Getting Scalped

Beg, borrow, or steal the price of heroin, nicotine, and gasoline is always met. What they call market forces do come into play on other popular items eventually and, when the new administration in Washington, D.C. gets going next month, we are likely to see that what has mistakenly been called “trickle down economics” will instead become a Niagara Falls of impoverishment.

There has been so much money being made in professional sports lately that we are seeing some things that heretofore would have been considered unimaginable, such as the building of stadiums without any team or ownership entity committed to occupying them. Will the coming recession or downward cycle or whatever bullshit term economists choose to use have an effect on this relatively recent boom? Chances are that it will, but there has already been a big change in the way sports teams are marketed and financed. I think it is safe to say that the disastrous cancelling of the 1994 baseball season was the result of a conflict between money and big money.Hall of Fame Chevy salesman Bud Selig was just “acting” commissioner then, and his prescribed job for the owners was to sell the public on the “fact” that 19 of the 28 teams were losing money in their charitable passion to deliver major league baseball to all of us ungrateful slobs out here who had no appreciation for what they had to endure. The two main issues were revenue sharing by the owners and acceptance of a salary cap by the players. No profit cap for the owners was on the table. So the awful strike happened and of course, in the spirit of divide and conquer that has always ruled our fair and decent land, the fans blamed the players. At any rate, when peace was eventually restored in 1995, many things changed. Revenue sharing began, so that television money enjoyed in large markets such as New York, where the Andrew Carnegie of American sports George Steinbrenner still reigned behind the scenes, had to share with relative paupers in smaller markets like Pittsburgh, Seattle and lo! Milwaukee. The idea of the salary cap went the way of orange baseballs. Baseball and its new commissioner could go back to making money, except that a large public relations problem had developed after the World Series, never cancelled even during World War Two, had indeed been cancelled in ’94 and many followers had lost their enthusiasm for what now seemed to be a big greed game.

What to do? The leagues had been divided into three divisions for ’94 and now the wild card team idea arrived to help create fan interest. Big money meant ownership “groups” and the individual ownership era began to dissolve as people like Tom Yawkey, Phil Wrigley, Clark Griffith, Charles Finley and others were being replaced by conglomerates of anonymous investor groups. Perhaps coincidentally, baseballs began flying out of ballparks at unprecedented levels as the Mo Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Albert Belle and Mark McGwire types began to dominate the scene. Tightwad executives now changed policies as foul balls were no longer pursued and hoarded but rather distributed cheerfully to fans who learned to chirp like baby blackbirds in their nests for a souvenir. Despite all of the TV loot, ticket prices went up and up and up. Home runs and eight playoff positions got the masses involved again—at least, the masses that could afford it.

Much of the new largesse in baseball has been a good thing. It’s good to be beyond the days like when I was in fifth grade and Chuck Tanner, now famous for his managing career but at that time a backup outfielder for the reigning World Champion Milwaukee Braves, came to my school to take our school pictures. That was his off season gig, which was a thing that many, many pro baseball players needed to do in those days to supplement income. It is also a good thing that the players’ bodies are much more trained and protected against permanent injury since both their employers and their agents have an interest in keeping them safe. In the old days, one could always find a body to replace a sore armed pitcher, and on the cheap at that.

Of course, the wide availability of games to view on television is convenient and fun. Attendance is generally very good at games, but it is a distinctly different population of attendees than I remember from my youth. You have to be of a certain (high) income bracket in order to afford tickets. Then there is parking, which, the last time I went, cost me three hours of wages. So I often wonder how much the people I see stuffing their faces with ballpark food and drink are really into the game they’re watching. I don’t know, maybe they are real fans, just like the cheap beer slurpers I used to observe at games who could get in for 75 cents or a buck and a half and knew all the players without a scorecard, let alone the monstrous electronic scoreboards and their own electronic devices that seem to be of as much interest as whatever pitch Madison Bumgarner is going to throw next. I know, I’m an old fogey, I should just go with it and enjoy the pleasures of wealth management. I wonder about the future near and far though, and the lack of participation and interest on the part of the young people who the rich geezers seem to be leaving behind. What do you think?

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