Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

Labor strife in overpriced sports leagues risks ire of fans

David Duprey/AP - Everyone’s locked out of Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills. And that may not be the worst thing for fans who have other options for sporting entertainment.

When last we checked on the NFL labor negotiations, Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We’re going to continue to work hard at it.” Then they broke for a four-day weekend. This is what passes for work in the NFL, which is only a seasonal job to begin with? When last we saw the NBA players, about 50 of them attended a negotiating session wearing solidarity T-shirts that read, “Stand.” To which it was tempting to reply, “No, please, let it all fall down.”

Maybe the current labor strife is actually healthy, if it helps us break our crack-like addiction to the major professional sports leagues. A common refrain from fans this spring is that we are helpless victims of the games we love to watch, caught in the middle of what are essentially internal arguments between owners and players over the margins of their wealth. But whose fault is it, exactly, if the pro leagues treat fans not as valued customers, but as knee jerk compulsives who will pay anything for a fix and endure any amount of abuse, and always come back for more?

We’re now 104 days into the NFL lockout, and both sides are patting themselves on the back for finally negotiating for two or three days a week instead of pursuing mutually assured destruction for seven days a week. Meanwhile, the NBA is about to plunge into its own work stoppage if an agreement isn’t reached by Thursday, despite the fact that the league is on a popular upswing: The Dallas-Miami finals were the second-most watched since 2004. In both cases, owners and players alike remain seemingly insensible to a central fact: The revenue they’re fighting over is actually other people’s money.

Make no mistake about the true nature of these labor disagreements: They aren’t classic employer-worker arguments. They are disputes between oligarchs and independent contractors, and they aren’t so much about fair compensation as they are about how to shift the responsibility for out-of-control spending to someone else. Somehow, despite $4 billion in revenue, 22 of 30 NBA teams supposedly lost money last season. Somehow, despite $9 billion in revenue, and massive tax breaks and public assistance, NFL owners claim to be in a fiscal crisis. The reason for this is simple: reckless spending, huge gambles on new stadiums, and stupidly rich player contracts awarded by owners whose egos override their good sense.

Eventually, there will be compromise and concessions and everyone will return to work. There is one party, however, who won’t be receiving any concessions: the ticket buyer.

Here is the fan cost index for the four major sports leagues, meaning the average cost for a family of four to attend a game. For the NFL it’s $420.54, for the NBA it’s $287.85, for Major League Baseball it’s $197.36, and for the NHL it’s $313.68.

Now consider another number: In 2009, the median household income in this country was $49,777.

This tells us something. What it tells us is that the leagues do not care about the average fan. They do not care about your condition, your preferences, your wishes, or your hardships. They care about mercilessly squeezing you, to offset their own profligacy, and they take it for granted that you will sacrifice the family vacation in order to help with the gas bills for their yachts. Eighteen NFL teams raised ticket prices, despite the lockout.

But the leagues may live to regret picking these fights, because in doing so they have called attention to their attitudes and practices, and provoked fans to ask some good questions. When taxpayers finance stadiums for private owners, shouldn’t they get something in return, such as affordable seating, asks Brian Frederick of the Sports Fans Coalition, a lobbying group.

“I think more than anything they’re just taking public support for granted,” he says. “And the key to that has been their ability to orchestrate giant public subsidies to pay for their costs. The fact that they have a lot of their costs paid for enables them to bicker and fight over profit. The silver lining has been that it has exposed their business practices and given the public a glimpse of how much they’ve invested.”

The best way to push back against abusive practices and work stoppages is to punish leagues in the pocketbook. Do something else with the money – give it to a team that values its fans. Of the big four, baseball has done the best job of appreciating and remaining accessible to its constituency. On Saturday, you can see the Nationals play for $2.

Or, you can buy four tickets to see D.C. United, and they will not only be delighted to have you, but actually give you some free stuff. A couple of beach towels, or, if you get the four-meal deal, you can get free hot dogs and sodas.

If you’re really determined to spend a lot of money, why not buy tickets to the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club? Instead of spending $285 on a single game, you get seven days worth of passes to the tournament, plus free shuttles. If that’s too much, then just spend $25 on a practice round.

If you don’t like golf, then go to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic — where you can get a reserved seat for $20.

Or, if you’re only into the major championships, take the train to New York and pay $60 for a grounds pass to first-week action of the U.S. Open, and watch matches on 22 different courts.

Then there are the things you could do absolutely for free, things that are natural, and uncontrived. Hang on a fence and watch collegians play summer league baseball at your local park. Go to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse — a world class surfing spot — and watch, for not one cent, some of the most magical athletes on the face of the earth captured in the barrels of waves.

Come to think of it, maybe the NFL and the NBA unwittingly did us a favor with all of their haggling over profit margins. They invited us to imagine life without them. You know what? It would be pretty sweet. Maybe it would be less overwrought, and stressful, with better perspective. Turns out, there would be plenty to do — and a lot cheaper.

 
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