Less Than Sporting

Reducing the exorbitant amounts paid to athletes and owners would help the average fan—and the government should do it.

By Ethan Porter

Tagged Sports

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.

The current pool of money that is devoted to sports is simply too large. Taking funds away from that pool is an essential step to recalibrating our social priorities. In the process, such government intervention would also end up benefitting the average sports fan. Surely the owners themselves can stand to lose money. By and large, the people who buy franchises are already wealthy many times over. Indeed, for many if not most owners, the team purchased is a kind of extreme luxury car, an emblem signifying a fortune so vast it can buy things with no practical purpose. In fact, many sports franchises are owned by people who are explicit about their expectation that they will not make money. “I don’t think of what it’s worth,” Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently told The New York Times. “It’s like my house. I don’t think about the value of it because I’m not selling it.” If one is fortunate enough to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase what is essentially a status symbol, one is fortunate enough to survive making even less off that status symbol.

The players are another story. Unlike the owners, they have devoted their lives to competition at the highest level, sacrificing their bodies in the process. Many of them were not born wealthy, but on the contrary have used their physical prowess as a springboard up the socioeconomic ladder. Indeed, sports today is one of the last vestiges of economic mobility, where riches can be yours based on talent alone (or something close to it). Those who display excellence in competition deserve to be rewarded.

More precisely, those who display transcendent excellence deserve to be paid quite a bit of money. I am thinking here of the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who have performed at a level of almost no equal and received society-wide admiration for doing so. But extravagant wealth now flows to players far inferior to those two. It is one thing for James to make $100 million; it is another for Rashard Lewis to do the same. (If that name inspires quizzical looks, that’s part of the point—Lewis is a teammate of James’s on the Miami Heat, a two-time all-star, a passable but far from transcendent player.)

When Michael Lewis was reporting on baseball, he came across former-player-turned-coach Mark McLemore. Never a very good, let alone excellent, player, McLemore was tutoring his players about the value of hitting balls in the hole, between the shortstop and third baseman. “See that hole over there—there’s $40 million in it,” McLemore says. “I know because I made it.” Forty million dollars, to a player considered barely above average in his sport. With so much money on the table, mediocrity becomes a worthwhile ambition. Even in the context of baseball, hitting a ball in the hole is far from a skill exhibiting otherworldly athletic ability.

We might think of an “excellence threshold,” which, say, LeBron and Derek Jeter surpass, but Rashard Lewis clearly does not. The point here isn’t to make sports a poorly paid profession, but to limit its rewards to an amount less wasteful. One of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, John Locke, put it thusly:

‘God has given us all things richly,’ is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his… Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.

For those players who cross the excellence threshold, the most exorbitant salaries might be defensible. But for the vast majority, I see little basis for them to be paid at a rate likely to lead to waste and spoil.

If only to show they are not lacking in the common touch, elected officials often interject themselves into sports. The president throws out the first pitch on Opening Day; Richard Nixon calls in a play to the Redskins. Today, President Obama appears semi-frequently on ESPN. Every March, he has announced his NCAA tournament predictions and he has also appeared on various sports podcasts. When President George W. Bush recently visited the White House for his portrait unveiling, President Obama jokingly thanked him for installing a generous television sports package.
But these interjections are ephemeral. A new role for government in sports would not only be pro-fan; it would have to be substantive as well. It needs policies. Some of the ideal policy interventions would be easier to pull off than others. Rolling back the NFL’s blackout policy altogether would be a good start. Cutting through the regulatory maze to expand Internet streaming access to games also seems like a no-brainer.

Those would be modest first steps, probably the most politically palatable. Although they may appear less feasible, over the long term two more ambitious interventions should be pursued. The first has to do with stadium construction. When stadiums are built using the public purse, teams should be required to set aside a large number of tickets at affordable prices. For example, the Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards should be compelled to sell half of its seats to individual games for less than $30. Secondary ticket markets, the websites like, should be prohibited from selling any such “economy” tickets. Living in the same city as your favorite team is nice; less so if you can’t afford to go to the games. Taxpaying fans should get more bang for their buck.

But this kind of approach need not be restricted to taxpayer-supported stadiums. All stadiums could be forced to sell tickets to the four major sports at affordable prices. If that sounds outlandish, it’s important to keep in mind how skewed the balance of government intervention in sports, in favor of ownership, has long been. Baseball’s antitrust exemption bequeathed to the owners the privilege to avoid the kind of market competition that defines so many American industries. The last serious legislative challenge to it, in 2001, was soundly defeated, even though it proposed to affect only one portion of the exemption, that dealing with restrictions on teams’ ability to move to new locations. (That bill, the Fairness in Antitrust in National Sports, had some serious progressive bona fides, counting Congressman John Conyers and Senator Paul Wellstone as its sponsors.)

The second ambitious intervention would affect the television market. So much of the money related to sports today is tied up in cable television contracts. In a time of dwindling mass television events, sports have proven to be among the last consistently lucrative genres. Recent sports deals that have attracted widespread headlines because of their size were tied directly to cable television money. The Los Angeles Dodgers sold for an eye-popping $2 billion because of the enormous value of an impending cable contract. And the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols for a quarter of a billion dollars because they too were counting on future cable television revenue.

If the goal is reducing sports-related money and maintaining if not improving the everyday fan’s experience, then government intervention should mandate that all sporting events should be available on local-access television. Fans should not be forced to buy expensive cable packages in order to see their local teams play—teams that, in many cases, they have already assisted through public funds. By reducing the costs of being a fan, we can also reduce the total amount of money spent on sports. The players and owners can afford it (to be clear, the amount of money that will flow to our athletes and owners would likely still surpass that in leagues overseas). And our social priorities could benefit from the adjustment.

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Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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