Sports and money

June 28, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Once upon a time, becoming "like baseball" was the aspiration of other professional sports. Now it is the National Basketball Association's nightmare.

A lockout of players, which means a suspension of signings and other transactions, will begin Wednesday when the league's labor agreement with the players expires. The conflict illuminates the evolving nature of professional sports in a culture mesmerized by celebrity. Two excellent American things -- freedom and prosperity -- are producing in the NBA a dynamic with bad consequences for equality.

Thanks to the general emancipation of professional athletes that began in baseball in the 1970s, every NBA player has, after three years in the league, a right to become a free agent, selling his services to the highest bidder. Thanks to various elemental forces (the growth of discretionary income, the proliferation of television entities ravenous for sports programming, Michael Jordan, who is responsible for high television ratings and lots of sales of licensed merchandise), there is an ocean of dollars at issue. Last season the players received almost 1 billion of them, about half of all revenues.

But Mr. Jordan may retire, sales of licensed merchandise are stagnant, attendance is down sharply in some cities and is flat overall. Even though, or perhaps because, ticket prices have risen 27 percent in three years, more than half the teams say they are losing money. The players union, suspecting creative bookkeeping, scoffs at that and at the league's claim that it barely broke even (if it did even that well) this year and expects to lose perhaps $100 million over the next three years. Now the league, which has never had a game lost because of labor troubles, is threatened with disruption because the owners, having just signed a lucrative television contract, propose what the players consider a regressive contract.

The Bird rule

The NBA has an extremely porous salary cap, made so by the Bird Rule (devised when Boston's Celtics needed to spend to keep Larry Bird). It says money spent to re-sign free agents previously under contract to that team can exceed the cap by any amount. The owners want to impose a hard cap (eliminating the Bird Rule), raise from three to five the number of years a player can be paid according to the league wage scale negotiated with the players, and institute a team's right to match any offer made to a player at the end of the fifth year.

One worry shared by the players union and wise owners concerns the "Hollywoodization" of the league's pay structure, with a few stars on each team getting most of the payroll and about a quarter of the players making near the league minimum ($272,250 last year). But this polarization is a natural, even desired, consequence of a celebrity-driven marketing strategy that has made the NBA so successful. On each team, one or two stars are supposed to define the franchise's identity and the league wants them to be dissuaded by money or impeded by the proposed right to match any offer, from leaving.

Jordan rules

This reflects the nature of the game: In neither baseball nor football can one player take over a game the way Mr. Jordan regularly does and many others often do. David Falk, agent for Mr. Jordan and some other superstars, says it makes sense to have "two or three divas on every team" because basketball is hybrid. It is a team sport but also a stage for a few dominating individuals.

So the NBA wants to avoid becoming "like baseball," where, although there is a trend toward "Hollywoodization," there is still what critics call the problem of the high price of mediocrity -- .250 hitters earning $2 million. Or is that "problem" really equity, moderating the dominance of the star system? There are those who would like the NBA minimum raised substantially.

As ticket prices soar, NBA games may become like Broadway shows: People will pay only for smash hits, meaning only for a few teams. Abe Pollin, the NBA's senior owner, built the new MCI Center for his Wizards in downtown Washington because of his commitment to the life of the inner city. No team can unilaterally restrain salaries and stay competitive, and Mr. Pollin worries that the league, which is increasingly dependent on new arenas with lots of luxury boxes for corporate clients, is pricing itself out of the market for ordinary fans.

Basketball, a purely American game -- it has no foreign antecedents -- is facing the archetypal American challenge of being prosperous without ruining the basis of its prosperity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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