Shelley, William Safire had this to say:
SAFIRE’S POLITICAL DICTIONARY
(2008, pages 387-388)
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD:
Equity in competition; equality of opportunity. . . . Origin of the phrase is uncertain—the playing fields of Eton have been mentioned as a source, but the image of flat surface for equality in battle has its root as old as the Bible. As the servants of Benhadad, king of Syria, tell their leader about the army of Israel: ‘Their gods are gods of hills; therefore they were stronger than we; let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they’ (1 Kings 20:23). . . .
Safire’s earliest quote is from 1979 (see quotes below).
And, specifically, in business and finance:
BARRON'S FINANCE AND INVESTMENT HANDBOOK
(7th edition, 2007, page 549) by Downes & Goodman
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD]/b]: Condition in which competitors operate under the same rules. For example, all banks must follow the same regulations set down by the Federal Reserve. In some situations, competitors complain to regulators or Congress that they are not playing on a level playing field
. For example, banks contend that brokerage firms can offer certain banking services without the same rules imposed on banks. Companies wanting to export to a particular country may complain that domestic companies are protected by various trade barriers, creating an uneven playing field. Various sections of the tax code may favor some companies more than others, prompting cries from the disadvantaged firms to ‘level the playing field
John, It does seems logical that LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
was literal before it turned figurative, and it was. I found many literal examples referring mostly to high school, college, and professional sports fields being close to the horizontal or being made closer to it by moving dirt around. My earliest find is from 1927:
<1927 “The city school board is having a sports field developed in the rear of George Washington High School. . . The city engineer has drafted the plans for the removal of dirt so as to afford a level playing field.”—The Bee (Danville, Virginia), 1 September, page >
<1931 “The grading was ordered in order that a level playing field might be secured, and a determined effort now is planned to establish a good turf on the field.”—Alton Evening Telegraph (Illinois), 5 March, page 10>
<1937 “The terraces will be constructed . . .so as to keep all persons on the roadway from seeing the games without entering the park. The level playing field will be 550 feet long and 220 feet wide.”—Sheboygan Journal (Wisconsin), 1 March, page 37>
<1943 “The night before the Dodgers [[Brooklyn baseball team]] picked Bear Mountain for there training site somebody counted 22 deer feeding on the baseball field. . . [Bear Mountain] rising 1500 feet from where the Hudson [[river]] winds around its base, make it a popular weekend spot for city folks. . . The Dodgers announcement put considerable stress on the fact that there’s a level playing field. In fact, it probably is the only level field in that part of the country . . .”—The Free-Lance Starp (The Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), 18 January, page 4>
<1952 “[Coach] Black has more room for his activities but he is handicapped because the large level playing field is too far from the homes of the children.”—Ada Evening News (Oklahoma), 9 June, page 4>
<1964 “We took about 20 inches of dirt off the north end of the field and built up the south end by 38 inches to give a level playing field . . .”—Big Spring Daily Herald (Texas), 10 July, page 12>
<1975 (pool table advertisement) “Permanent Level Playing Field, Professional Rubber Cushions, Professional Cloth . . .”—Syracuse Herald-American (New York), 22 December, page 125>
The earliest example of the figurative sense of LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
I came up with was from January 1, 1953 (see quote below), and it is not in reference to business. It is in reference to giving away goals to a weaker team – polo in India – probably to make what would have been a lopsided win more exciting for the fans. On the other hand, it is conceivable that, with no fear of losing, they were doing it out of charity so as not to embarrass their comrades on the opposing team. But in either case this usage doesn't seem to quite correspond to what we think of today as leveling the playing field
. On the other hand, in a strange sort of way, giving away points would lead to “equity in competition,” at least as far as the final score was concerned! (<:)
My second example is from January 5, 1977, and this one is in the figurative business sense, and this is the same quote that was cited above (I’ve just included source names, exact dates, and pages) which appeared in 3 Pennsylvania newspapers on the same day.
The 1953 quote is certainly an outlier and my finding not another trace of the expression until 1977 – that’s a 24-year drought – is passing strange. But this could be the case. A writer for an Indian newspaper uses this metaphor once, forgets about it or goes on to another career. No one takes much notice of what a nifty and apt expression it is – and 1950s access to Indian news media outside the country probably wasn't that great – the expression dies and has to wait about a quarter century to get reinvented and appear in print once again in 1977 in a Pennsylvania newspaper.
After the 1977 quote, I found only one more quote until 1981. But in 1981 things really broke loose and thereafter there appeared an increasing torrent of examples.
The first examples I found of the close relatives LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
and LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
were from 1983 and 1984 respectively and likewise there appeared an increasing deluge of these examples following these dates.
<1953 “In polo, better players ‘give away’ goals to their weaker opponents to create a level playing field for a match.”—Deccan Herald (Bangalore, India), 1 January>
<1977 “"Our philosophy is that we have no problem competing with the mutual savings banks if they start from the level playing field, ‘Bolger said.’”—Tyrone Daily Herald (Pennsylvania), 5 January, page 3; New Castle News (Pennsylvania), page 5; Simpson's Leader-Times (Kittanning, Pennsylvania), page 2>
<1979 “Mr. Brawner said the Oregon B.A. [[Bankers Association]] welcomed ‘any and all competition, on a level playing field.”—The American Banker> [[in Safire’s Political Dictionary]]
<1981 “The goal of the banking industry is to be able to compete on a level playing field with any and all comers, stated the ABA [[American Bankers Association]] president.”—Frederick News-Post (Maryland), 17 February, page 16>
<1981 “The increased competition that is resulting from federal deregulation of financial institutions, Gunderson [[president of the American Bankers Association]] said, was ‘healthy’ ‘but the playing field should be level.’”—Post Standard (Syracuse, New York), 2 April, page 20>
<1981 “As Citicorp’s Watson told his stockholders the other day: ‘We welcome the competition, but want an opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”—Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, Pennsylvania), 26 April, page 51>
<1981 “Money market funds can pay higher interest rates because they are not required to keep the same percentage of reserves as banks and S&Ls. Financial institutions can’t earn interest on money kept in reserves. ‘It is not a level playing field,’ said Bob Begnoche, Securities Savings and Loan president.”—Salina Journal (Kansas), 7 July, page 1>
<1981 “Bankers have been seeking freedom from interest rate regulations for some time so they could compete with money market funds on a ‘level playing field.’”— New Mexican (Sante Fe, New Mexico), 1 August, page 3>
<1981 “To create what one Treasury official describes as a ‘level playing field’ for business, the new provisions now let struggling companies sell their tax credits and depreciation opportunities to more profitable firms. Time Magazine, 2 November>
<1981 “Casting itself as David against the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Goliath is the Telocator Network of America, representing more than half the radio common carriers (RCCS) in this country. . . Lamoureux [[Telocator executive director]] maintains that the RCCS are . . . prepared to proceed with development and implementation, but that they deserve a more level playing field.”—Aiken Standard (South Carolina), 11 November, page 28>
<1983 “Leveling the playing field should be a top priority for Washington as it tackles the question of economic recovery. St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 12 March, page 12>
<1984 “The free market is disappearing from sector after sector, and a growing number of American business leaders want Washington to help their industries, thereby ‘leveling the playing field.’”—‘Gainesville Sun (Florida), 21 October, page 15>
<1984 “Charles McLure, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, said it would be perfectly reasonable to ‘level the playing field’ as much as possible.”—Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), 9 December>
<1985 “But by leveling the playing field at home, you've basically worsened the playing field in the global economic sense.”—Dallas Morning News (Texas), 3 June>
(quotes from archived sources)
Ken – June 18, 2009