Should you find yourself drifting to the side of the players in the NFL labor dispute, it doesn’t mean you’ve gone all communist. Some fans may feel that to support the players is anti-capitalist, a little too May Day. But there is the spirit of free enterprise, and then there is the spirit with which NFL owners tend to do business. They aren’t at all the same thing.
What’s so American about gouging, price-fixing, and frankly, sucking the life out of fans?
There is a pattern forming. In the past week — before Monday’s appeals court ruling extending the lockout — we’ve seen a new stadium proposal for the Minnesota Vikings that amounts to a bilking of taxpayers. A judge is preparing to punish owners for cheating the players in negotiated TV deals. And waiters are suing a company co-founded by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for withholding tips from $35-a-day concession workers. If you had any lingering thoughts that the owners have been misunderstood or that the lockout isn’t their fault, recent events may have cured you of any sympathy with them.
Back in 2009, Jones and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, with backing from Goldman Sachs, formed a company called Legends Hospitality to run the food, drink and merchandise services in their new billion-dollar stadiums.
A class action suit by club-level waiters at Yankee Stadium now claims that Legends Hospitality tacked an involuntary 20 percent “service charge” onto the already steep $10 beers and $8 hot dogs. A printed notice on menus said, “Additional gratuity is at your discretion.” But the people who actually served the food and drink never received any portion of that “service charge,” according to their lawyer; Legends Hospitality did.
This is how owners do business?
Ever since Jones and the NFL charged fans $200 just to stand outside the Super Bowl, there has been a growing awareness that many league owners treat the help and the paying spectators high-handedly, while at the same time digging in their pockets.
Consider how Minnesota Vikings owner Zygmunt Wilf is treating the residents who support him. For months he has been insinuating that unless he gets enough public funding for a new stadium, he may move the team to Los Angeles.
Under the latest proposal favored by the Vikings, Minnesotans would pony up $650 million so Wilf can have a new $1 billion palace in the Arden Hills suburb of St. Paul. Ramsey County would get hit with a $350 million tab via a sales tax increase. The state, which is facing a $5 billion budget shortfall, would contribute another $300 million. The Vikings would contribute $407 million, but would pay no rent at all, and would get all revenues from the stadium, including parking, signage and naming rights. What a deal for the public.
That’s not all. The county would be on the hook for $1.5 million a year in operating expenses; the Vikings would be exempt from any state sales taxes on the building materials; and the state would be required to make improvements to roads and infrastructure that could cost $240 million more.
The Vikings and their allies are hoping to shove this monstrosity down the throat of residents without a public vote, knowing full well they don’t want it. According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll, 75 percent of residents oppose using any public money for a stadium. Governor Mark Dayton has expressed reservations, and a group of county residents who object to a “Vikings Tax” are trying to force a public referendum.
This is how an owner does business?
NFL owners are fast wearing out the public goodwill and have no one to blame but themselves. Between extortionist stadium deals and the squeeze for every dime from fans at the ticket booth and concessions, owners have made it a lot easier to believe the players have a point when they say they didn’t provoke this fight.
After all, the owners interrupted 20 years of labor peace by tearing up the agreement they made with the players in 2006, claiming the terms were too generous — even though they agreed to those terms with just two dissenting votes. The owners complained they weren’t getting a big enough slice of a $9 billion revenue bonanza. The owners dishonestly negotiated TV contracts, accepting below-market deals in order to give less money to players, so as to squeeze them even harder.
But lately there are signs that not all owners are absolutely united in the squeeze strategy. On Monday, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay seemed to break from the pack with a Twitter message that suggested if it was up to him, he would do a deal today with Colts center Jeff Saturday, who is a representative for the players. “Jeff Saturday and I could get this thing done, on cocktail napkins, over a long lunch at Rick’s Boatyard . . . it’s not that hard!” he wrote.
Another owner who seems to be a voice of reason is Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. He made some striking comments to the Boston Herald over the weekend while judging a science fair at Gillette Stadium.
“I think we’re coming to that point now, where we start to hurt ourselves collectively in the eye of our fans,” Kraft said. “Because in the end, the fans just want football. They don’t want to hear about all this meaningless squabbling.
“I don’t think there’s another industry in America that’s in the court system. I always believe you don’t solve things through litigation. You solve things by people who have a long-term vested interest in the game sitting down and finding ways to build it.”
Now that’s how an NFL owner should do business.