In the classic Nick Nolte football flick North Dallas Forty, an angry football player, fed up with being talked down to, slams a coach against a locker and screams, “When we call it a game, you call it a business. When we call it a business, you call it a game.” As Mark Rosentraub in Major League Losers and Michael N. Danielson in Home Team prove conclusively, it hasn’t just been with the players that owners of sports teams have been playing that name game. For decades now, a gullible public and an even more gullible press have been letting baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams call it a business or a game depending on which term has suited their interests at the moment.
Rosentraub comes out firing: “A welfare system exists in this country that transfers hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers to wealthy investors and their extraordinarily well-paid employees”—that’s the players. Having studied the approach every one of the wealthy hypocrites has used to wrangle a new stadium or a sweet tax deal, he gives us a few of the most common patterns: 1.) The Noble Victim (“Salaries are getting so high, my stadium is so old I can’t keep up with the competition. I’d love to keep the team in the city, but…”), 2.) The People Deserve a Champion: Who Will Stand With Me? (“I want to put a championship flag on that pole for all of us, but I need your help”), 3.) We Can All Be Winners: One for All and All for One? (“Help me build a winner and you’ll be the ones to benefit through a better image”), etc. Clip and save that list—people in every major city in the land are going to be hearing those sentiments from some owner’s mouth before the decade is out.
Rosentraub explodes once and for all the myth that a sports team—any sports team—is vital to a city’s economy. He points out that state universities almost always employ more people and create more economic well-being in their communities, and furthermore that sports teams don’t help much in terms of bringing cash to a particular area. Almost all money spent at games is what economists call “discretionary”: If you didn’t spend it at the game, you’d spend it on something else in some other part of the city. Same thing for all those people employed in building that new stadium: If they weren’t being paid to build a stadium they’d probably be paid to build something else.
Michael N. Danielson’s Home Team covers much of the same territory, with the emphasis on how franchise shifts and the threat of such shifts affect fans. Danielson has ingested an enormous amount of data and come up with some interesting observations. For instance, the term “fan base” has changed drastically over the last couple of decades. Is the Atlanta Braves’ fan base the city of Atlanta and surrounding suburbs or the millions of fans around the country who never see the Braves play in person but watch them on cable TV? A more extreme example is NFL football and the Dallas Cowboys—legions of fans around the country regard themselves as Cowboy fans even though they’ve never seen the Cowboys or any pro football team play in person. Where is the Cowboys’ “fan base”?
Television has not only changed the nature of fans, it’s changed the different sports’ relationship to their cities and regions. TV has been bad for baseball labor relations—each team has its own local TV contract, and since the markets vary wildly in size, so do the teams’ incomes. This leads to strikes and lockouts, as all the owners try to force the players to accept salary levels appropriate to the smaller markets. On the other hand, TV has been good for stability; since teams are dependent on TV money, baseball teams no longer move, because all the top TV markets are taken. Pro football and basketball teams, on the other hand, make most of their money from national TV contracts and split it evenly. This prevents most labor strife—there are no “small” markets—but it also means that teams can city-hop, jumping to areas whose politicians and businesspeople can be suckered into building new stadiums with luxury boxes.
Baseball teams such as the Brooklyn Dodgers used to move from smaller markets to larger; now we see the bizarre spectacle of pro football teams moving from larger markets to smaller. And so the wealthy and powerful tax the working people to build stadiums with luxury boxes that working people have no access to. Forget the “game” part; the owners always regard it as a business. Danielson quotes Colts’ owner Robert Irsay as saying, when he snuck the Colts out of Baltimore to Indianapolis, “It’s not your ball team. It’s mine….I paid for it.”
Readers will be happy to know that both Rosentraub and Danielson have a solution: free enterprise. Fans should lobby Congress to remove the teams’ antitrust exemptions and encourage the establishment of more leagues and teams; teams would be less likely to demand new stadiums or threaten to jump ship if competing teams were waiting to fill the vacated spots. With competing leagues, the cities would no longer be buyers in a seller’s market. Then, perhaps, for fans, what has long been a business could start being a game again.CP