San Pedro Sula, an odd experience of using a 2009 technology to get around the 1980 closed circuit, I was surprised, impressed, and pleased with the fortitude Bob Bradley’s men showed in Honduras. Having not been able to watch, I imagine the game to have played much like the Confederation’s Cup this summer: the US offering just enough tactical and technical savvy to complement their most distinctive quality of sheer determination. There are still many questions as to how far that combination can take the US at the World Cup finals, and I’m sure much will be written on that topic between now and next June. But for me the US victory, along with the crystallizing of all the nations that will be at the finals next summer, raises a more difficult question: will I be in South Africa with them?
As the World Cup qualifiers conclude and the final slate of teams becomes clear, I find myself tormented by the truth and the cliché: going to see the World Cup in South Africa would be a “once in a lifetime experience.” I consider myself lucky in that I have been to South Africa before, and know it to be a place of much wonder. But my previous travels were part of other experiences in Africa, and were funded accordingly. For this World Cup it seems to all be up to me and my “struggling middle class” existence. And by my count going to South Africa next summer would be a dauntingly expensive endeavor.
I imagine I’m not the only world soccer fan sitting somewhere in the world and trying to work through the mental calculus of what exactly a trip to the World Cup would be worth. And while there are many personal variables that we all have to take into account, I also put my faith as a social scientist in the idea that there some patterns and trends to help make sense of the value of soccer fandom.
And for me these patterns and trends are complicated by, and more interesting because of, the fact that we are talking about Africa: a continent that is fascinating, diverse, vibrant, and where somewhere around 40% of the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty (defined as less than a dollar per day). Even if I can figure out a way to afford it, could I enjoy a sundowner at Soccer City or Royal Bafokeng with a clear conscious? Probably not—but if I can figure out the right rationalizations to assuage my middle class guilt then I might be able to do it anyway.
The Economic Calculation
Though there are many different possible ways to figure the likely costs of a trip to South Africa 2010, for sake of a baseline I’m just going to try and keep things simple. When I search for a plane ticket from the west coast of the US to South Africa for next June or July the least expensive fare I can find is around $2,300. When I look at a basic package offered by an official FIFA partner that would allow me to attend at least two games (there are lower price packages are for one game—but going all that way just for one game doesn’t seem right) and stay in the lowest class of shared accommodation the cheapest seems a bit more than $3,000. Figuring in meal money and other expenses, a low end estimate for a weeklong trip for two games is going to be around $6000.00 for one person. And since I’d really like to go with my wife, the baseline for us is ultimately around $12,000.
Of course an official package is not likely to be the most cost-efficient way to travel, but I’ll admit to being intimidated by FIFA’s iron grip on ticketing. For both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 I’ve been a good consumer, played by the rules, and entered the official “ticket lottery” with hopes that the allocation process would be fair. But for all my efforts and credit card numbers I’ve gotten nothing but automatically generated emails informing me that—surprise—I didn’t get any tickets. I am eternally embittered by the fact that big tour companies and corporate partners seem to have access to infinite numbers of tickets when a non-corporate fan such as myself is merely strung along in a “lottery” implying that this is really about my bad luck. But that’s capitalism, and I do nothing but occasionally rattle the bars of my personal iron cage from the ivory tower.
And the ivory tower, when you are a junior faculty member at a regional institution where the incentive is “quality of life” and “mission fit” rather than money, doesn’t pay very well. For the amount of education required the pay at my job is perhaps only undercut by non-profit work with social services—which, of course, is my wife’s job. I’m not going to get into any more specifics, but suffice it to say that $12,000 would be many months of our combined total take-home pay and years worth of “disposable income.”
But the voice in my head (the one unconsciously negotiating with travel board marketers and credit card ads) tells me that you can’t put a price on the experience of attending a World Cup. Watching the US walk out for their match against North Korea (just a prediction for the “random” draw) on the glistening grass of Durban or Polokwane would, I imagine, be “priceless.” But the trick here is that I could still get some satisfaction from watching that moment on TV—particularly if that TV was a new plasma screen HD model that I purchased with a fraction of the money I could save by not going to South Africa.
This type of calculation also gets tricky because it starts as a rational cost-benefit analysis and quickly becomes a test of one’s life’s philosophy. There is, for example, a growing body of research looking specifically at what makes people “happy,” the bottom line of which is often that money matters much less than things such as healthy relationships and meaningful experiences. In Jonathan Haidt’s interesting 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, for example, he notes that the pursuit of luxuries is often misguided:
People would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and “spent” it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction. People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, even if it meant living in smaller houses, yet American trends are toward ever larger houses and ever longer commutes. People would be happier and healthier if they took longer vacations, even if that meant earning less, yet vacation times are shrinking in the Untied States, and in Europe as well. (p. 99)
I would presume this would include “soccer vacations”—though it is somewhat surprising to me that I haven’t come across much research specifically looking at the personal value of sports fandom. There is a great deal of research looking at the macro-scale value of mega-sports events such as the World Cup, and some research about what motivates sports fans generally, but it is hard to find much attempting to analyze what fans get for their money. Hard core fans the world over spend great sums to follow their team and, in effect, subsidize millionaire players—and while we know a lot about the business implications of that process we seem to know little about the personal implications for fans.
One of the few academic analyses I could find laid out a diverse assortment of factors that determine whether people decide to spent money on “sport tourism” including escape, aesthetic players, “tribal connections,” cultural connections, vicarious achievement, tradition, income, alternatives, and more. But ultimately, Aaron Smith and Bob Smith conclude, it is too much to really put it all together into a single equation: “Modeling the fan-sport relationship and the factors that impel individuals to make consumption decisions that involve travel is monumentally troublesome, since fans are not motivated by individual or psychological needs alone, but by a complex set of social, cultural and economic factors.” So whether I want to take out a second mortgage for the prospect of watching the US v Bafana Bafana on African soil is more “monumentally troublesome” than just fiscal strategy.
The Philosophical Calculation
With no possibility of a rational economic decision, a fan is left with one’s own perspective on what a personal experience of the World Cup and of South Africa is worth. And this is where the broader context of Africa becomes particularly relevant.
Since South Africa was awarded the World Cup there has been simmering controversy about perceptions of South Africa, and Africa more generally, as dangerous and dysfunctional. Though such concerns are often just naive exaggerations of real facts about crime rates and work stoppages, in my mind they should not play a factor in anyone’s decision to go to South Africa. The simple reality that millions of people both manage and thrive in South Africa everyday suggests that you will too—in my admittedly brief visits to South Africa the people I interacted with were unfailingly decent, interesting, curious, and welcoming.
South Africa, at risk of sounding like a travel agent, is truly a vibrant nation diverse and engaging both for its people and its geography. But with such diversity, and with the type of inequalities that are common in many parts of the world, there are problems. One of the fascinating things about South Africa is that it encapsulates much of the entire dynamic continent of Africa—its wonders, its potential, and its challenges. Travelling in South Africa means being careful, but not any more so than in travelling through any unfamiliar place or any big city whether in Africa, North America, or Europe.
South Africa is also worth visiting because of the starkness of its inequality—some of the richest people in the world live across the street from some of the poorest (where in the US we tend to do more spreading out our inequalities). And this is another interesting question that always strikes me when I think about travelling to Africa. The expense of getting to Africa does not only take money away from my large screen plasma TV fund—it could equally be spent on doing my small part to rectify the unjust distribution of wealth in the world.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi we used to have American or European groups travel through on week-long “service” missions to build houses or help schools with projects. Though the people in these groups were unfailingly good willed, the amount they were able to tangibly accomplish in a week was very little. But, I couldn’t help but think, the $20,000 a ten person group would have spent on airfare might have been able to accomplish quite a bit in a country where the annual per capita income is around $700.
Though I realize I’m getting a bit off the soccer topic here, a recent book by philosopher Peter Singer has had me thinking about this even more. In The Life You Can Save, Singer approaches the injustice of global inequality by noting that spending a relatively small portion of our income on aid efforts can make a big difference in the least developed parts of the world—which, unfortunately, often include Africa. One of his striking philosophical tricks is to point out that donating a few hundred dollars, the cost of a nice pair of shoes, can cure life-threatening illnesses for children in the developing world. And if we were walking by a pond where a child was drowning we would not hesitate to dive in—even if it meant ruining our expensive shoes. Yet in our daily lives we don’t think to sacrifice our luxuries towards the possibility of greater moral goods.
To try and bring this back to soccer, Singer’s parable can be applied in interesting ways to the World Cup question: if I had a precious World Cup ticket in my pocket and on the way to the stadium passed a drowning child, would I hesitate to dive in if it were going to ruin my ticket? I would hope not. Then how can I justify giving my money to FIFA and its corporate affiliates rather than to one of the organizations working to make a real difference in African lives?
The Muddled Calculation
So ultimately, despite my faith in social science and the inspiration of Conor Casey in San Pedro Sula, I’m just not sure what to do. In the global scheme of things I consider myself very lucky to have good food to eat, a decent place to live, and health insurance—but I still can’t help but sometimes envy the luxuries of super-rich soccer fandom. If I only had an extra $102,000.00 to give to Emirates, for example, I could get in seven games at South Africa 2010 and a month at The Table Bay Hotel. And life would be good. I think?
The fact that 2010 will be the first World Cup in Africa is ultimately both a boon and a burden. It will be a spectacular soccer showcase, and I suspect South Africa will be a brilliant host who will open the world’s eyes to the vibrancy of a continent too often associated only with problems. But some of those problems are real, and truly confronting those problems means finding ways to cope with and think about the massive inequalities of modern society.
When the US national team lands in South Africa it will be “disadvantaged” on the field compared to some other teams whose players are assured of regular playing time at the top clubs in the world. But when US fans, and relatively wealthy fans from all countries, land in South Africa they will experience the advantage of the wealth and power required to simply afford such a journey. I’m finding that it takes some confusing calculations for me to figure out whether I can be part of that experience.
Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.