King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Fans have plenty of good reasons to support ownership in sports labor wars. The readers write.


Salon Staff
March 4, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

Last week I asked why it is that in sports labor disputes, everyday fans and the commentariat invariably side with the owners over the players. "Only in the sports world," I wrote, if I may quote myself as though I were someone else, "are we in the corner of Scrooge McDuck."

I was referring to the brewing showdown in the NHL. Since the economic arguments in hockey bear a close resemblance to those in baseball, many of you referred to the summer game in trying to explain the phenomenon or, in some cases, why you take the players' side.

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And so, speaking of huge salaries, I'll step aside now and collect mine while letting you all write my column.

Chris Murphy: It's a fact of life that people identify with their hometown teams, and regardless of who puts on the uniform, that team belongs to you. Sure, you many times despise the owner of your team, but he holds the power to take one of your greatest joys in life away from you.

When the [baseball] owners were asking for a salary cap, I didn't side with them because I thought they were in the right. It was because the players union isn't fighting for the average player. What the players union wants is for salaries to have no limit and skyrocket as high as the most gullible owner will pay. If the players unions were actually concerned about making a more reasonable salary for every player and guaranteeing a good life for all its members (like a good union is supposed to do) then I would feel more sympathy for them.

J.D. Pratt: Owners, managers and suits are mostly replaceable, and don't add anything inherently valuable to the enterprise, except for basic competence (and sometimes not even then -- canceled the World Series lately, Bud Selig?). The players and their remarkable one-in-a-million skills are the entire raison d'être of these billion-dollar enterprises. Why is it so wrong that they get paid?

James Douglas: With a few exceptions such as Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner, owners are not celebrities, and their faces are not out there to be hated. I think there's a very visual aspect to hatred -- you can hate somebody on the Internet, for example, but unless you apply an image to that person, the anger ends up either muted or forgotten. So what happens is that because the players are the celebrities that we see wrecking our game for more money than we would ask for to play the game, we get angry at them, and not the owners.

Paul Bauer: I'm a baseball fan primarily and I am sick and tired of how the commentariat of sports always points to the high salaries of baseball players as the problem. I'm 100 percent for the players taking the money the owners are willing to give them. Salary caps like the ones in football and the NBA, to me, greatly diminish the pleasure of being a fan. Your favorite team is up against some arbitrary number, not engaged in a battle to maximize performance for dollar paid. The solution in baseball, as I think you have intelligently advocated, is not a salary cap. The solution (or sensible steps toward evening the playing field) is a third team in the New York metropolitan area and revenue sharing based at least in part on the revenue potential of various markets.

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Paul Gustafson: I think you're right that people should be more willing to side with the players, but I also think it's understandable that they don't. If it's millionaires vs. billionaires, to a lot of people that's not much of a difference. Also, I think the fan feels, maybe justifiably, that the players are getting paid millions of dollars to play a game. Of course the die-hard baseball fan feels that it would be different for him, he'd play for a fraction of what Barry Bonds is getting if he could. Also, don't forget that as salaries go up, so does the cost of going to a game.

King replies: It does not. Ticket prices are set by market forces, supply and demand, not by player salaries. Exhibit A: College football tickets are expensive, with an average player payroll of $0. Exhibit B: The home team cuts payroll. Does it also cut ticket prices? High ticket prices lead to high salaries, not vice versa.

Chris Lepley: I don't know where this sympathy for the owners is coming from, because I don't see it coming from fans of the game. I say that living in a city [Detroit] where I can't afford to go to games more than once or twice a year, but I consider high ticket prices to be the tradeoff for a winning team. Hockey doesn't require the large roster that football and baseball do, and its highest salaries are nothing compared to what baseball and basketball players can make, so I just don't see the "damn you high-priced athletes whining" meme among fans. We respect our players, and reserve our scorn not for the higher-priced players, but for owners who go Cup shopping and complain they're not making any money when their hired guns don't even get them into the playoffs.

Michael Grant: As you say, the typical capitalist in Dickens or "The Simpsons" is a crotchety evil caricature. But then the typical union member would be like someone in a Soviet propaganda movie. The players aren't working 14-hour days, six days a week, in hot, poisonous rooms for $10 an hour. They're going to be doing just fine whether they make $5 million a year or only, God forbid, $4 million.

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I completely agree that the market will pay what the market will bear, but in the world of sports sometimes, you overpay to get the prize, and the extra money that comes with it. If one team is going to overpay, than all the playoff teams have to start to overpay to compete. But only one team goes home with a ring. Perhaps I should be against the salary cap, as it will most likely disproportionately affect my beloved Red Wings. But hey, if Detroit is the only team left, who are we going to beat in the playoffs?

Mario Escamilla: The general public is not the most economically savvy group, as evidenced by reports of escalating personal debt. The rich owners play the P.R. game well, the players unions not so well. The reports of a particular sport's impending demise always come out right when a labor agreement is about to expire, to provide positioning at the bargaining table. The players are the public face of pro sports, so they receive the brunt of the criticism when media lapdogs regurgitate financial horror stories that are cooked up by the owners.

King replies: That's an excellent point about the P.R. game. It's amazing to me that the players, with members who are idolized and beloved by millions, haven't used that power to do a better job of selling their argument to the public.

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Jim Cho: I've often wondered why I side with management during sports labor disputes. I've concluded that the power to strike is such an important responsibility, analogous to a country deciding to go to war, because it affects people not directly involved in the dispute. So when millionaire athletes decide to do it, it trivializes to me the right to strike that working-class people fought for, some with their lives, over the past 100 or so years. I could support athletes striking prior to the modern era of sports when salaries were low and players were not allowed free agency. Not now.

Jeff Lowell: I think you're missing the most obvious reason fans want the players to "lose" and a salary cap to become part of hockey (or baseball): competition. We love fair play. And forcing teams to play on a level playing field -- the same budget for every team -- seems fair. We're tired of losing free agents to big-money teams. We love it that a Tim Duncan can stay in a San Antonio, instead of fleeing to a New York, and actually win a championship or two. We love the NFL, where the New York teams suck, and L.A. doesn't even have one.

King replies: I understand the point, but the fact is that there will always be reasons for a Tim Duncan to leave San Antonio. Maybe not Duncan himself, but was it not just last summer that Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed with the Lakers for deep discounts, because, they said, they wanted to win a championship? Meanwhile, San Antonio, the defending champion and a favorite to compete for the title again, failed to attract every big-name free agent it targeted, even though the Spurs had cap space. Why isn't anybody going to San Antonio for submarket pay?

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And besides, basketball, with its salary cap, has had far less competitive balance than baseball. Over the last 20 years, basketball has had six champions, all of which have won at least two titles, and two of which, the Lakers and Bulls, have won six. The Yankees are one of 14 World Series champions over the last 20 completed seasons, and they've won four. Ten of the champions in that stretch have won just the one title, and some of those -- the Reds, Royals and Tigers, for example -- are among the teams we tend to think of as perennial doormats.

Brendan Halpin: I've always liked the fact that in professional sports, unlike, say, any other business, the people who make the product valuable are actually making a substantial chunk of money from it. But I think the answer to your question of why people side with owners is simply that most of us are jealous. Most people do not get to work only part of the year, make tons of money, and in the case of many superstars, have our choice of workplaces and the ability to get our immediate supervisor fired. I think this is what offends people -- why can't these guys suffer at the hands of their evil bosses like the rest of America? Why are their working conditions so much better than those of people with more important jobs? So, basically, people are playa-hatin'.

Ari Schnitzer: I don't think people believe the owners over the players. I think people just hate the idea of people who have gotten super-rich playing a game for a living whining about money. I think it's that simple. It's not about the details of the issue. It's about being disgusted by whining athletes, who have gotten rich because of fans willing to pay exorbitant prices to support them.

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