Are sports fans resilient or suckers?

Monday, 14 March 2011 09:10
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lockout_optBY EVAN WEINER
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
COMMENTARY

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?


So one NBA team may move, the NHL may be in a court fight with a political watchdog group that features a trustee whose husband benefited from public handouts, the NFL has locked out the players and on the horizon is an NBA lockout on July 1. What is a sports fan to do?

The sports fan who gives his or her team unconditional love and seemingly ends up like Charlie Brown in that Charlie is ready to kick the football out of Lucy Van Pelt's hold in the Peanuts comic strip. But as Charlie Brown gets ready to put his foot into the ball, Lucy pulls it away and Charlie falls on his back and head. (Hopefully Charlie Brown has a better post football career health plan than retired NFL players if he suffered any brain damage from falling on his head – American taxpayers are paying for many players healthcare through Social Security Insurance and Medicare even though the former players are in their 40s and 50s because the National Football League Players Association wanted "Money Now" in their 1982 and 1987 labor actions and didn't bother getting their membership enhanced post career health and pension benefits even though players abused their bodies in their careers.)

The United States federal government, specifically Congress and various Presidents have given owners the tools to make more and more money. But it was in Milwaukee that the shift occurred that put sports on the public dole. In 1950, Milwaukee elected officials decided to build a stadium with public dollars and get a baseball team. In the middle of spring training in the middle of March 1953, the city snagged an owner. Lou Perini moved his financially struggling Boston Braves to Milwaukee and hit the jackpot. Milwaukee gave Perini the stadium for $1,000 in rent and all concession revenue.

Wisconsin fans turned out to see Perini’s Braves in big numbers. That started the business that worked out well for owners of having cities bid for American and National League Baseball teams.

Other owners quickly moved. Bill Veeck sold the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore interests. The Philadelphia A’s baseball team was sold and moved to Kansas City. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley took notice of Perini’s success and felt Brooklyn (which was at the top of baseball attendance annually) would not be able to compete with Milwaukee and started looking for an alternative to Ebbets Field. O’Malley took his Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957. Horace Stoneham took his Giants from upper Manhattan to San Francisco in 1957. Both got new stadiums in their new cities although O’Malley spent his own money on Dodger Stadium. But he did get all sorts of tax breaks and incentives and land.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961, which allowed leagues to sell all of their franchises as one to TV networks, which gave leagues an antitrust exemption, and it has paid off fabulously for owners, particularly those in the NFL. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson inked an anti-inflation bill, which also included the American Football League-National Football League merger. That bill led to the formulation of the Super Bowl.

The 1984 Cable TV Act has been embraced by owners who make millions off of cable channels such as ESPN and regional sports cable TV networks, like the New York Yankees’ partially-owned YES Network. The 1986 Tax Act gave owners to big help in negotiating leases at municipally built stadium and arenas. If a town built an arena, owners could get as much as 92 cents on every dollar generated in the building constructed after 1986 on a lease as municipalities were limited to just getting eight cents out of every dollar to pay down the debt on the facility.

The 1986 Tax Act is the major cause for major expansion and franchise relocation in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the formation of Major League Soccer.

Owners sought new buildings and people with money wanted to own teams whether it was for ego, making some money on a team or buying a franchise and holding onto it long enough and then sell it for a nice profit wanted to get into the game. Those people happily bought expansion teams.

Major League Baseball's 1993 expansion into Miami and Denver had more to do with Congress and paying off a debt than new buildings. Major League Baseball owners were found to have colluded against the players by an arbitrator and were slapped with a $280 million fine. The expansion helped offset the $280 million bill as MLB got $100 million each from Miami and Denver owners to join the league. Denver voters approved a baseball park to boot.

Baseball took in more money with the 1998 expansion to St. Petersburg and Phoenix. St. Petersburg had a stadium and Phoenix residents approved a stadium funding for a new facility with a March 31, 1995 expiration date. MLB expanded right before the funding was taken off the table. The 1995 NFL expansion to Charlotte and Jacksonville brought an unexpected side development. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson hired a sports marketer named Max Muhleman, the man who introduced personal seat licensing to football.

Fourteen NFL teams use the ploy that gives “fans” the right to purchase a seat then pay for a ticket for a game. Richardson needed extra money to pay off his stadium, which did not get as much public money as needed.

Muhleman’s idea came from Donald Trump. As New Jersey Generals owner in the mid-1980s, Trump was looking to move his operations from the Meadowlands to Queens, specifically the Willets Point junkyard land. To help fund the "condo-stadium," Trump was going to have people purchase the seats and then charge for tickets. In Trump’s scheme about 2/3s of the stadium would have featured what is now know as personal seat licenses.

Fans have put up with baseball labor disputes in 1972, 1981, 1985, 1990 and 1994-95 along with a drug scandal in the 1980s and the alleged usage of illegal performance enhancing drugs in the 1990s and beyond.

Fans seemingly are unaware of the physical toll that football players endure from all levels -- Pop Warner kids football up to the NFL -- and how America’s safety net is taking care of broken down players to the tune of perhaps a billion dollars to taxpayers. When the NFL and NFLPA fight over splitting up $9 billion, former players are going through various struggles with seemingly one common theme.

Post-career business failures, broken marriages, the inability to keep a job, financial stress, depression, and disability. Neither the owners nor the players (all of whom will be former players someday) are seriously looking after the discarded players.

But NFL owners have been enriched by non-fans who pay cable bills for ESPN or pay a variety of taxes to help build NFL places of business whether it is was an increase in sales tax, car rental tax, hotel tax, motel tax, water tax, lotteries (in Maryland), a sin tax, a restaurant tax, tax breaks, tax incentives or in the case in Louisiana paying $186.5 million in subsidies to keep the New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson happy between 2002 and 2010. That lease deal has been rewritten and Benson isn’t getting the same amount of money annually from Baton Rouge politicians. He will get at the most $6 million but the state has given him a building next to the New Orleans Superdome and will rent office space in the Benson Tower.

Since the last NBA lockout in 1999, George Shinn moved his Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans, Michael Heisley took his Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis and Clayton Bennett removed his Seattle SuperSonics from the Pacific Northwest and placed the team in Oklahoma City. In 1998 and 1999 NBA Commissioner David Stern and his owners were looking for cost certainty and trying to make NBA basketball affordable to fans that had been displaced in the every spiraling up tick in process for tickets. There will be a lockout starting July 1 unless the players agree to take far less money and the reason that NBA owners will do this is because of spiraling costs of running a franchise.

The International Olympic Committee tries to shake down local governments for the privilege of paying for a summer or winter Olympics forcing the local host city to pay off Olympic size debts. Just look at the aftermath of the 2004 Athens Games that contributed to Greece’s financial failings.

Sports fans put up with an awful lot. There are groups who are demanding a say in the NFL lockout or a place at the sports table. To those groups, no offense, but you are not welcomed at the sports table. The truth is the owners only care about customers who bring money to the stadium. For fans, it is fine for you to buy t-shirts, caps, coffee cups with team logos and other merchandise and to watch the games on cable TV. Owners don’t want you. They want customers who spend money.

When the NFL owners unlock the doors, all will be forgiven. After all there is tailgating, betting and lounging around the TV on Sunday afternoons in the fall. Besides there is always college football, a place where players make money for schools and in the process break down their bodies all for the glory of someone’s alma mater. The so-called student athletes may get a scholarship but they are there to either prepare for the pros or to be used to make money for the school – big time college sports has a tax exemption thanks to the federal government. Go to a bowl game and the school doesn’t have to pay tax on their payday for playing football.

It is more than just March Madness time. Sports fans are either the most resilient bunch of people around or the biggest suckers going. The owners know the answer to that premise. Do the fans?

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. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it