To have any shot at comprehending the unfolding pro football lockout story, we need to first understand the mindset — and the mega millions — of our contemporary sports world's ever-grasping owners.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to care about whether pro football’s owners make good on their threat to lock out their players next month. You just have to be a taxpayer.
Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are currently flowing, each and every year, to pro football franchises — via a variety of tax breaks and subsidies.
Hundreds of millions more are flowing in from ticket sales, broadcast rights, and merchandising. In all, the National Football League's 32 franchises are pulling in $9.3 billion a year.
The owners of those franchises, under pro football's expiring collective bargaining agreement, get the first billion that comes in, then move 60 percent of the rest to the players fans pay to see. The owners, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins noted last week, are now demanding another billion up front.
To get that extra billion, these owners are willing to shut the next football season down. This bit of executive extortion is now, no surprise, generating daily headlines in the nation's sports pages. Need help understanding this greed offensive? You need Dave Zirin’s new Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.
Zirin, the nation’s most unabashedly progressive sportswriter, writes as colorfully as any classic sportswriter from years gone by, and his passion for the games he covers shines through everything he writes. So does his disgust at the grasping owners of America's professional sports franchises.
Zirin’s new book chronicles their exploits, in one pro sport after another. The worst owner of them all? Tough to say. Former Wal-Mart CEO David Dayne Glass, the owner of baseball's Kansas City Royals, certainly rates as a contender.
Glass helped engineer the player lockout that cancelled the 1994 World Series, then cut his Royals payroll in half and turned a competitive team into a perennial cellar-dweller, while pocketing a sweet $20 million a year in profits.
The obvious question: Are today's owners any worse than yesterday's? In fact, on any scale of personal venality, today’s owners probably rate as no better or worse. But they certainly do function in a markedly different environment.
In the old environment, the sports landscape of the mid 20th century, the wealthy and average working people always coexisted. Rich people might own the nation’s sports franchises, the movers and shakers in sports understood, but their teams, to be successful, had to belong to average people.
A franchise simply could not flourish, assumed the conventional sports wisdom, without the support of massive numbers of fans from middle class families.
America would change over the closing decades of the twentieth century. So would the assumptions of America’s sports franchise ownership.
In the new — and much more unequal — America that would emerge in the 1980s, the economy no longer revolved around middle class households. In the new America, wealth would tilt toward the top, and owners would tilt that way, too. They suddenly saw they no longer needed the average fan.
The average fan, after all, only spends average money. The real money, in the new, much more unequal America, rests in affluent pockets.
“The old model of the paternalistic owner caring for a community,” as Zirin explains, “has become as outdated as the Model T.”
With publicly funded stadium subsidies, luxury box licenses, sweetheart cable deals, and globalized merchandising, today’s owners no longer have any need to cater to a local working family fan base. So they don’t. They price tickets out of the average fan’s price range. They charge $8 for beers.
The games we love, says Zirin, no longer love us back.
The solution? A more equal America would help. So would community ownership of sports teams, a model already existing with the community-owned Green Bay Packers. Zirin lovingly explains how the nonprofit Packers work.
Zirin also notes that the National Football League constitution now explicitly bans any franchise from going community nonprofit in the future.
“We all have a stake in demanding that our local owners live up to the dreams their teams inspire,” concludes Zirin. “There’s a time to cheer and a time to seethe. We all have a stake in knowing the difference.”