Less Than Sporting
Reducing the exorbitant amounts paid to athletes and owners would help the average fan—and the government should do it.
This past June, the National Football League revised its so-called “blackout rule,” under which individual games that failed to sell out three days before kickoff would not be televised in the local home market. Under the old rule, if, say, the New York Giants were hosting the Washington Redskins and a few thousand seats were still unsold on Saturday, the New York area would not get to watch the game. In recent years, between 5 and 10 percent of all games were blacked out. Under the new rule, only 85 percent of the seats have to be sold for the game to be locally televised. Fans were overjoyed. They would no longer be pressured to attend a sporting event so others could watch it on television. Every game, or almost every game, will now be on TV.
The NFL did not change its rule out of altruism or a sense of charity toward its fans. In January, persistent lobbying efforts by various sports-fan groups had convinced the Federal Communications Commission to review the blackout rule. In changing its rule, the NFL was bowing to government pressure.
The American love affair with sports is a serious thing. We think of our most venerated ballparks as cathedrals, and have turned the Super Bowl into a national holiday. It was not always so. In 1955, when baseball was still the unquestioned national pastime, about 16.5 million people attended a ball game. In 2011, that figure had reached 73 million. Then the modern NBA was a distant glimmer and the Super Bowl did not exist, let alone ESPN, sports talk radio, and fantasy leagues.
Unsurprisingly, as our fandom has increased, so too has the amount of money at stake. As recently as the 1980s, a $1 million salary was considered an outrage; in baseball, the average salary is now $3 million. When we think about emblems of income inequality, the usual suspects reside on Wall Street, in the financial sector. Less discussed are the 1 percenters who roam our ball fields and arenas.
Professional athletes make so much money because our appetite for sports is near-insatiable. We devote considerable chunks of time to following and watching sports, and we are happy to pay for the privilege of doing so. At times, this love becomes problematic, in the same way that any system of worship can. The amount of money that is generated by athetics is surely disproportionate to its real value in society. The dystopic underworld of Penn State, now revealed, comes to mind.
Despite the exponential growth in sports, government intervention often occurs only in a limited fashion, to benefit the interests of the owners and established leagues. Yet government should play a broader role in our professional athletic landscape, for two distinct but related reasons. The first is that sports themselves should be compelled to pay greater attention to the needs of the average sports fan. The second is that the growth of sports has brought about windfall profits for the owners and players—money that could, as a matter of social priority, be spent better elsewhere. In short: advance the interests of the fans, not the players or the owners, and readjust the amount of money that flows to sports so that it may go toward other purposes—objectives that can be achieved at once.
For either one, moral appeals alone are unlikely to suffice. Relying on them would be the equivalent of, say, calling for a blue-ribbon commission—in the language of sports, it’d be a punt. One possible liberal attitude to sports, descended from the Dwight Macdonald school of highbrow smugness, dismisses the popularity of sports as another sign of cultural decay. That reaction is not only elitist, but fails to confront the unshakable fact of sports’ popularity. Instead, how about treating the NFL’s blackout rule brouhaha as a guiding moment? Let liberalism, equipped with its most familiar tool, government intervention, strive to better sports in America, for the sake of fans and the nation.
Probably the most notable example of government intervention in sports is baseball’s antitrust exemption. Dating to 1922, the exemption is meant to restrict competition and gives team owners a virtual monopoly on their product. Football’s blackout rule, dating to 1973, is but a more recent manifestation of the same pro-entrenched-power, anti-fan approach. Consider the way in which local governments flex their muscle to support new stadium construction. Atlantic Yards, a Brooklyn development site that includes a new arena, is being built with over $700 million in subsidies and government giveaways. The new Yankee Stadium, opened in 2009, was showered with at least $325 million in taxpayer money. While politicians defend these deals by arguing they will net jobs for the area, the truth is much grimmer. As economist Allan Sanderson once put it, “If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark.” The consequences of this tendency can be destructive. This past spring, Hamilton County, Ohio, had to sell off a local hospital in order to meet obligations stemming from a 1996 deal that built new fields for the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals. The total cost to taxpayers for those stadiums: $540 million, double the original estimates.
Why should government intervene to redirect money away from sports and toward other purposes? The shopworn comparisons, those that contrast the salaries of a sports star and, say, an elementary school teacher, are no less instructive for being shopworn. Particularly in a period of cost-cutting austerity, it is unclear how such gross disparities can be morally justified. However, simply restricting athletic salaries would only serve to benefit the team owners. The billionaires who own professional teams are not going to implement a salary cap and then donate the profits to orphanages, let alone public educators. They will simply keep the money for themselves.
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