Stardom and celebrity are key components of the sports media industry. Stars like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky can take a sport to new heights while others like Tiger Woods can essentially create a fanbase. Many fans tune into games simply to see their favorite players and it is not uncommon for a fan’s allegiance to a team to be based on the players rather than the city. The profile of a player can sell seats and raise the status of a team. When Lebron James and the Cavaliers are on the road, ticket prices go up as many people are more interested in watching his elite level of play than their hometown team.
The history of celebrity and fame in competitive games is a long one, spanning great tournament knights and Meso-American legends, but the original stars were found in Rome. There were two distinct bloodsports in Rome, the gladiator games and the chariot races. Both sports attracted massive crowds, with the Colosseum holding around 50-80,000 and the Circus Maximus holding upwards of 250,000, rivaling even the modern largest racing stadiums. Much of the appeal of these sports came from the “bread and circus” policy of Rome, which gave its people free food and entertainment in order to essentially keep them from revolting. However another huge parts of these sports were the athletes themselves.
Gladiators were predominantly slaves, prisoners of war from one of the Empire’s many conquests, who fought for the glory of their master. There were special schools that trained them and many of these schools had bitter rivalries, not unlike the club sports of today. Contrary to popular belief, most gladiatorial contests did not end in the death of the loser. With so much time and money invested in each combatant, most matches ended with both combatants leaving the arena, as is evidenced by the multiple healed bones found on the skeletons of deceased gladiators.
With most of them surviving their date in the arena, the best were given a chance to make names for themselves. Promoters would paint advertisements for big fights that even included statistics like the win loss record of combatants. Just like in modern sports, the stardom and statistics were important to getting big crowds for local businesses and big paydays for gamblers. There were even the hyper-masculine myths of gladiators attracting throngs of women from all social classes, which is not too far a cry from modern myths surrounding star athletes like Wilt Chamberlain. David Potter in his book The Victor’s Crown states “that the best could make vast sums of money over a typical five- to six-year career, despite fighting no more than 10 or 15 times, and acquire devoted followings. Roman fans could even buy souvenir pots and action figures portraying their heroes, and they gathered in taverns associated with particular, noted fighters.” Gladiators earned the love of the Roman people the same way modern sports stars do, by winning.
A big difference between gladiators and modern sports stars come in their class. Even today athletes are often put in separate category than other people making equivalent money, but, as slaves, gladiators were actually in a completely different class than all of Rome’s citizens. While many rich Romans enjoyed meeting exceptional gladiators there was a stigma that went along with these meetings. Gladiators were revered as glorious heroes by many and in some rare cases earned their freedom or escaped captivity, but nonetheless were mostly viewed as expendable and typically died short deaths in which the cheers of the crowd were their only real payment.