Crying Foul–Time For Fans to Play a Little Defense

As a sports fan, it makes me sick if the allegations in Inside ‘The Decision’: Miami’s coup was a ‘surprise’ built on long-coveted goal of James, Wade and Bosh are accurate. “The premise that the trio had been talking about teaming up for months hinted there was a plan in place. That potentially would be against rules, and could raise concerns from the league since Bosh and James were playing for teams battling for the playoffs in Toronto and Cleveland”.

Is this the reason despite having the best record in the league, LeBron James was unable to lead the Cavaliers to the finals? It would be pretty hard for the league MVP to justify leaving had his team gone to the final round two years in a row. Nick Arinson, son of billionaire Heat owner has had access to the three since the World Championships in Japan back in 2004, and is now a “rising executive with the Heat”. Was Heat GM, Pat Riley, really taking a risk the last few years in not signing key players in order to save up the team coffers for a deal such as this, or did Arinson and Wade provide him an inside track to the plan years ago? So much for parity in the NBA (the reason for the draft lottery); David Stern better look into the allegations.

Who knew parties and high paying jobs for athletes friends are part of the bargaining with these mult-million dollar contracts? “It was also made known to James that the Heat would take care of his friends the same way the Cavs did — special treatment at the arena, changing practice and travel schedules to allow for money-making late-night parties in various cities, and perhaps even hiring a James associate in a high-paying position in the organization”. I doubt it’s just the NBA.

No matter what, I say the buck stops with the fans. How, you ask? Fans buy the tickets or watch the games on television and fans buy the sponsors products. Without the promise of fans, there is no such thing as a lucrative professional sports world. One only need look back as recently as the early eighties. The book When the Game Was Ours, points out an NBA rep couldn’t get past the front door of McDonalds and Sprite to make a sponsor pitch before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the league. If there is no fan interest, there is NO MONEY! It’s no coincidence a struggling little company, one of the first to jump on the NBA sponsor band wagon, is now billion dollar sports drink, Gatorade.

While the rumor is Bosh, Wade and James will actually get paid less to play together, it’s never been a secret the athletes make even more money from lucrative endorsements. McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi, Nike, and the list goes on. The next time you’re counting your pennies for that burger, soda or pair of shoes remember that the cost of those endorsements goes into every product that pays to have a celebrity hawk its wares. Fans pay the cost.

The only headlines my current home-town NBA team has made lately is through former star, Kevin Garnett (traded to the Celtics), who suggested to LeBron that loyalty is overrated. As long as we’re talking about money, the Twin Cities does have a couple high-paid athletes. At $10 million per year, Brett Favre would make $41,666.66 per day and $5,208.33 per hour. But his actual earnings with the Minnesota Vikings are reported to be closer to $25 million over two years (if he plays). Joe Mauer recently negotiated an eight-year, $184 million contract extension with the Minnesota Twins. Do the math, he’s making nearly double than Favre at $23 million PER YEAR!

Ironically these two teams have also been at the center of new stadium debates for at least half a decade. The brand new Target Field just took top honors for being the best pro sport stadium experience in North America, so says ESPN Magazine. Afraid the team that pays one player $23 million per year would leave Minneapolis, $392 million in public subsidy was legislated through the Hennepin County sales tax increase for the $522 million project. That’s the fans paying. Or should I say the citizens of Hennepin County, and a good majority will probably never see a game played on that beautiful field.

Another portion comes from locally based Target corporation. The Star Tribune reported, “While specific financial terms weren’t disclosed, several sports analysts around the country estimated the deal could be worth $100 million or more over the 25 years, and one sports marketing analyst said it could be worth $8 million a year or more”. Never mind you don’t live in Minnesota, every roll of toilet paper you buy at one of my favorite stores is affected by the cost of this sponsorship as is every other product they sell. If you’re keeping track, would the costs built-in to name-brand sodas be double considering they may have several athletes to pay, in addition to Target being one of their retailers? One argument for spending exorbitant amounts on these pro teams and their stadiums is because they bring jobs to the area. But one year before Target Field opened, the Star Tribune reported Target Corporation, “lets go about 9 percent of its headquarters workforce, the deepest cuts in company history.” How many salaries would that $8 million sponsorship cover each year? Do you think any of the laid-off folks are now working at Target Field, and if so, does the salary and benefits compare?

The Vikings refuse to play in the Metrodome once their contract expires at the end of the 2011 season and have also said they will leave the city if they don’t get a new stadium for the NFL team (the third for this franchise). Never mind we’re in the worst economy since the Great Depression, these teams and athletes have the leverage to get what they want because when it comes right down to it, our society has made sporting events a priority–but in the end, at what cost?

One criticism of professional sports in the last twenty years is the average fan can’t even afford tickets to see their favorite teams play. Meanwhile these athletes are making more per day than a lot of their fans make in an entire year. Why don’t the leagues own the stadiums, so owners can’t hold cities hostage? Clearly the sports bring enough money in. Shouldn’t that money be budgeted in to league or team expenses BEFORE players salaries, just like any other business?

Okay I digress, but the whole business seems to be a vicious cycle and a sad commentary on what we value as a society.

When I worked with inner-city and underprivileged kids in Atlanta I always thought it was a shame many of them had a pair of Air Jordans or an NBA starter jacket, but sometimes not the basic necessities of life. I don’t know if all the rumors are true, but if Bosh, Wade and James didn’t play by the rules, they shouldn’t be allowed to play. If it means the NBA (and other pro sports) should look into how other athletes ended up on teams as well, then let the probes begin. Since when is “win at all cost” the right way to run a business, especially when the players are heroes and role models for so many kids? Ultimately this situation is just one more symptom of a society whose priorities are shamefully out of order.

Lack of interest has cancelled many a television show, pulled movies out of theaters quicker than you can say “Tom Cruise comeback” and closed up more than one attempted pro league (ABA, AAFC, USFL). I love going to live games, though admittedly they’re very few and far between (yep, it comes down to dollars). Maybe it’s time fans go on strike until the NBA, NFL, MLB & NHL take into consideration who really pays for everything and actually makes it affordable for fans to be fans. No ticket sales equals no attendance, no viewer ratings means no sponsors, which means these leagues would have to restructure their entire organizations and put the fans first instead of these narcissistic athletes.

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