In labor game, owners stepping up to plate, too

Pro sports' bargaining tide turns, but to what degree?


September 05, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Players ruled the business of sports through most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

In baseball, not even a canceled World Series could force the players union to accept a salary cap. Then, Alex Rodriguez became the $252 million man.

In basketball, stars signed some of the biggest contracts in sports history, with rookies becoming multimillionaires before ever taking a dribble.

In hockey, the average salary more than tripled between 1995 and 2004, even as the league's franchises reported hundreds of millions in annual losses.

But such wild and woolly days may be passing.

In baseball, no free agent has approached A-Rod dollars in the past two offseasons. The union made modest concessions on revenue sharing and luxury tax in 2001 and earlier this year, reopened its contract to negotiate a steroid-testing policy demanded by commissioner Bud Selig.

In the NBA, players have accepted a strict and detailed salary structure.

And in the NHL, players had to give back money they had been promised just so they'd be allowed to return to work.

Might an era of greater management control be dawning?

Not necessarily, say sports labor experts, who argue that the major sports must be examined case by case and that any seeming trends are coincidental.

"I think what really drives it is the economics of the individual sport," said Matt Mitten, head of Marquette University's sports law institute.

Fan demand establishes how big a revenue pie each sport gets, Mitten said, and labor negotiations represent a battle over that pie by the players, who monopolize a special skill, and the owners, who monopolize the businesses and venues that allow the skill to be sold.

"It's hard to generalize, but my sense is that neither side is getting what they want, but both are getting what they need," he said.

When asked whether sports unions are on the run, New York labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler said, "I think that's unique to the National Hockey League and that, in fact, the reverse is true in other leagues."

Baseball and basketball players have never done better, said Kessler, who has worked with the NBA and NFL unions.

"I don't think one sport has a tremendous influence on another," he said. "The economics and the deals in each league are just so different that each sort of stands on its own."

Rodney Fort, a Washington State professor who studies sports business, agreed.

"All in all, it appears to me that very little has changed between the owners and players, except that the owners finally, at least, had a successful trip to the plate in 2001," he said of the baseball agreement. "Prior to that, their batting average was zero against the players."

Other observers said owners seem to have done better in recent negotiations but said it's hard to know why.

"I think you'd have to say the needle has shifted toward the owners, on balance," said Raymond Sauer, an economics professor at Clemson.

Not your average union

Economists said national trends run against unions, because most workers can earn acceptable wages without collective bargaining and because workplace conditions are generally safe and humane.

But it's hard to equate labor disputes in sports with airline strikes or layoffs in the auto industry. Sports stars have greater public profiles and are perceived to have rare abilities. So they have leverage not available to everyday workers. Owners, meanwhile, hold true monopolies, meaning players have to bargain with them.

The baseball union is considered the gold standard, having trail-blazed the path to free agency in all sports and having held together through two substantial work stoppages,

"Every time they've been to court, they've won, and then they don't give it up," said Steven Zucker, a Chicago-based agent who teaches a class in labor relations at Northwestern. "They have that history behind them, and I think that's why they always come out ahead."

Fort said the union's "dominance softened a bit in 2001" but reminded that its modest concessions came in the face of contraction threats from management and of national depression over the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some also saw the union's willingness to reopen its contract for steroid negotiations as a sign of weakness. But others said congressional scrutiny made drug testing a unique issue.

"Do I think it's a tremendous sign of weakness? No," Kessler said. "The reality is that pressure from Congress made both sides believe that if they didn't do something, Congress would do it for them."

Kessler and others predicted that the union would stand as strong as ever if the owners push for a salary cap during the next round of negotiations (the current four-year deal runs through next season).

The NBA is also known as a players' league, with the highest average salary among the major sports and a marketing plan built around individual stars. But with David Stern - widely considered the most powerful commissioner in sports - sitting across the negotiating table, players have hardly ruled in labor negotiations.

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