Ancient Sport as a business, how was it done?

Ancient Sport as a Business.

Ancient Sport, Business, Money and Betting 

Since time began there have always been ways of making money out of sport, and most of these have

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The Fi...
English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The First Olympic Games (1896), 2 lepta. Русский: Марка Греции. Первые Олимпийские игры, 1896, 2 лепты (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

been around since the very earliest times.

For organisers of games and contests there is money to be made from the selling of food, drink and souvenirs to the assembled fans or selling others the rights to do so.

For the Athletes there is appearance money, wages, prizes, sponsorship, transfer fees and bribes.

Coaches, agents, managers and sport doctors all make a living from the athletes.

Judges and officials can earn an income from wages, gifts and bribes and of course everybody hopes to profit further by betting on the results.

Betting has always been the most common way to make money from sport and various games and has been around since the earliest years in recorded history.

For Ancient Egyptians it all began when Mercury gambled with the moon and won an extra 5 days to add to the then existing 360 day calendar. In addition Egyptians gambled on board games like senat and tau as well as he more familiar games (to us) which were dice and draughts.

For Ancient Eurasians whose sporting history dates back to about 4500 BC and started amongst the nomadic tribesmen of Eurasia (who it is believed were the first to have first domesticated the horse) and to have also started racing them.

Ancient Indians played dice and bet on chariot racing.

In Arabia, which did not have chariots, horses were tethered far from a water hole in the baking heat and a lengthy distance from the nearest water hole and bets were laid on which horse would arrive first when they were eventually released.

Mesoamericans bet on ball games and Eskimos, Greeks, Africans and Romans all played various versions of roulette using various shields or wheels.

As the bible shows Hebrews were fond of drawing lots.

What about ancient prizes? Even before the Greeks, Egyptians competed for valuable items and Mycenaean’s won brides, yes, even princesses, in foot races!

Greeks Homer, revered as the greatest of Greek Epic Poets and who lived around 8 BC, listed prizes of valuable metal kettles and tripods, horses, oxen, mules and yes, more brides.

Let’s take a deeper look at ancient Greek Sport and how it was funded and money was made.

Ancient Greek Sport

An artist's impression of ancient Olympia
An artist’s impression of ancient Olympia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of today’s big sporting money-makers were already in place at the ancient Olympic Games.

The main source of business funding for the games were sponsors, who were called “angonothytes”, who paid for prizes and the games costs and were rewarded with great power and prestige as a result.

A major uncertainty about the ancient Olympics is whether gate money was charged, although this seems very possible as Greeks charged entrance fees for their theatre. Even if this did not happen there was lots of money to be made from the soothsayers, merchants, artisans and food and drink sellers who arrived at Olympia to sell the 45,000 spectators their goods.

Historian Lance Rancier reckons that there was a thriving sex industry to, which might go a long way to explain why married women were so unwelcome. To substantiate this claim, first century writer Dio Chrysostom tells us that there were prostitutes at other games.

As for the athletes they needed money to pay for coaches, doctors and the use of a gymnasium during long periods of training.

 There are references by writers of the time such as Philostratos to athletes being deeply in debt to their trainers who were to manipulate them to fix results. The late arrival of one Olympian contestant was blamed on a travel hold up but was later found to be him having to wait to collect his winnings from an earlier game.

In the more capital intensive sports such as chariot racing, horses and drivers had to be paid for and the richest men and women of Greece entered the sport for the name of fame and glory. Plutarch says that the 5th Century Princess Kyniska of Sparta entered and won the chariot races simply to prove that big money always triumphed. To compete with such wealth some city states clubbed together to fund entries, such as when the Public chariot of the Argives won in 472 BC.

The Olympics were and still are unusual in the fact that they do not offer cash prizes or appearance money, but there were plenty of perks to be had for winners, including a seat in the Olympic banquet and dining hall known as the Prytaneion. In addition most competitors on returning victorious could expect a handsome pay-out from their home city. These cash free ‘sacred’ games depended on the cities willingness to cough up. In Athens the ruler Solon famously offered 500 drachmae, which was the equivalent of 500 sheep or 10 times the average annual wage for an Olympic win and only 100 at the Isthmian games. Other benefits included personal prestige, statues built and Odes written in your honour, lucrative political appointments, free meals and theatre tickets. (In 1896 when the Greek runner Spyridion Louis won the marathon at the first ever modern Olympics, he was showered with gifts which included shoes, wine, free meals, shaves and a property.) In any case, once a prestigious Olympic victory title was in the bag, there would be plenty of appearance money from other games wanting to attract the big winner’s names. There is record of a whopping 30,000 drachmae, 100 times a soldier’s annual salary being paid to an Olympian champion to attend a local contest.

At most non-sacred games prizes were on offer in the form of silver that slaves dug out of the ground or in olive oil, which was as good as silver as it was traded all over the Mediterranean. A typical prize of 40-50 large jars of olive oil would be enough to buy you a new home virtually anywhere. From about 566 BC the Panathenaic games paid out a full 100 jars. How much oil or silver you won depended on which event you had won. Records from the city of Aphrodisias show that the big wins were from the dangerous sports with 2,000 denarii going to wrestling winners and 3,000 denarii for Pankration (a blend of boxing and wrestling but with hardly any rules).

As for tracks events it was then as it is now for sprinting and worth 1,250 denarii. The worst paying sports were Pentathlon and a race in armour offering 500 denarii each.

Hoplitodromos (armoured race); on the right so...
Hoplitodromos (armoured race); on the right some tripods as winning prizes. Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 550 BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another source of income for athletes was transfer fees; although we don’t know how much they were we know they existed. In the 5th century BC Heiron or Syracreuse lured Astylos of Kroton, three time winner of the stade (the race, known as the stade, was about 192 metres (210 yards) long) to compete for him while the Cretans hired athletes and Ephesus returned the favour by acquiring a Cretan long distance runner.

Bribes were another source of income. In 388 BC one Eupolis of Thessaly was accused of bribing three rivals in the boxing, including the ex-champion Phormion, and in 332 BC the Athenian Kallipos was caught bribing his opponent in the pentathlon. Quite how extensive bribing was in throughout this era we will never know.

Backhanders to judges happened as well, in its later years assured wins at the Isthmian games were said to be yours for the sum of 3,000 denarii, although the most undisguised bribery happened in the Olympic Games themselves. In AD 67 the Emperor Nero, known as a hard man to refuse bribe the Olympic judges with 250,000 denarii, worth tens of millions of pounds today, to postpone the games and allow him to compete in a special ten horse chariot race. Nero was judged to have won even though he crashed and did not even finish the race!

There are not many direct mentions of betting on results perhaps because it was so common. Six times Olympic champion Milo of Croton was fond of a bet (especially on his own capabilities for alcohol consumption). The writer Nonnus refers to frequent betting and professional fouls in chariot racing around AD 400.

Hmmmm, it has been interesting to see that most of the money making concepts we have today were already in full swing all these eons ago.


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