David Shechtman believes that sports leagues have been raising prices without delivering a better product for far too long, sucking the soul from being a sports fan.
I fell in love with sports in my childhood, and I was ready to make a lifelong commitment. But now I’m standing at the altar looking at my watch and wondering if I had the correct time for the ceremony.
“Oh, it’s not nearly the same game as it was when I played. Money has completely taken over the sport. My rookie year I was the starting power forward on an NBA championship team and earned $60,000.”
So said a retired NBA great, former NBA coach, and regular ESPN basketball analyst next to whom I was sitting on a flight a couple of years ago. He was quite possibly the most interesting flight companion I’ve ever had in my twenty years of business travel. We talked the entire flight—mainly about his life and career (mine being far less public and illustrious).
He certainly implied that the sport had changed, and not for the better. He suggested that money had corrupted the sport in numerous ways. Yet he didn’t seem at all angry about the situation. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t pursuing anything else professionally (in fact, he had just been named head coach of an NBA team). He was merely aware of the change in the sport.
This overwhelming ambivalence struck a chord with me, because it reflected my own feelings about contemporary professional sports in this country. I still love pro sports for a variety of reasons, including the connection with my childhood, the ready-made topics of conversation, the forum for competition, and the pure spectacle of it all. Yet, increasingly, something about it increasingly feels soulless.
And it’s not just the money. Blaming greedy owners and athletes for all the ills of the sport seems intellectually lazy to me. Owners take significant financial and personal risks to acquire and operate sports franchises. Players endure withering schedules, disorienting travel, and taxing physical routines that most of us wouldn’t tolerate. And both groups live in the relentless spotlight of mass media. I understand that they ought to be rewarded handsomely for the difficult work that they do.
Yet the love I felt for the game earlier in my life isn’t there the same way, and it can’t just be that I’m older now and less Pollyannaish about the world.
It goes back to a PBS Frontline episode I watched about the 2008 financial crisis called Money, Power and Wall Street.
The piece explored the chain of events that led to the 2008-2009 financial meltdown and panic. One of the main culprits for this mess was the overuse of creative financial instruments that packaged and resold mortgages and other obligations on secondary markets, the “securitization” of debt. It started as a way of mitigating risk; it went on to be a source of fast and easy profits. Securitized debt fast became a runaway train of quick money, unchecked greed, and lazy advising.
The dynamic tension between creativity and exploitation had snapped. The party was in full rage. This innovation was no longer in the best interests of clients; it was in the singular interest of the firm.
The state of ethics shifted from What’s the right thing to do? to What can I get away with?
Then—the party ended, and it was quite a hangover.
Governments fell. Blah, blah, blah. You remember.
I believe that the professional sports world now is seeing how much it can get away with.
I don’t the think fan bases of the major sports are getting a whole lot more for their money than in years past, yet the cost of attending games, purchasing merchandise, and viewing premium sports packages has certainly gone up. Why? Just because they can do it? I’m starting to feel like I’m back on the airplane with my companion, getting charged for meals and checked bags that used to be free but are now a la carte. Nothing’s better—they just want the cash.
I’m hard pressed to come up with a recent innovation in a major US sport that has enhanced the game very much.More is not a meaningful innovation. Adding teams and new rounds of playoffs doesn’t require much creativity. Is the World Baseball Classic a meaningful innovation? Is putting a team’s name in Spanish on a jersey a few times a season considered substantial? What else? Instant reply?
The costs of attending a live sporting event, however, have gone through the roof. For example, average ticket prices over the years have skyrocketed for the five major sports teams in Chicago, a representative market for high-end but not exorbitant ticket prices.
The accessibility of teams to their fans is in question for many people. It’s becoming less about growing the sport and engaging fans in new and meaningful ways. It’s becoming more about soaking existing fans financially for as much as possible. I don’t think I should have to pay more money simply because someone else wants to make more money. Would Apple think of selling the same product next year for double the price simply because people want it? No chance. How about the leagues figure out ways of enhancing my love of the game or thrill of the experience?
Has the dynamic tension between creativity and exploitation snapped in sports as well?
How much longer will fans tolerate this situation?
For me, I now feel like a sugar daddy for my sports teams. They’ll like me as longer as I shower them with gifts and attention. The second I don’t, they move on.
Do I want to even be married to that?
I think not.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press/Tim Shartp)
Thanks to Dr. Barry Schwartz, author of Practical Wisdom, for this intellectual construct of ethics shifting from “What’s the right thing to do?” to “What can I get away with?”.
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