Friday, October 2, 2009

Why Pro Sports Ownership Sucks

Robert Sterling

If there is a movie that begs to be remade, it is 1975's Rollerball, starring James Caan. (And yes, let's ignore that it was remade in a decided 2002 dud, which excluded everything that made the original so great, starting with Mr. Caan.) True, the movie often lacks any literal logic to it, although defenders of the film (including myself) will point out that even at its most incoherent, there is a surreal symbolic truth to it in the spirit of the TV show The Prisoner. And the film seems to miss where things were headed entirely in its central thesis: that professional team sports would be used as a tool to teach society individuality must be squashed into nothingness. In fact, in this era of Tiger-LeBron-Kobe etc., it seems athletic stars are instead transformed into quasi-deities as leaders of personality cults to pacify the masses with appetites for distraction (at least until their value as a consumable good has fallen via diminished returns.)

But there is one thing the movie nails, and nails so perfectly you'd think it was written by Nostradamus. And it's this: that sports would be transformed by megacorporations into mass entertainment that would dominate our society by its intoxicating mixture. Indeed, it's hard not to look at the freakish steroid-fueled reality show known as the NFL and not think of it as a reflection of the ultraviolent futuristic league. It seems that Rollerball, like modern day professional sports, represents both the dangers of korporate monoliths transforming America into a increasingly fascist state and the admitted appeal of the seductive opiums they manufacture to keep us gratified.

It is in this context that the issue of pro ownership in sports needs to be discussed. More often than not, sports league owners are portrayed as villains in the press. Even the exceptions seem to prove the rule: perhaps the most beloved owner in sports over the last thirty years, Edward DeBartolo, lost control of the San Francisco 49ers after his involvement in the corruption case of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards. The general image of pro owners is that of a bunch of greedy rich old men who have no loyalty to the community their team resides. Their cinematic equivalent is Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life.

This image, of course, is totally deserved. Indeed, one of the most notorious (and common) ways sports owners extract large amounts of funds is through the legalized extortion game of threatening to relocate. By pitting their current city against another location desiring the prestige of owning a pro sport franchise, the owners use their oligopolistic power to maximize the dollars they receive at the expense of the larger public. Even a city as important to mass viewership as Los Angeles can't evade this blackmail game, hence why the NFL hasn't had a club in North America's second largest metro area since 1995.

This is only part of the problem, albeit a huge part of it. The bigger issue of sports ownership: even the best of the owners are, in reality, nothing more than deadweight. They are parasitic leeches on the sports they represent, akin to what Wall Street is to business and health insurance companies are to healthcare. And perhaps even those analogies are too flattering. No matter how decent, how noble and how generous any individual owner may be, sports would be better without any of them.

(No wonder then the korporate kontrolled press tends to focus outrage in sports on players, lest we remember it's the owners that are ripping the public off and not the athletes whose labor is central to the pleasure derived from their competition. This is why you hear so much about which players have been busted juicing on roids, while the widespread evidence of covert complicity and sanctioning of the doping by the owners is usually ignored. On the same note, if Nike's treatment of workers in the Third World received only half the talk radio outrage Latrell Sprewell received 12 years ago for choking his obnoxious coach, human rights organizations would have had labor reforms worthy of celebration long ago. Sorry sports pundits, whatever his flaws, T.O. is not the anti-Christ.)

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Yes there is, and it already exists, in Green Bay, no less. Outsiders to the politics of pro football are often confused as to how the Packers have remained in this tiny town, which (at number 147 in population) is easily the smallest North American metro to hold a major league sport franchise. (If you exclude the NHL - which you should, since hockey hardly qualifies as a major league sport anymore - the closest competition is New Orleans at number 56.)

The reason for this anomaly? The Green Bay Packers, unlike every other team in major league sports, is a non-profit, community owned athletic club. The owners, therefore, are the people of Green Bay, who own the stock in the non-profit company. Thus, the owners of the Packers have no desire to extort more funds from Green Bay with threats of moving, since the owners have a personal stake in the town. Despite (or perhaps because of) this unique ownership design, the Packers are one of the most successful sports franchises of all time, having won a record 12 NFL championships, three in the Super Bowl era. Meanwhile, from 1992-2004, they had an impressive streak of 13 straight non-losing seasons during the era of Brett Favre, including a victory in the 1997 Super Bowl. Needless to say, the evidence proves that non-profit community owned teams can at least be competitive.

Which is why, of course, the Packers will remain an anomaly. Like Wall Street and the health insurance companies, professional owners have a vested interest in insisting they are integral to the success of sport franchises. Any evidence to the contrary will be downplayed, if not outright squashed. The only reason the Packers exist in the format they do is they are a relic from the beginnings of pro sports, before the NFL became a business monolith. They only retain their unique ownership makeup thanks to a grandfather clause in the NFL ownership rules. No doubt pro sports owners aren't interested in making any more exceptions which would prove the dubious nature of their own existence.


Anonymous said...

Was with you all the way until the slag against the NHL.

I believe the Packers are run as a co-op, or at least using that model. Here's some enlightening information about co-ops -

Robalini said...

The slag against the NHL is without joy, as I was once a big hockey fan. But sadly, due to the incompetence of the Gary Bettman era (climaxing in the cancellation of the 2004-5 season by he and, of course, the owners to screw the players) it just can't be taken seriously as a major league sport anymore...

Manuel said...

Excellent Post and thus why the closed franchise model sucks.

Quite frankly I've never understood this socialist approach to professional sports leagues in North America.

What's more funny that soccer (excluding the MLS) a popular sport the world over is run like the free market dream most Americans so much defend.