Money: The monster threatening sports

Money: The monster threatening sports

Are all those O.J.s and Dr. Js overpaid? Are the team owners headed for the poorhouse or the countinghouse? Is the faithful fan being ripped off? Should all our pro games be renamed Moneyball? The first of a three-part report on the turmoil in America's favorite pastimes probes the charges and countercharges in the debate over whether big bucks are spoiling sports
Are all those O.J.s and Dr. Js overpaid? Are the team owners headed for the poorhouse or the countinghouse? Is the faithful fan being ripped off? Should all our pro games be renamed Moneyball? The first of a three-part report on the turmoil in America's favorite pastimes probes the charges and countercharges in the debate over whether big bucks are spoiling sports
July 16, 1978

When is agent Abdul Jalil going to stop tossing around all those astronomical figures? Who is Buford Allison and why is he smiling? What are all those millionaire hockey players doing riding around in a bus? Where is Marvin Barnes' man? And talk about the ultimate spitball, why is Steve Carlton pitching in a monsoon?

The answer is money. That's right. Directly or indirectly, turned upside down and pockets emptied out, the answer to all of the above questions is money. Money, and all it implies: security, greed, frugality, power, profit and loss. For example:

When Abdul Jalil, a.k.a. Randy Wallace, discusses the contract of his main man, Outfielder Lyman Bostock, he tends to inflate its value, so he can advertise Bostock as the highest-paid player in baseball history, which he isn't. If enough players hear that Bostock signed with the Angels for $3,262,000, as Jalil has said—instead of $2,250,000, which is what Bostock really got—they will want Jalil to represent them. And pretty soon he will be the highest-paid hustler in baseball history.

Buford Allison was the second-round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1966. More significantly, the Missouri offensive guard was also one of the first players to receive a guaranteed long-term professional contract. Alas, Buford never played a game for the Colts, but they remember him well. Every month they send him a check for $1,000, just like the ones they have been sending him since 1966 and will continue to send him until 1980.

For short hops between places like Philadelphia and New York, owners of hockey teams have taken to piling their players into buses to help save on transportation costs, which have risen substantially in the past five years. Busing is not terribly stylish for athletes of such formidable means, but how else can the owners afford to pay for the players' other wheels, the Mercedes and Rolls-Royces?

Marvin Barnes' man is scoring. Not that the Buffalo Braves' forward was negligent on defense last season; if anything, Barnes tried to guard his man too aggressively, because his contract stipulated that he be paid a bonus if he got a prescribed number of blocked shots during the season. And if every so often an opponent's head fake made Marvin go for the block—thus allowing his man to drive around Marvin for a basket—that was just another price his team had to pay.

As for Steve Carlton slinging in the rain during the 1977 National League playoffs with the Dodgers, the first commandment of modern baseball is: Thou shalt not call a game that is supposed to fill in the breaks between TV commercials. Network scheduling holds sway over such minor proceedings as the playoffs, come hell and high water.

The profit motive in professional sports is nothing new, of course. Even the most romantic of fans has been aware all along that his heroes were performing, at least to some extent, for the greater glory of the buck. What is different these days is that the word "professional"—better known as money—is intruding on the word "sports" as never before.

Worse yet, like a kid huddled in a closet during a thunderstorm, no fan can wholly escape the terrible racket that has accompanied this change. Essentially, what is being heard is the sound of all our professional pastimes being dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century. The result has been redistribution of wealth and a lot of noise about money, simply because so many more people are making so much more of it.

Other than earplugs, there is little recourse for the fan. To yearn for the good old days is to deny the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. Years ago, when a wily old plantation owner like Branch Rickey grabbed a percentage of the take every time he sold one of his Brooklyn Dodger field hands, no one was the wiser in the clubhouse, much less in the bleachers. But today, Ralph Nader preserve us, sports profiteers of every stripe are doing their hustling and haggling in the headlines and on the air. Pick up any sports page, tune in any sports roundup, and the dominant theme comes through with numbing repetitiveness: money, money, money, money.

For the moment, at least, the view from the closet remains one of anxiety. Money corrupts, we have been taught, and here it is, doing its number again and leaving fans with a gnawing sense that what is supposed to be high athletic drama has somehow become high finance. Where do the Dow Jones averages leave off and the batting averages begin? What has happened to those other numbers, the ones on the scoreboard? What is going on here? Whatever it is, there persists an uneasy feeling that, for all the ballyhooing of a new Golden Age of Sports, neither the game nor any of its participants, not even the instant-millionaire jock, is the richer for it.

Nonetheless the money-go-round whirls on. Consider a sampling of the events of a single month, January 1978:

The Boston Celtics rang in the new year by firing Coach Tom Heinsohn. Something to do with a breakdown of Celtic pride, a clash between old values and new egos. Said Heinsohn of his differences with the players, "They acted like spoiled kids at times. Communications to some of them was yessing them; or give me, get me, find me, lend me, buy me, trade me. The trouble with players today is that they spend more time going to the bank than diving for loose balls."

Meanwhile in Baltimore, responding to grievance claims filed by four players for payment of $15,000 apiece in bonuses, the Orioles anted up—and then submitted their own grievances to reclaim the money. The players had charged the club with reneging on promises to pay them bonuses for "significant contributions" during the 1977 season. The Orioles replied that contributions like Jim Palmer's 20 wins and 2.91 earned run average and Ken Singleton's .328 batting average, 24 home runs and 99 runs batted in were not significant enough.

Forget the absurdity of a grievance committee sitting in judgment on something any fan could determine from the bleachers. And ignore the fact that the kinds of incentive bonuses in question are forbidden by the major leagues. Palmer put everything into perspective, explaining, "People say I'm making a big fuss over a lousy $15,000, and I agree that's not much when you're making $260,000. But what they're overlooking is that I have that bonus clause in my contract for five years, so $75,000 is involved."

In other words, it is not the principle of the thing, it's the amount.

Then, after a Super Bowl week that was memorable for new lows in hucksterism, came the NFL Pro Bowl. Picked by their peers to perform on behalf of the players' pension fund, the all-star combatants had been having trouble of late making anyone believe that they were really trying or really cared. So the league attempted to do some convincing by raising each winning player's share from $2,000 to $5,000 and each loser's share from $1,500 to $2,500. The NFL got its point across: pride only goes so far—to the cashier's window and back.

Finally came another episode in baseball's action-packed series, Charlie's Angles, starring Oakland owner Charles O. Finley and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In this installment, a supporting cast of 14 lawyers assembled in New York to thrash out the proposed sale of A's Pitcher Vida Blue to the Cincinnati Reds.

No account better sums up the legal morass engulfing professional sports than The New York Times' brave attempt to describe one of the myriad variations on the Blue deal: "Under this plan, the Reds would negotiate a new contract with Blue, Blue would drop the lawsuit he has pending against Finley, the pitcher and the Oakland owner would settle Blue's grievance against Finley, Finley would drop the appeal of the case involving the first Blue sale in 1976, and Kuhn would allow Blue to go to the Reds for $1.75 million and a minor league player."

Got that? No one else did either, and after another flurry of legal squeeze plays, Blue ended up with the San Francisco Giants. One solution that would have saved baseball a lot of whereases and heretofores—not to mention a portion of its skyrocketing legal fees—seems even more valid today than when Shakespeare recommended it four centuries ago: "Let's kill all the lawyers."

If this recounting of one money-grubbing month in sports seems to contain a strain of cynicism, it is wholly intended. There are two reasons for this: 1) it is deserved in many cases, and 2) it reflects the viewpoint of a number of disenchanted fans.

Among the many insidious by-products of the money mania in sports are an erosion of the old loyalties and a loss of identification. There is a weakening of the feeling that "we're in this together," the binding sense of us—fans, players, management—against them. If today's hero is tomorrow's deserter, if owners can pack up their franchises and move on, then who and what exactly is the fan cheering for? An illusion of constancy and common purpose is the product a team is selling. Undermine that, and disenchantment follows. "When you destroy the bond of loyalty, you destroy the magic of identification," says one sports psychologist. "It's hard to keep reidentifying over and over again. It's like a wound that doesn't have time to heal."

Free-agent gypsies and shifting franchises have caused what one study of the sports business calls a "benumbing effect." "Who's on first?" is no longer a comic line but a real question. One result is a compulsion to choose up sides, a need to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. Owners and players foolishly contribute to the divisiveness by thrashing out their money problems in the headlines. Negotiations that are private matters in other businesses are treated like line scores in sports: thief, $400,000; miser, $300,000. Details in the late editions.

For the $12,000-a-year working stiff, anyone who is knocking down a quarter of a million and demanding more is not a ballplayer, but a boss. He has gone over to the other side. He is one of them. Conversely, the owner, the traditional heavy, seems almost a sympathetic figure.

But only almost. When Dave Kingman was in the throes of a messy salary dispute with the Mets last season, the New York Daily News took a survey to ascertain the villain of the week. Though the survey showed that the fans were pro-management, at least for the moment, the long-range effect was apparent to anyone who bothered to go to Shea Stadium. There fans booed Kingman every time he came to the plate, but their vituperation was balanced out by the increasing number of seats left empty by absentees disdainful of the skinflint ways of Met Board Chairman M. Donald Grant. By the end of the season, attendance would fall off by nearly half a million.

Many owners choose to believe that they are bringing the fans around to their side through deftly drawn public-relations campaigns. The Cincinnati Reds even ran newspaper ads in April 1977 explaining why they could not meet Pete Rose's salary demands. But the owners are deceiving themselves. There is a measurable shift in the player-management popularity derby, all right, but it is to a new position: a plague on both your houses. "I have the feeling that both sides are considered the bad guys," Bud Selig, president of the Milwaukee Brewers, observes. "They're greedy for taking the money, and we're stupid for paying it."

Despite the ill effects of the haggling, the name-calling rages on. What about the players? "The more they make, the more they try to gobble," says Bob Kennedy, vice-president, Chicago Cubs. How about the owners? "Overall, they're a bunch of bandits," says Fran Tarkenton, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings. The agents? "The most destructive force in sports today," says Harrison Vickers, former president, Houston Aeros, which went out of business last week. The media? "They've always been shilling for the owners," says Ed Garvey, executive director, NFL Players Association. The fans? "Ignored, duped and exploited," says Peter Gruenstein, consumer advocate and executive director, F.A.N.S. (Fight to Advance the Nation's Sports).

A few disgusted fans have opted out altogether. "I'm not interested in sports anymore," declares Alex Karras, the former Detroit Lion tackle. "I don't care what Reggie Jackson says. I don't care what he makes. George Steinbrenner says this, Billy Martin says that. Who cares? It's boring."

Ah, yes, the infamous New York Yankees. Start people talking about the money madness in sports and invariably they end up discussing the sweaty capitalists from the Bronx. The talk is usually abusive, because in the public eye the Yankees are an embarrassment of riches, the personification of all that is wrong with championship by checkbook.

And there is a real danger that Steinbrenner's philosophy—if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em—will pervade the pro games. As Bob Irsay, owner of the Colts, says, "The Yankees have acted bad for all sports, not just baseball."

Sure, the Bronx Bombers have always been the Team Everyone Loves to Hate—and even their current title, the Best Team Money Can Buy, had its origin decades ago—yet these brash new Yankees, the popoffs in pinstripes, lack one quality that distinguished their predecessors: class.

Understand, the quarrelsome nature of the 1977 Yankees was very different from that of other championship squabblers, like the Depression-era St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland A's of more recent notoriety. The enmity of the Gas House Gang was directed at the opposition; the ill will of the A's at Finley. But the Yankees had no unity of attack. They took on one another in wide-open family feuds featuring, in the main events, Steinbrenner, Martin and star players Jackson and Thurman Munson. As acted out—and, yes, undoubtedly blown out of proportion—on the public stage, their petty squabbles seemed more befitting the playground than the major leagues. Georgie bullied Billy; Billy picked on Reg; Reg was mean to Thurm; Thurm pouted about Reg; everyone bad-mouthed everyone. And so on through a long season of blow-by-blowup accounts that all but ignored nagging little questions like who won the game? To the old cry, "Bust up the Yankees," might have been added, "before they bust up themselves."

How much of the infighting was attributable to money problems is anyone's guess. Certainly Martin felt he was bucking the big bucks. At one point, after he had pulled Jackson out of a game for dogging it and then attempted to take a swing at him in the dugout, it was suggested that the volatile manager might have tried more conventional means of discipline. "How do you fine a superstar?" Martin snapped. "Take away his Rolls-Royce?"

Going into the American League playoffs, the battle lines were sharply drawn. "All baseball wants us to win," said Whitey Herzog, manager of the Royals. "Not because they love us. They just hate the Yankees and their check writing." But, alas, the Yankees went on to win the World Series and all baseball had to live with villainy rewarded.

Dr. Thomas Tutko, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Athletic Motivation, views the Yankee victory as a "triumph of greed, the kind of thing that encourages the adopting of the money model as the way sports should be." Others suggest that the unruliness of the New York spectators during the Series was a reflection of the unruliness of the Yankees. The fans' message, says Michael Novak, author of The Joy of Sports, was "O.K., we came out, we paid our money but we know what you're doing and here's what we think about it. That was no celebration when the fans ran wild after the final game. That was a rebellion against the cynicism of Steinbrenner and the players, a scream of outrage against the profaning of something good."

Heavy stuff. So heavy perhaps as to obscure the fact that the Yankees are not the cause but a symptom of the money malaise in sports. After all, what were they supposed to do, lose? Steinbrenner's role as an owner is to build a winner. That he did, and if people object to his methods, well, he did not invent the free-agent shopping mart.

Ironically, the Yankee millionaires became the public victims of their private good fortune. Flaunting the richest payroll in the league, they attracted the kind of hot glare of publicity that tends to magnify, distort and, finally, roast. From spring training on, their moneybags jangling like lepers' bells, they were marked men. The message from the stands was disturbingly clear: if you're paid a million dollars, you better play like a million dollars. "That's what making $5,000 a ball game is all about," says Jackson. "People expect $5,000 worth every day, even knowing it's impossible every day. And they boo, and all this becomes big news. They don't boo Fran Healy."

What then have the Yankees won? Certainly not the respect of their peers. Nowhere was this more apparent than at a meeting of baseball's brass in Honolulu last December. From Kuhn, who warned in a kind of state of the disunion message that the dominance of big spenders like the Yankees was "the cause for serious concern," down through the ranks gathered under the palm trees, there was a distinct mood of trouble in paradise. Out on the veranda, 81-year-old former National League President Warren Giles muttered, "It's all wrong. Too much money, too much money. I remember when Babe Ruth went from Boston to New York, Judge Landis said to me, 'We must guard against this happening again. We can't have rich guys in Boston selling to richer guys in New York. This game wasn't made for the rich teams to win.' But I'm afraid that's what's happening. There are hairline cracks in the wall now, and if something isn't done pretty soon, the whole foundation will be gone."

What to make of all this? How damaging are the tremors that are rocking pro sports? Do the wild fluctuations on the money scale merely mark a period of transition or do they portend, as the doomsayers say, the end of sport as we know it? For the present, the evidence indicates it is safe to make two general assumptions.

First, the problems are real and they are serious. By any measure, in fact, the current turmoil promises to have a more profound and far-ranging effect on pro games than any that has occurred in this century.

Second, no one professes to know the solutions to the problems. To say, as some sports theorists do, that the pro establishment is feeling its way is to assume that it has a handle on the crisis. John Fetzer, the Detroit Tigers' owner, thinks otherwise. "The situation is chaotic," he says. "It's gotten to the point where it is actually out of control." That many of Fetzer's peers agree with him can only mean that the movers and shakers are genuinely shook.

And so is the fan who tries to understand the dips and feints and jabs of the men who square off for the big purses in pro sports. What he really needs is a roomful of computers and a friendly CPA to interpret the readouts. Lacking those aids, the fan can help himself by remembering this straight, hard truth: the pro game is a business, first, foremost, always and forever. The fan should also know that the owners have a hangup about admitting this truth, that the players have a compulsion for exploiting it and that the public has a psychological block about accepting it.

Yes, management is, on occasion, motivated by reasons as reassuring as love of the game. No, labor is not forever insensitive to the joys of performance. But ultimately, when all is said and undone, what goes on out front is dictated by what comes into the back room, otherwise known as the accounting office. There is nothing new or sinister about this. However, as many fans have come to realize, affairs have reached such a disruptive state that appreciating the sport part of a pro game requires an understanding of the money part, too. When the football Cardinals wage a dollar war that shoots down Coach Don Coryell, sends star Back Terry Metcalf off to play in Canada and almost decimates an entire team, those who care about pro sports had best reckon with the economic forces that can cause struggles in which everyone comes up a loser.

Because attendance figures and TV ratings indicate that increasing numbers of fans do care, it is time to devise a new game to show how the old sports are really being played in the era of big bucks.

Call it Moneyball. Anyone can take part. No special skills are required, except the grasp of a few ground rules. First, remember that a long-range point of view is everything, because while sports by their nature thrive in the instant between yesterday's score and today's game, Moneyball is played out over years, its triumphs and setbacks only becoming apparent after decades. In effect, it is already late in the third quarter of the contest between the owners and the players, the Shirts (presumably stuffed) and the Skins (usually mink) of Moneyball.

In the 1950s, benefiting from the new affluence of postwar recovery and the disorganization of the Skins, the Shirts gained ground steadily. In the 1960s, as the Shirts mastered a new offense based on the TV breakthrough, they scored almost at will. But then in the 1970s, with the players' unions running interference and judges coming off the bench to throw a few timely blocks, the Skins rallied dramatically and surged into the lead. Pandemonium reigns. Will the Shirts come back in the fourth quarter? Can the Skins hold their ground in the 1980s? Back to you, Howard.

Another thing to keep in mind about Moneyball is that, despite the fuss and furor, the professional sports industry is a very small drop in the economic bucket. Measured against other businesses, it is truly the mouse that roars. The annual gross of the average NFL team ($8.9 million) is equivalent to that of a small supermarket; the revenues of an NBA club ($4.3 million) put it in the same league with a large filling station. And even last year's banner performance by major league baseball ($230 million) was eclipsed by the snuff and chaw-tobacco industry. In fact, the total gross revenues of all four major pro sports ($640 million) would pass for petty cash at Exxon ($48 billion).

But this is just another of the deceptive things about Moneyball. Though a piker by the standards of the FORTUNE 500, the sports industry scores heavily on other fronts. Apart from the revenue that sports earn for themselves, they generate billions of dollars for TV and for the cities in which they operate. Moreover, millions do not cheer the workers at IBM, nor is an estimated $50 billion gambled annually on whether Bethlehem Steel meets its production quota. And not only are gaudy pleasure palaces erected in pro sports' honor, not only do they command special sections in our newspapers and dominate weekend TV viewing, but they permeate and influence our lives in myriad other ways that never register on the Big Board.

Despite the minor financial position of sports, it is unwise to ignore the importance of the goal—read that bottom—line in Moneyball. In the profits sweepstakes, football is a good length ahead of baseball, which is about a half length ahead of basketball, which is leading hockey by a head. But this is only a general pattern; it should be remembered, too, that economic conditions differ markedly not only from league to league but also from team to team within the leagues.

This tends to make for incongruities. Last season the California Angels had a record attendance (1,432,633) and a record loss ($660,000). The Minnesota North Stars needed to sell 12,000 seats for each game to break even, while down the road, the Minnesota Vikings can play every game in an empty stadium this fall and, nonetheless, turn a profit. The Baltimore Orioles, who were in the thick of their division race last September, averaged fewer than 5,000 fans during a late-season four-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays; the Blue Jays ended up with the worst record in baseball and the fourth highest attendance in the American League, beating out the Orioles by more than 500,000. Vince Lombardi was only half right: winning isn't everything.

Such are the vicissitudes of Moneyball, and they should be enough to bring about a change of heart from those predisposed to think of the owners as robber barons and/or the players as thieves. Neither is true; they are extraordinary workaday folks in an extraordinary business at an extraordinary time. Oh, there might be a baron or two around, a thief or three lurking behind a no-cut clause, but in general it should not be assumed that money is the root of all evil. Rather, assume that money is the root of all.

It is just as important for fans who want to view Moneyball knowledgeably to junk misconceptions about how the game is played. It was all right to fall for the deceptive ploys, the backdoor maneuvers and fork-tongued audibles, that both sides relied on in the early going, but now that the action has gotten down to the nitty-gritty, only one thing counts: the Facts. Some of them may run counter to what one or both of the combatants have led fans to believe; they are, nevertheless, true. So in scrutinizing the nine big plays that are about to unfold, keep the Facts foremost in mind, because they, more than anything else, show why Moneyball has progressed as it has and what may happen next.

O.K., paper and pencils ready (part of the fun is playing with the numbers), we switch you now to Fort Knox for Moneyball, which is already in progress:

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONFREDMARSHALLPhiladelphia's Steve Carlton was just flinging in the rain.ILLUSTRATIONFRED MARSHALLIn '77 the behavior of Billy, Reg and Thurm was more suited to the playground than the ball park.

THE PLAYBOOK

As in football, the action in Moneyball starts from a selection of time-tested formations. Here is a rundown of the basic plays described on the following pages and the "facts" that make each a potential long-gainer.

THE MISDIRECTION PLAY
Fact: The professional sports industry is a self-regulating monopoly.

THE ENCROACHMENT PENALTY
Fact: Pro franchises are unfairly distributed.

THE BIG MONEY PLAY
Fact: Pro athletes are not overpaid.

THE HIGH-PERCENTAGE SHOT
Fact: Pro franchises are lucrative tax havens.

THE BUCK LATERAL SERIES
Fact: By one means or another, almost all professional teams make money.

THE GRANDSTAND PLAY
Fact: Ticket prices are determined by what the market will bear, not by the players' high salaries.

THE VERY OLD SUCKER PLAY
Fact: Pro teams are subsidized by the taxpayers.

THE TV TIME-OUT
Fact: Television money is essential to the successful operation of pro franchises.

THE UNBALANCED FORMATION
Fact: Free agents are not destroying competitive balance, because it never existed.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)