Pro sports has come far, but on the wrong road

November 12, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AMONG THE CHARMS of James H. Bready's new book, "Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years," is this paragraph with its ring of familiarity until the final discordant arithmetic:

"Below these pleasant surfaces was a pot ready to boil over. ... Player-owner relationships had been worsening. ... in 1885, National Leaguers formed the Brotherhood of Base Ball Players. ... the owners' answer was a burst of hostility: They proposed a salary cap. ... Matt Kilroy, 46-game winner, was paid only $2,400."

As we live in a time when professional athletes won't irrigate a spittoon for $2,400, Bready's wistful new offering reminds us how far professional sports has come, and how unsatisfactorily -- for everyone.

Instead of 46-game winners making $2,400, we have 10-game winners making $3 million and feeling themselves disrespected instead of miraculously fortunate to be earning a living at a playground occupation.

Instead of a Lou Gehrig hitting .341 over a lifetime and considering himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" while bringing home at most $72,000, we have a Mo Vaughn moping because his Boston Red Sox won't match the $72 million offered over six years by the California Angels.

Then there's football. On the front page of this very newspaper three mornings ago, we beheld a photograph of the Baltimore Ravens at game's end, basking gloriously in the cheers of delighted home folks after defeating Oakland, and never mind that most of the game was a thudding bore.

The photo was either unintentionally comic, or poignant, or both. The home folks were cheering because they're so hungry for a winner, and have sold a piece of their souls in hopes of getting one. The ballplayers lifted their arms as though posing for a Super Bowl statue. But they happen to be 3-and-6, and their offense scores touchdowns only in even-numbered months.

They should be offering ticket refunds instead of taking bows. They play before crowds who could turn surly any moment, because in the long interims between actual entertainment they're counting the money they blew on personal seat licenses and on tickets, and wondering when they'll have a name for this new ballpark.

There is no name, of course, because the Ravens are waiting to see which corporate sucker wants to hand over millions in sponsorship, and thus invite further contempt from fans. (In the meantime, how about Cement Stadium? Lacking all warmth, all charm, the bowl itself is a garish purple, and every other area is simply an epic in cement. Put up some posters, some blown-up photographs, something in those long walkways!)

Meanwhile, in bereft Cleveland, they prepare to replace their departed-for-Baltimore football club with an expansion team. Alfred Lerner -- remember him, helping oil the Browns' transition to Baltimore? -- agreed to buy the new Cleveland franchise. For $530 million. Can't wait to see the ticket prices he'll be charging to support that payout.

And then we have the pituitary mistakes who play professional basketball but are currently giving up much of their season. Big deal, say the club owners. They've got guaranteed $2.64 billion bTC TV contracts from NBC and Turner Sports which cover them whether a ball is dribbled this winter or not.

The players, who split about $1 billion in salary, benefits and bonuses last season, average more than $1 million per player per year. The owners want players' compensation to be limited to 50 percent of league revenues. The players want 60 percent.

Lost in all of this, of course, is the one who's always lost: the fan. The players say they only want their fair cut of a lucrative business. Why not? They're the ones who bring in the paying customers. The owners say, yeah, but it's our front money and our risk. Which is also true.

And, while they work things out, we have this: If you wish to buy a courtside ticket at a place such as Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks, it's $1,350.

Per ticket.

Per game.

Or, if you want a mediocre seat at a Ravens football game, it could cost you $3,000 for a Personal Seat License -- which is nothing more than the right to purchase actual tickets. Around here, those attending Ravens games may remember a certain public outcry when the Colts raised prices from $6 all the way to $7 a game.

And, speaking of remembering: During the years of Baltimore's football wilderness, how many ticket holders forgot the glories of sitting in the cold while another in an endless series of TV timeouts is called to help pay for those player salaries?

Have we come a long way since Jim Bready could chronicle 46-game winners earning $2,400 a year? Of course. Nobody thinks the pay in professional sports could have stayed where it was. We're talking perspective. On the way to the bank, the rich guys in sports have forgotten the poor slobs whose paychecks haven't been inflated, and who look at all the labor unrest and wonder: What, exactly, did we once find charming about professional sports?

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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