Blog Entry

The Sport of Money

Posted on: July 4, 2011 2:38 pm
Two major sports are now involved in lockouts, which are mostly disputes about how to carve up more money than an average family of five will see in its lifetime, counting the labor of all children.  It's sad, and it's frustrating, and it makes us long for a time when sports weren't about money--except they always were.

Back in the golden days though, it was a different kind of game and a different kind of money.  Sports teams were either communally owned, or the playthings of the wealthy elite, rather like Broadway shows or American universities.  You didn't own a team to make money, or to win, you owned because it was interesting and fulfilled a sense of noblesse oblige.  This is how and why the Maras, the Rooneys, the Stonehams, the O'Malleys and the other "Gentlemen Owners" got into things: to give something back to the working people of the community.  If they could win while doing it, great; if they could win and make money at it, well, even greater.  Sure, a few franchises pulled up stakes and moved on--a guy can only lose so much in a noble cause, after all--but making money wasn't the point.

It wasn't for the players either, though certainly it was more important for them.  Most, however, not only looked like you and me--no 6'5", 275 lb. linebackers who could run the 40 in under 5 seconds then--they had jobs like you and me.  They went out and played because they loved it, not because it was going to provide for them for the rest of their life.  Heck, the first Heisman Trophy winner (Jay Berwanger, U. of Chicago) didn't even bother going pro, because he was going to make more money in "real life."  That's how different it was.

Before Babe Ruth ruined everything.  The man not only changed the way baseball was played, he changed the economics of sport. People went to see HIM play, not their local boys.  Before Babe hit it big he was sold, remember, to finance a Broadway musical (Hello Dolly!, I believe it was); that's how a franchise looked back then.  After Babe hit it big, people were constantly searching for the next big thing, because sports had become entertainment.  They called it "The House that Ruth Built", but they might as well have called it the Federal Reserve. With Ruth at the plate, the Highlanders-cum-Yankees took title after title, raking in customers and cash faster than anyone in THAT day could imagine.  And the idea that you could make a fortune FROM a sports franchise rather than vice-versa took hold.

Pretty soon, franchises were like companies; a "market" opens up in LA and, well, who cares about Brooklyn anymore?  Sure, they supported "dem Bums" through thick and thin, but there was gold in them thar hills, boys.  Bill Veeck started promotions; Charles O. Finley, God rest his soul, took it a step farther: garish uniforms, pitching specialists called "Firemen" [now "closers"], pinch-running specialists and, abomination of abominations, a designated hitter--all to pack fans into parks and make more money. The owners were making money, and it was good.

But what of the players?  Here were owners, no longer gentlemen, chasing cold hard cash from town to town.  Kansas City not supporting the team as you'd like?  Move to Oakland (the A's, formerly of Philadelphia, even), or Sacramento (the Kings, formerly, I believe, of Cincinnati).  Get the new town to build you a stadium--it brings jobs, it brings money to the local economy, and it brings prestige.  There's no evidence to support the first two claims, but in the American mind, having a professional sports franchise to call your own means you're in the big time, and so you do it; you finance the stadium, you sell out the bleachers, you support your team, even if it was someone else's team just a year before.  And if you can't get someone else's team, you get your own; sure, the Pilots (or the Conquistadors, or the AFL) are losers, but they're YOUR losers, so you pay.  Owners made money and they did it with panache.

And the players were locked in; if they didn't like the contract they got, they could sit out.  No matter how long they sat though, they still had to deal with the same owner.  There was no way out, thanks to the reserve clause.  So they formed unions, and threatened strikes, and pretty soon, the owners had to share.  But sharing a big pie was better than not having pie, and having to pay the players, they discovered (with Charles O. Finley and George Steinbrenner in the lead) also gave them an excuse to ratchet up ticket prices.  You want Reggie Jackson?  I'll get him, and we'll win, but you'll have to pay X for a ticket.  And we like winning, so we pay.

Now, of course, paying doesn't guarantee winning anymore.  So many players and so many owners have copped to the scheme that paying doesn't even guarantee you can compete--unless .... unless you put in a scheme that limits how much you have to pay--let's call it a salary cap--and then, well, everyone's competitive.  Which means everyone makes MORE money; hell, if we expand the playoffs, places like Memphis, teams like the Marlins, and franchises like New Orleans can make a run once in a while, hold onto their fans, and keep the golden eggs coming in ... it's genius.

Until someone gets greedy.  And they're all greedy, because it's no longer about the sport.  It's about money.  Guys are arguing about who gets to sit where on the bench, on who holds what clipboard, and whether their WHIP was a better indicator of their value than how the team finished.  At the end of the day, to paraphrase a not-so-great American philosopher, they're them and we're us.  THEY are a bunch of people who practice from the age of three, build their bodies to freakish proportions (legally or not) and have no skills other than ball skills--because those things make them money.  More money than lawyers, doctors, teachers, or astronauts.  They play for money.

And who's to blame?  We are.  We pay them.  We say, "Sure, come on down from Baltimore (or Kansas City, or Seattle, or Houston) and we'll build you a temple and adore you.  We'll buy season tickets; we'll buy luxury boxes; we'll pay for the privilege of being on your season ticket mailing list; we'll license our seats, we'll wear your cap even if it is the wrong color, and we'll do whatever it takes to bring a MAJOR LEAGUE team to our town."  Because somehow, we think that makes us better.

They wouldn't have $9 billion in football revenue to split if it weren't for us.  There would be no basketball-related-income if it weren't for us. There would be no All-Star game, no Superdome, no ESPN, if it weren't for us.

So; what are we going to do about this lock-out nonsense?

Category: General
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