Monday, August 1, 2011


Back in the 1970s the Chicago Bears were noising about the possibility that they might move to a new stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill. That disturbed Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Fine, let ‘em go, Daley said, in effect. But he added that if the team moved there he’d see to it that it would have to call itself the Arlington Heights Bears.

Everyone had a good laugh at Da Mayor’s declaration, because neither he nor any other municipal authority owned a copyright on a city’s name, and it was available to any rock band, pizzeria or dry cleaner that wished to use it. Perhaps inadvertently, though, he did raise a worthwhile question: What do professional sports entities owe to the cities and fans that sustain them?

Alas, while the question is interesting the clear and self-evident answer ain’t. It’s nothing, nada, zilch. You may think that the Bears, or Cardinals (baseball or football), or Lakers are “our” teams, but they aren’t. They belong to the people who own them, and to no one else.

That is—or should have be-- the clear message of the lockouts that have dominated the sports pages these last several months. When our national professional football and basketball leagues failed to get the give-backs they demanded from their players’ unions (a broader trend, in case you haven’t noticed), they closed their doors and suspended doing business. I didn’t get to vote on it, and neither did you.

Last week the footballers bridged their differences and went back to work in time for their games to proceed, as everyone figured they would. Their enterprise, with annual revenues of about $9 billion, is just too profitable to stay closed when money is to be made. The owners started by asking for an additional $1 billion off the top of the league’s revenue pie before it’s divided. They wound up increasing their slice to 53% from 50%, a more-modest gain, while also agreeing to institute annual team-salary floors as well as ceilings.

The part of the contract that most interested fans—the owners’ bid to increase the regular season to 18 games from 16—was put off until at least 2013. Players balked, partly on ground that the move would increase injury risks, but their union historically has sacrificed health issues for more do-re-mi, so look for it to cave eventually in return for some kind of sweetener.

The lockout in the National Basketball Association is regarded as more likely to draw real blood. The NBA has about half the total revenues of the NFL (reportedly about $4.3 billion yearly) and team owners claim their combined bottom line showed a $300 million loss last season, with more than half their 30 clubs in the red individually.

The players pooh-pooh that, and we should, too. Few sports teams are publicly owned so they don’t have the auditing or reporting requirements public companies do. Further, basketball is a second (or third or fourth) business for most NBA team owners, so they can shift expenses (such as their own salaries) between or among these to suit themselves. For bargaining purposes it suits them to claim poverty, and they are demanding things like a “hard” team-salary cap and limits on contract lengths and guarantees that, theoretically, would hit players in their wallets.

But the thing to remember about today’s sports-money conflicts is that most of them aren’t owner-player but owner-owner. Team owners may be partners for some purposes, but they’re big-ego competitors for others, and bitter ones at that. The rules they seek are intended to restrain their own competitive instincts, with the players little more than interested observers. Yeah, the average NBA player salary is an eye-popping $5.15 million a year (the median is much lower), but the adage that nobody who works for somebody else is overpaid fully applies.

The NBA already has a team-salary cap, but it has so many exceptions and exemptions (all owner-approved) that it resembles a target on a police pistol range. Last season’s cap was about $58 million, and teams were taxed for exceeding $70 million, but actual payrolls ranged from the L.A. Lakers’ $95.3 million to the Minnesota T-Wolves’ $37.6 million, a Grand Canyon-like gap. Posture as the owners might, it’s unlikely that anything they’ll agree to will seriously alter the drives that account for the upper end of that imbalance.

But posture they will, and the players are taking it seriously. Several hoops stars are dickering with European teams for fallback employment and one—Kevin Love—says he might play professional beach volleyball.

You also might make plans to seek alternate entertainment come basketball time. It may be their game, but it’s your money.

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