Friday, February 18, 2005

A Less Perfect Union

A brief conversation during my lunch hour today:

SUBWAY GUY (noticing the issue of Sports Illustrated in my hand as I'm waiting in line): Too bad about hockey, huh?
ME: All I can say is this: People who are making a million dollars a year don't need a union.

And that's pretty much all I can say on that. Having been in Texas (a Right to Work state) since third grade, I've never been a big fan of unions in the first place, but having them in pro sports is ridiculous. Unions were formed so that average working Joes could collectivize to avoid mistreatment at the hands of their blue-collar employers. Equating the typical professional athlete in any of the four big "money" sports of football, baseball, basketball and hockey with the "average working Joe" is just wrong. The fact that the union representatives shot down every proposal offered by the league as "unfair" just shows how out-of-touch with the rest of society these guys really are.

Sure, the owners are partially to blame on this; it's easy to say that the reason they're proposing a salary cap in the first place is so they can protect themselves from runaway spending. However, the players also need to realize that, in a sport whose TV revenues trail far behind the other majors, their continually-increasing salaries can't be borne by the league all by itself. That usually means that the cost overruns have to be made up for in ticket prices, which keep the average Joe from being able to afford to go to the games (I for one would love to see a Stars game, but it has indeed been the ticket prices that have kept me away thus far).

Paul Grant of the Sporting News posted an interesting set of figures which compare the average salaries, revenues, etc. of the four major sports leagues. He has this to say about the NHL's current model:
The NHL has to get its act together financially to have a shot at fulfilling the promise it had in the early 1990s. Select owners are to blame for letting the percentage of revenue designated to salaries get so far out of control, but the players have to realize their league can't bear salaries in the same ballpark as those of other pro athletes. To think otherwise means pricing the fans out of the rink -- fans already are near the breaking point -- and therefore alienating the core revenue stream. Once the snowball gets rolling down the hill, it's hard to stop.
It's interesting to note that the leagues with a salary cap are the ones which are flourishing the most. (As always, read the whole thing.)

Even though the 2004-05 season was declared officially dead by Commissioner Gary Bettman a few days ago, rumor has it that the two sides may return to the table this weekend. I certainly hope that something gets worked out, but I think that, in order to do so, the players will have to lower the threshold of greed a little bit and think about the fans who have brought the game to its highest level of popularity in its history. They might also have to decide whether or not the current union leadership really has their--or hockey's--best interests at heart.

And I should point out that it's not just having grown up in Texas that has colored my perception of unions in this way. It all stems from a specific incident when i was a young teenager: My dad and I went to the grocery store for a few items (no names here, but the store is a highly-unionized chain based in the Midwest), one of which was a tub of potato salad. At the moment we were there, nobody was working in the deli, so we had to wait quite some time for someone from another part of the store to help us. When a guy finally got there (from the meat-wrapping department), he complained the whole time that his union contract said he didn't have to do this (keep in mind that "this" involved scooping potato salad from a big bin into a small plastic tub, putting the lid on the tub and affixing a price tag). The thought hit me at that moment that it just wasn't right if someone's union contract at a retail establishment actually prohibited him from helping customers, and nothing in the intervening years has done anything to change that perception for me.

I guess we'll have to wait and see if this weekend brings any eleventh- thirteenth-hour miracle, but I'm not exactly holding my breath over here.

Hukd an fonix wurked fer mee (purentel edishun): I had a really weird thing happen in lessons the other day--a kid gave me an envelope full of cash for his lesson payment with his own last name misspelled on it! I won't reveal the actual last name, but I'll give a fake example that gets the point across: if their last name was "Feliciano," it was spelled "Feliciona" on the envelope. According to the kid, his mom does that all the time...

11 comments:

Steven said...

I think unions are becomming pretty archaic as far as modern business practice goes. I mean in the litigous enviornment we live in, mistreatment of employees can end up in millions of dollars in lawsuits. It's a nice concept, but you're right, the difference between a coal miner and some spoiled NHL player is immense.

Anonymous said...

I'm as pro-player as anyone when it comes to sports labor disputes, and I don't think the NHL owners wanted to play this season under any circumstances. This is stricty an attempt to bust the union, as evidenced by the owners' refusal to negotiate EVEN once the NHLPA put a salary cap on the table. When MLB owners tried this scheme in 1994-95, the judge presiding over the case ruled the owners were negotiating in bad faith, barred them from using scabs, and essentially re-instated the existing CBA going forward. Bud Selig testified in Congressional hearings that multiple teams would immediately go bankrupt if that happened. I'm still waiting. Additionally, a guy like Tom Hicks made his fortune in leveraged buyouts and corporate raiding. I'm expected to believe that this guy who will put 25,000 people out of work in a minute so he can make a buck is the same guy who loses millions and millions on his hockey and baseball teams because the "system" is unfair and won't allow him to make a profit?

Bullshit.

No one made Tom Hicks or any of the other owners offer the contracts they do. If Dallas County Community College offered you $150,000 a year to teach saxophone for them would you turn it down on principle knowing they couldn't afford it?

Finally, the link between payroll and ticket prices is merely fiction created by the owners in the Public Relations wars. If player payroll drove salaries, then tickets to the NCAA Final Four and BCS Championship games would be almost free.

--GP

Matt said...

Fact is, most of these guys feel that they do so much for the community, when in actuallity they work probably 4-6 months out of the year. They get paid millions to work 50-60% less than the average person. You're right, owners choose to pay them that much, however, just because they said so, doesn't mean they can't cap the salary. They do own the team right? They ultimatly choose who stays and who goes. If they want to put a cap on the player's salary, then they have every right to do so. Player forgot what it was like to be poor because they've had coaches blowing smoke up their ass their whole life, and when someone decides that they want to limit how much they get paid, they get pissy. The players have forgotten what it's like to be human beings and earn a buck the hard way. There was a time when a professional athlete had to work during the off season because they played for the love of the game. What the hell happened to that? It became all about the money instead of the game. Some say salary cap, I say salary cut. Remind them that it's because of people that watch the game that they're playing, not because they get a nice fat check afterwards.

Kev said...

Yeah, most pro athletes (and rock stars, movie stars, etc.) are pretty much removed from the real world, aren't they...

"If Dallas County Community College offered you $150,000 a year to teach saxophone for them would you turn it down on principle knowing they couldn't afford it?"

What, have you heard rumors of this? ;-)

Anonymous said...

"If Dallas County Community College offered you $150,000 a year to teach saxophone for them would you turn it down on principle knowing they couldn't afford it?"

What, have you heard rumors of this? ;-)
I have my sources..... :-)



Fact is, most of these guys feel that they do so much for the community, when in actuallity they work probably 4-6 months out of the year.It seems to me like there's about 2 months between the end of the Stanley Cup finals and the start of team training camps.

I have a lot of sympathy for players because careers are relatively short, they can be ordered to move across the country or even out of the country on short notice, and it's a very high-pressure job with lots of competition. I mean, when you fold on a solo in a gig, is the KNTU switchboard flooded the next day with callers saying how much you suck, how that cushy scholarship you got made you fat and lazy, and that their grandmother can play the saxophone better than you can?

You're right, owners choose to pay them that much, however, just because they said so, doesn't mean they can't cap the salary. They do own the team right? They ultimatly choose who stays and who goes. If they want to put a cap on the player's salary, then they have every right to do so.But that's not the same thing as a salary cap. No one is contesting the right of the Stars or Red Wings or Maple Leafs to set an individual team budget based on their market and needs. A salary cap is like an external mechanism across the entire industry that says UNT, SMU, UTA, CCCC, DCCC, and TCU all have the same limit on what they can spend on their music faculty.

There was a time when a professional athlete had to work during the off season because they played for the love of the game. What the hell happened to that?What happened is that the players unionized to get a fairer share of the immense pile of money generated by professional sports. When the Federal League played baseball in 1914 and 1915, they attrated some mid-level stars to jump from the AL and NL. I guarantee they didn't jump for a pay cut either. The other effect was that salaries rose in the AL and NL. Once the FL folded, salaries went right back down to pre-FL levels. Professional sports quit being "all about the love of the game" once team owners started charging admission.

--GP

Kev said...

"No one is contesting the right of the Stars or Red Wings or Maple Leafs to set an individual team budget based on their market and needs."

Right, but if you don't level the playing field a bit, you end up with the situation they have in baseball, where Steinbrenner gorges himself on the best players every year and leaves the table scraps for everyone else. Sure, they're not infallible as last year showed us, but you also don't have situations in, say, the NFL where a team is going broke like the Expos did in baseball last year.

"A salary cap is like an external mechanism across the entire industry that says UNT, SMU, UTA, CCCC, DCCC, and TCU all have the same limit on what they can spend on their music faculty."

Hmm, seems like apples and oranges to me; the schools named above aren't competing in a common "league," so there's no purpose for an external overseer in that situation.

"Professional sports quit being "all about the love of the game" once team owners started charging admission."

Ehh, I don't think it was that long ago. I've read about the early-60's Cowboys players who all had off-season jobs like Halfling mentioned, just to feed their families...and that's back when salaries were a far cry from the $7 million a year that Latrell Sprewell said was too little to feed his family on (I'm scared to think of what they must eat if that's the case).

Great discussion! Anything we haven't hit?

Anonymous said...

Great discussion! Anything we haven't hit?Oh man, the pressure's on now!... especially after you linked to it again from your main page! How to keep this rolling???


... Steinbrenner gorges himself on the best players every year and leaves the table scraps for everyone else. Sure, they're not infallible as last year showed us, but you also don't have situations in, say, the NFL where a team is going broke like the Expos did in baseball last year.There are a couple of issues at play here. Revenues are much closer for NFL teams since the league has a single broadcast contract with the networks and the proceeds are split evenly between all 30 or 32 or however many teams the NFL has. It's because of this disconnect between market size and local revenue that NFL teams move from huge media markets like Los Angeles, Houston, and Baltimore to smaller markets like St. Louis, Nashville, and Indianapolis because the main way of making money at the local level is with a more favorable stadium deal. A baseball team could never do that and survive. For all the ink written about what a great thriving league the NFL is, keep in mind that the NFL has been unable to keep a team in the 2nd largest media market in the country.

The biggest source of revenue inequity in MLB is with local broadcast contracts and MLB rules calling for an 80/20 split of local broadcast revenue. If Selig would push to get those numbers closer to 50/50, teams in big media markets would still have a financial advantage but it wouldn't be so overwhelming and it would get no opposition from the MLBPA. But Selig, like Bettman, wants to stick it to the union more than he wants to stick it to the big-money owners who hold influence over his continued employment as commissioner. So he hamfistedly violates labor law time after time in an attempt to bust the union.

Finally, the Expos were not going broke in Montreal. Because of their low payroll and revenue sharing payout from the league, they consistenly turned a profit in recent years according to MLB's own (cooked) numbers.

I've read about the early-60's Cowboys players who all had off-season jobs like Halfling mentioned, just to feed their families.Sure, because the owners will only pay as little as they can get away with. Baseball players first formed a labor union for higher salaries and better working conditions in 1885 (yes, eightteen eighty-five... that's not a typo). A rite of spring in the 40's was Joe DiMaggio's annual bitter holdout fighting for more money from the Yankees. Anti-collusion language is now a standard part of sports collective bargaining at the insistence of the OWNERS as a result of the dual holdout by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the spring of 1966.

Players of the 1950's and 1960's are romanticized now, but stars of the 30's were quoted saying current players in the 50's were soft, didn't know the fundamentals, were only concerned about their statistics, and were only in the game for the money. Likewise, players from the 1910's were quoted in the 30's saying the current stars didn't know the fundamentals, were only in it for the money, etc, etc.

People who think players back in the [1960s/1940s/1920s/1880s/etc] only played for the love of the game have no knowledge of the history of sports business.

--GP

Steven said...

Two words to solve this issue:
Cage Match

Kev said...

Do you mean a cage match between owners and players? Or me and Gary (GP)?

Actually, I'm enjoying the discussion and GP has a lot to say and says it well, even if I don't agree with everything he says. GP, didja ever consider becoming a blogger yourself? I'd read it...and besides, you could then have a Blogger account and wouldn't have to post as Anonymous all the time... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm enjoying the discussion and GP has a lot to say and says it well, even if I don't agree with everything he says. What do you disagree with? Let me know and I shall taunt you a second time! :-)

GP, didja ever consider becoming a blogger yourself? I'd read it...and besides, you could then have a Blogger account and wouldn't have to post as Anonymous all the time... ;-)No way dude! It's much easier to take shots at what other people write instead of me putting my thoughts out there for public consumption!

I haven't really given any thoughts to blogging although I read 3 or 4 regularly. I have enough time wasters in my life without adding another pursuit! There are already plenty of big band charts in my head that will never get written...

Maybe I'll sign up for an account though.

Do you know why, when I italicize text I'm replying to, my comments don't start on the next line? I don't know HTML too well and I can't figure it out.

--GP

Kev said...

"Do you know why, when I italicize text I'm replying to, my comments don't start on the next line? I don't know HTML too well and I can't figure it out."


It took me a few tries to figure it out as well; do the quotation mark first, then do the italics command (which I can't reproduce here or it would be taken as...well...a command) and then your text. Do the close italics command and the closing quote mark after that. I think it helps to put at least two spaces between the quoted text and your reply too.