CHICAGO -- A 10-year-old baseball fan, hearing about the multimillion-dollar salaries paid to Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull, paused for a minute over his slice of pizza and said, "When I'm big, they won't even use people for players."
Asked what he meant, the boy went on: "The owners will be so tired of paying them all that money that they will use robots instead, and then when a pitcher's arm falls off or something like that, all the owner will have to do is replace it with another one that has the latest computer in it."
It is an intriguing idea as the world of sports whirls toward the year 2000.
The boy's notion was cultivated, no doubt, by super video games as well as by headline-grabbing contracts; but, more importantly, it points out that another generation besides those who grew up with Mantle and Mays and $1.25 grandstand seats senses possible upheaval in the years ahead for professional, college and even high school sports.
As club owners, marketing analysts, players, their agents -- and, yes, even little boys -- try to peer into the future of the sports world, they are fixed on the obvious fact that salaries have skyrocketed and sports has become this decade's Gold Rush.
The average salary in the National Basketball Association is currently just above $1 million and is expected to reach $1.5 million by 1994.
Baseball's payroll in 1991 was $630 million, up from $422 million the year before -- a 50 percent increase. Another big bounce is in the offing this year as witnessed by the $29 million given by the New York Mets to Bonilla and the $25 million contract given by the Yankees to Tartabull.
At the same time, the fountainhead of club revenues -- network television deals -- shows signs of evaporating, and there is talk the next baseball contract with television will be as much as 30 percent below the current $1.45 billion pact.
One of the fears is that in the search for continuing revenues to fuel the frenzy, the average fan will be made to pay even more than he does today.
"Increasingly, sports are going to be for the rich," says Murray Sperber, a professor of English at Indiana University, author of "College Sports Inc.," and a former sports writer. "My father used to take me to ballgames all the time, but I can't afford to take my kids.
"I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s and used to buy an end zone seat on the day of the game for $1.50 to watch the 49ers. Can you imagine seeing the NFL today for $1.50?
"The day will come when Joe Six-Pack is priced out of seeing his favorite team. You're going to have super-rich gladiators playing sports for super-rich fans. I'm not sure what the rest of us will do, but it will be an amazing world."
In Chicago, it already is becoming exorbitant to watch a pro sports event live, and virtually impossible to buy a ticket on game day, unless it's from a scalper.
Consider the Bulls.
Tickets range from $15 in the second balcony to $35 in the mezzanine, $50 for a box seat and $250 at courtside.
About 13,000 seats are sold on season-ticket plans, many of them to corporate buyers. Tickets for the remaining 4,500 seats per game went on sale last October and were sold out the first day, according to Joe O'Neil, the Bulls director of ticket and stadium operations. The Bulls' victory Tuesday night over Philadelphia was witnessed by the 209th consecutive sellout.
Baseball is a far better bargain, with the average major-league ticket priced at $8.64 compared to $23.87 for the National Basketball Association, but it still is difficult to get a choice ticket in Chicago. Increasingly, marketing is geared toward the corporate buyer.
Admission prices for the White Sox this year range from $8 for a bleacher or upper-deck reserved seat to $15 for a box seat. But except for the bleachers, all seats on the lower level, including the outfield grandstand, are expected to go to 81-game season ticket-holders, said Rob Gallas, senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting. Most of these will go to corporate buyers.
A season-ticket buyer can join the Stadium Club for $600 (food and drink extra) and dine in plush surroundings at the ballpark. A full season-ticket plan for two, parking and membership in the Stadium Club adds up to $4,602 -- plus the cost of food, drink, souvenirs and other amenities.
"To be a successful franchise, all you used to have to do was sell a million tickets," said Gallas. "Now, two million is the benchmark, a lot of franchises are flirting with three million and the Dodgers and Blue Jays drew four million.
"The stakes have gone up and you just can't sell to the hard-core baseball fan anymore. You have to sell to the businessman and to the entertainment customer, to the people who spend their dollars on books, movies, plays, restaurants and other leisure-time activities.