Give the Fans a Say

August 17, 1994|By JOHN FAIRHALL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--As the baseball strike goes on, I feel like a spectator at a poker game where the players are betting with my money.

The owners can't lose. The players can't lose. Only fans can, and we surely will.

They're playing with our money and it's a near certainty that we'll pay the price for ending the strike. Hey, it's the only painless solution for them -- agree on a plan that eventually requires the public to fork over even more money for tickets, parking, food and drink. Then all the owners and players profit.

It's not fair; it's worse than being a taxpayer. Citizens can call elected representatives to complain about taxes. Whom do fans call?

We deserve a majority seat at the bargaining table. We'd get what we need -- a cap, not on salaries as the owners seek, but on ticket and parking prices. It's the perfect solution.

Prices would be frozen for, say, three years, to compensate for the long history of gouging, after which the fans' representatives would consider the owners' and players' tearful pleas for more money.

This wouldn't impinge on the rights of owners or players. They'd be free to divide up the revenue any way they see fit: 50-50, 60-40, whatever they negotiate. Sure, they'd argue a lot over who gets what. There might be occasional strikes or lockouts.

But you can bet that "work stoppages" -- an odd term for a game, don't you think? -- wouldn't last long. Without the ability to jack up future prices, owners and players would feel real financial pain if they stopped the games, which is the way it is for other businesses shut down by labor strife. The incentive to end the impasse and resume baseball would be overwhelming, which is not the case today.

Of course, owners and players would howl about such an arrangement. It's un-American, they'd splutter, to set a limit on what can be charged for a product. Not true. It's unfair only when the product is part of a competitive market where there are choices, as in the auto industry.

Baseball is a monopoly and fans have no choice: If they want to see the Orioles, they must pay the freight, up to $25 for a club section ticket and $5 to park.

What other monopoly has this privilege? Not C&P or BGE, whose rates are regulated by the state. A fuzzy-brained Supreme Court gave baseball it's unique status as a monopoly empowered to raise its own prices, ostensibly because it's in the interests of the game.

Maybe that was the case once, but it surely isn't so today, not when robber barons masquerading as civic-minded baseball owners blackmail states into building them gaudy new stadiums that enrich owners and the players but, in Maryland, require poor people to buy lottery tickets to pay off the bonds.

And consider this: That other great source of baseball revenues, TV, negotiates what it will pay. The owners can't dictate a price. Why shouldn't fans have the same right?

As a gesture of good faith, the fans' representatives at the bargaining table could grant owners the authority to continue raising food and beverage prices higher than Tokyo's. After all, fans do have some discretion here.

They can bring in their own food, albeit not bottles or cans. If Mercedes owners want to pay $20 for a beer, which is what the price will be in a few years, that's their business.

The point is that fans should have some say over what they pay. Repeat that, "some say over pay," until the principle sinks in.

It's easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that the strike is a financial problem involving other people, the players and owners. It's our money, it's our problem.

The owners are right. There should be a cap. On tickets, on parking. Let them play poker with our game, baseball, so long as they play it with their money.

John Fairhall reports from The Sun's Washington bureau. He is a fan.

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