Sports Are Out of Touch with Society
About two decades ago, a tall man with an identifiable nasal twang was holding court at Gallagher’s Steak House one afternoon as he lifted a martini with a shaking hand to his mouth. The septuagenarian with a bad wig was standing near the slabs of meat that were hanging at the steak house and in a crescendo was complaining about the world of sports. The empty room began filling up as the man pontificated.
“Sports are out of whack,” said the man with the familiar voice in a loud way as he fumbled to take a sip of his martini. He was disgusted with the industry that he first entered in the 1950s as Willie Mays’ advisor.
Last week was yet another week of vindication for the man who was despised by sportswriters for telling it like it is.
There was Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson moving as much earth as he could to try and keep the city’s National Basketball Association team in town despite the fact that the unemployment level had hit 12 percent in his region. At the same time he was rounding up $10 million in marketing partnership for the owners of the NBA Kings, the Maloof brothers, Johnson was cutting workers with the city’s police and fire departments while school administrators to figure out whether they can keep sports going in Sacramento public schools.
East of Sacramento on US 50, Lake Tahoe interests were beginning a plan to bring the 2022 Winter Olympics to the area and were beginning the campaign to try and sell the idea to locals as a job creator and a moneymaker like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, which cost Canadians a fortune in taxpayer subsidies.
The National Football League lockout continues to play out in various courtrooms. The dispute has political overtones whether people want to believe it or not. The players scored a big victory when Susan Richard Nelson, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, lifted the lockout
Judge Nelson was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama, a Democrat who is believed to be labor friendly. Judge Nelson, in her opinion, wrote that she was convinced of the players’ argument that the lockout was irreparably harming their collective careers.
The irony here is that Judge Nelson fell into line with National Football League Players Association thinking of 1982 — Money Now — and her ruling did the retired, discarded players no favors. The present players are the ones who have to help out the disabled former players — the discarded ones — who have no health benefits because the NFLPA never got around to getting players long-time health care and have to depend on social security and Medicare for health coverage. Judge Nelson worried about the present day players but nowhere is there anyone connected to the players association worrying about retired players who are hurting.
The NFL won Game 2 in this best-of-who-knows playoff series when the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the league a temporary stay of Judge Nelson’s order with two judges — both Bush appointees — agreeing with the league, while a Clinton appointee sided with the players. The 8th circuit in St. Louis is thought to be more business-friendly.
The discarded players are wondering whether one of their own, former Giants defensive lineman George Martin, can lobby the NFLPA or whether they have to have a group to pressure the NFLPA to do something about their financial/health benefits problems.
The owners and players don’t plan to get back to the bargaining table until May 16. More time has elapsed for the former players who need real help, not government assistance for their pre-existing medical conditions.
The two lead negotiators in the talks are very political. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is the son of Charles Goodell, a Republican, who represented Western New York in the House of Representatives and replaced the slain Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 in the Senate. Goodell’s father-in-law, Sam Skinner, was Chief of Staff for President George H. W. Bush.
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith was a member of President Obama’s transitional team. In a sense it is the Democrats versus the Republicans, labor versus business.
NFL owners have done a poor job of explaining the why behind their proposal of asking the players to take substantially less of the gross, from about 59 percent to 41 percent with 48 percent of that going to player salaries. The players don’t believe there is a real financial problem in the NFL after the league got new large TV deals and a bunch of new stadiums with more revenue streams coming online.
The 1986 federal tax code update created the NFL labor dispute. Owners seized on a piece of the changes in the code that had major consequences. Municipalities could build new stadiums for teams and get as little as eight cents back on every dollar generated inside the facility. Depending on the deal an owner cut with the city officials, an owner could garner as much as 92 cents of every dollar.
But it is those taxpayer-funded new stadiums that have caused the problem. With every new stadium that has opened or has been renovated, more revenue does flow into the league — which raises not only the salary cap ceiling but also hikes the salary cap floor.
The 1986 tax code revision was a double-edged sword. For some owners (like Art Modell) it was a lifesaver, while for others (like those in Minnesota), it has been a disaster.
Franchises playing in old facilities like the Oakland Raiders, the San Diego Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers, the Atlanta Falcons, the St. Louis Rams, the Minnesota Vikings and others cannot keep pace and are struggling to meet the salary cap floor. Additionally some owners have thrown a lot of money into new stadiums and have to pay down the stadium debt.
The 49ers owners, the York family, have not gone full throttle in getting financing for a proposed stadium in Santa Clara as of yet. The league wanted to show the players they need to contribute money for the Santa Clara facility.
Northern California’s two football franchises are not alone in the need for a new facility in the region. The ongoing saga of the Sacramento Kings franchise continues apace with Mayor Johnson leading the charge to build a new arena. Johnson is a former NBA player who has some friends in high places over at the Olympic Tower in Manhattan at the NBA offices.
He wants to keep an NBA team in a city with major fiscal problems that a couple of years ago had tent cities for the homeless. Sacramento is a small market that has been a problem for NBA Commissioner David Stern and his owners for about a decade and a half. The city has been unable to get financing for a new arena for the Kings for about a decade. The Kings owners, the Maloofs, may see Anaheim as a financial savior.
Johnson has rounded up the business community and has gotten some economic promises but it may be far tougher to put together a wide coalition of the willing in Northern California to put up money for a new arena in very difficult economic times. But that isn’t stopping people in the region from kicking the tires to find out if the 2022 Winter Games is a viable business.
The International Olympic Committee might like to go back to Lake Tahoe/Squaw Valley, a Winter Games venue in 1960, but the IOC also likes money and they really like taxpayers to pick up the tab for their two-week sports bazaar, which seems to be more than just a money loser. The IOC Games are a financial drag and California is not a place where taxpayers will be willing to put up big bucks for an event that is still 11 years away. Still the old “it will create jobs” mantra will be trotted out and it will bring attention to Lake Tahoe.
That was the week that was. It’s over and sports will let it go for another week. That elderly tall gentleman who is constantly being validated for his simple statement was partly responsible for the success of the National Football League. He might have been bigger than the NFL during his prime years in the 1970s.
The man who two decades ago said “Sports is out of whack” was none other than Howard Cosell, who during the 1970s was one of the three men in the booth announcing Monday Night Football and was both the most popular and most hated man on TV.
You wonder what Howard would have said about the week that was.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.