Professional Sports Are All Business And More

November 21, 1993|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

first endure, then pity, then embrace."

-- Alexander Pope, "Essay on Man."

The next time somebody complains -- accurately -- that professional sports promoters don't respect their paying customers, ask why they should.

They extort, they blackmail, they debase their product, they blame us for their failures, they lie, they cheat, they steal, they kick us in the teeth for sheer fun. And back we come every time, like Oliver Twist asking for more.

If Baltimore beats the odds and gets a new National Football League team, we'll forget the whole squalid past and kiss the toes (that isn't the image I would have chosen, but this is a family paper) of the sportsmen and philanthropists who did us this great favor. If Baltimore doesn't get a new team, some of our brightest entrepreneurs stand ready to sink to the level of the Robert Irsays and Bill Bidwills and steal one from somewhere else.

And this happens all over the country, not just in Baltimore. If you were a sports owner, would you respect people like us?

You can probably hear the owners now: What's the complaining about? It's all business, isn't it? No, it's not all business; sports could not survive if they were seen to be all business. If the owners have forgotten that, they've been fawned on so much for so long by the fans, the politicians and the media that it's warped their disgusting minds.

In most businesses, you're only as good as your next deal, and nothing counts but a legally binding contract. (And maybe not even that, if your lawyers are good enough.) And in its rough way, the system delivers the goods. But sports is different.

"America is not just an economy," George Will wrote in these pages this summer, "it is more than an arena for wealth-creation. It is a culture." Cities, too, are more than economic entities; almost as much as economic vitality, they need the shared experiences, the traditions and group pride of which sports teams are a tangible symbol.

It's precisely their noneconomic value that makes cities want sports teams so much, and owners know it. Reduce sports to yet another form of buying, selling, portfolio churning and commission-mongering and there's no reason left for the tax concessions, the favorable leases or the Niagaras of free publicity.

(Philip K. Wrigley used to muse that he could make a million-dollar decision about his chewing-gum company and it would get a couple of inches on the business pages. But let him make a much smaller move with his Chicago Cubs and it was likely to end up all over Page One.)

By accepting -- if not demanding -- unconditional love and refusing to return it, the owners turn their reason for being into a sham.

A. J. Liebling went to the heart of the matter in "The Sweet Science," explaining why he preferred writing about boxing to writing about newspapers: "[T]he press is less competitive than the ring. Faced with a rival [Liebling, who died in 1963, lived in an era when newspapers had rivals], an American newspaper will usually offer to buy it. This is sometimes done in Scientific [boxing] circles, but is not considered ethical."

Similarly, at least three sports movies -- "Slap Shot," "Major League" and "The Natural" -- have ready-made villains in the figure of the owner who stands to profit if the team loses. ("Eight Men Out" had a real-life villain in Charles Comiskey, the Chicago White Sox founder, who -- according to the movie and the book on which it was based -- bullied and cheated his players so badly that they threw the 1919 World Series partly for revenge.)

Putting the balance sheet ahead of the won-lost record may be economically rational for the owners, but arrangements like these violate the conventions -- the social contract, if you follow Rousseau; the natural law, if you prefer Leo Strauss -- that keep sports in the center of public attention instead of collapsing into the low camp of roller derby or professional wrestling.

There is a more strictly pragmatic reason not to go after some other city's teams: If they're available, they're almost always too badly managed to be worth having. That was true, if widely ignored, when the measure of a team's economic health was the number of people in the seats on game day. Even now, when everything revolves around television revenue, souvenir marketing potential and luxury boxes -- when, for instance, the Seattle Mariners, a baseball team in a "small" broadcast market, can set a team attendance record and still not feel safe -- it's a good rule of thumb.

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