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Jul 02nd
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Are sports fans resilient or suckers?

lockout_optBY EVAN WEINER

There is an old saying: March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. For sports fans, March 2011 has come in with the full fury of a lion. There is more March Madness than normal.

Last Friday, the National Football League Players Association and representatives of the National Football League owners broke off negotiations and started the machinery, which promises an interesting offseason. The players association is legally no more – it has decertified – while the owners have locked players out of training facilities and suspended football operations as the 2006 collective bargaining agreement expired.

The breakdown in negotiations and the subsequent actions by the owners and players is just another blow to sports fans in the month of March. The Maloof brothers, the owners of the National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings, asked the NBA for an extension of the league's March 1 moving deadline until mid-April as the Maloofs attempt to work out an agreement with Anaheim officials to relocate to the Southern California city.

The Maloofs have apparently soured on Sacramento as an NBA city because they cannot get a taxpayer-funded arena that is loaded with high-revenue luxury boxes and club seats – the very type of seats that are beyond the price range of the average worker in Sacramento financially – and Orange County, California residents might be a better fit as they seem to be wealthier than the people in the California capital of Sacramento.

While the Maloofs continue to negotiate with Anaheim officials, Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson is forging ahead with new arena plans with or without the Maloofs. The Maloof/Kings drama is playing out against an interesting backdrop. Sacramento officials are thinking of cutting school programs like sports and basketball because they don’t have any money for anything but school basics.

Just in case fans haven’t noticed, sports owners are social class segregationists. One owner of a team never hid from his belief that fans are on the low end of the totem pole in sports society and he wanted more well-heeled people in his building.

“Nothing comes from the fan,” said the owner. “Support comes from the customers. Big difference. Fans scream on talk radio. Customers bring their kids, their families, their wives, their dates, their companies, their business partners. They have lives and don’t talk to the radio talk show hosts.”

Sports owners and athletes seem to not care all that much about fans. But fans seem to have very little problem being abused. All of those people who claimed in 1995 that they would never attend another baseball game after the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike in August 1994 and the owners brought in replacement players or scabs in an effort to break the association in March 1995 seem to have broken their vow and have come back to the ballpark in record numbers in the 21st century.

The news from the New York Mets ownership has not been good for a good while as the Wilpon family has been battling with the trustee involved in the Bernard Madoff case. Irving Picard is looking to get victims money and is going after the Wilpons in an attempt to recover it. The Wilpons seem to be in financial trouble and that is not good news for Mets fans. Still Mets fans have not given up on either baseball or the team, they are hoping the Wilpons go down with the ship and a new owner will step in and bring the Mets back to contention.

In Glendale, Arizona, a conservative watchdog group has been causing havoc with Glendale's ability to sell municipal bonds with a lot of the bond money going to bail out the Phoenix Coyotes National Hockey League franchise so that the team will stay in the city-built arena. National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman went after the Goldwater Institute in a news conference last week in Glendale. There are rumors floating around that Glendale would sue the Goldwater Institute for poisoning the well by bad mouthing the city's attempt to sell the municipal bonds.

The irony of the potential lawsuit is that it might cause a great deal of embarrassment for one of the Goldwater Institute's trustees, Randy Kendrick. Mrs. Kendrick's husband Ken is the Managing General Partner and one of the owners of Major League Baseball's Phoenix-based Arizona Diamondbacks, a franchise that plays in a stadium that was funded by taxpayers and a franchise that just moved into a new spring training facility that was also paid by Arizona taxpayers.

While Bettman was in Glendale, the league had other health problems crop up. Former NHL tough guy Bob Probert left his brain to be studied following his death last June. There was suspicion that Probert, who died of a heart attack at the age of 45, suffered from brain damage that might have been connected to hockey injuries. Researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy confirmed Probert's fear that he suffered from a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Boston University is building up a brain bank of deceased athletes, mostly football players and university added a brain recently that of former NFL player Dave Duerson who killed himself on Feb. 17. The Boston University center is attempting to find a link between playing football and permanent head injuries – something that football officials and hired medical experts say is not true.

On Thursday, Montreal police began a criminal investigation into the on-ice hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara that left the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty with a severe concussion and cracked vertebra. Chara checked Pacioretty into something called a turnbuckle, which is a piece of glass that separates the team benches in the Montreal arena. The NHL didn't take any disciplinary action against Chara but Air Canada let Bettman know they are not happy with the violence in the league and threatened to end the airline's various league marketing partnerships and Bettman responded by saying the league could end an agreement to use Air Canada in chartering teams around Canada and the US. Another NHL Canadian sponsor, Via Rail also wants the league to clean up the violence.

Meanwhile, Quebec Premier Jean Charest criticized NHL violence and wants the league to address the issue. But fans are not all that concerned. They want Bettman fired for ruining their game and don’t understand there is a business component that overrides the concern of the fans. But many fans had no problem with Chara’s hit. Fans in Canada and in the United States, stoked by know-nothing sports writers when it comes to business concerns, want Bettman’s out of office because he is in their minds incompetent and has ruined the game.

The sports fans and the Canadian hockey writers are failing to realize Bettman works for the owners and not for them. The fans blame Bettman for the NHL’s massive Sun Belt expansion plan that dates back to 1990 -- three years before Bettman took over as NHL Commissioner – and that there were 26 teams in the league when Bettman walked into his office for the first time.

In the New York metropolitan area, the Giants and Jets gave their fans a pre-lockout present. A hike in ticket prices for the 2011 season -- a season that at the moment will not be played. Cablevision also has given Knicks and Rangers fans a present for 2011-12, a whopping 49 percent average price hike for Knicks tickets and 23 percent for Rangers ducats. Jim Dolan is renovating Madison Square Garden (again) and needs money for the sprucing up of the 43-year-old building that is not on the New York City tax roll.

Give Jim Dolan some credit.

Knicks tickets are high priced items. Courtside seats are $3,000 a piece. Dolan is doing what politicians refuse to do, raising “his” tax for seats on well-heeled people to close his budget gap. Dolan has far more courage than Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg and many politicians who will not ask high income earners to share in the sacrifice that lesser income earners are doing whether it is union givebacks and outright government layoffs or paying higher tolls on roads or higher fees to use parks and other government services which means the poorer people of American society are sacrificing far more than the people who have the ability to buy Jim Dolan’s soon to be $3,600 courtside seats.

Dolan is forcing well-heeled customers and corporations who buy Knicks tickets to share in the sacrifice. Of course those people and the corporations that buy the high-ticket items get a tax write off of 50 percent. Someone else is paying for the entertainment-tax writeoff, perhaps the public at large for a few who are entertained at games?


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