The View From Wisconsin
Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
So here is the 2010 iteration of the 20 Basic Truths of Major Pro Team Sports:
- Teams in small markets will, in all likelihood, never have the largest payrolls in any of the four team sports. No one who is a fan of a small-market team in MLB, the NHL or the NBA should expect to have the highest paid player in their sport playing for their team anytime soon. Even if fans cram in to the stadium and tickets are at a premium, small markets will never be able to pay what teams in New York, LA or Chicago will be able to pay. Of course, the definition of what consists of a "small market" varies from sport to sport.
A bad baseball team is the hardest of all team sports to turn around. For example, it will probably take the Washington Nationals franchise anywhere from six to 10 years to become a regular pennant contender. Turnarounds in MLB are difficult because of the way the sport includes and develops new players – through a large and complex minor league system that makes success harder as the player progresses. The biggest reason is that the MLB amateur draft is the greatest crapshoot of all four pro sports entry drafts. Baseball execs for a team aren't drafting for this season – they're drafting for four years from now – and they might not be around at that point. The next hardest is the NHL (the only other major sport with a minor league system), then the NBA, and then the NFL. The NHL is hard only because bad drafting can lead to problems down the road – which is true in any sport; the NBA and NFL have an easier time overcoming bad drafts because of the salary caps in their respective sports.
There are three main factors, universal to all pro team sports, that affect franchise movement: Facilities, finances and ownership. A major shift in any one of the three areas can trigger franchise movement, though all three factors are interdependent. The first of the three areas to generate trouble is that of facilities (arenas, ballparks, stadiums). The mainstream media tends to confuse "finances" for "attendance"; finances are more equivalent to revenues (of which attendance is a large factor in some sports). If there is drastic instability in all three areas – such as what happened with the Seattle Supersonics – then the team is as good as gone. Unfortunately, the three factors are not easily seen until after the fact.
Salary caps are good ideas for team sports – in theory. As good as the idea of a salary cap is to team sports, it's virtually impossible to get it to work in the real world. The reason for this is simple: there is no honor among thieves. All of the major pro sports teams have only themselves as the bottom line, and therefore are always looking for a way to get around the rules to their advantage. Thus, show me a salary cap and I'll show you at least five ways of getting around it. Even the NHL found a way around it with "long term" contracts.
Players do not make good owners. In general, if players are inclined to become team owners, your sport is not in good health. Players are about as clueless as to what it takes to run a team as a business as owners are about playing the game. The days of Curly Lambeau, Eddie Shore and Connie Mack are far gone; the only people who can succeed long-term in the game are people who have the money and are smart with their front-office decisions. The case study in this is what happened to Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix. Mario Lemieux, by the way, doesn't quite count, since he's a figurehead and not a decision-maker.
The Designated Hitter is not going to go away. There may be talk of abolishing it, even if MLBPA says they don't mind it going away. However, there are too many financial reasons why there should be a DH rule. In fact, it is more likely that the rule will be changed, within a generation, to apply to all of baseball. The main reason? Practically every league below the minors uses it full-time; within a generation, pitchers will not learn how to hit until they get to the pros. The first step to the DH becoming the law of the land may very well happen by mandating it for interleague play. This argument can also be made for the three-point shot in basketball, the shootout in hockey, and the use of instant replay in football.
Artificial turf won't be disappearing anytime soon, either. Though there has been limited success in growing grass indoors, there will come a point in time when it will be cheaper to put a safer, realistic, life-like surface down instead of constantly replacing dead or dying grass. As technology has improved "artificial" surfaces, it will be more appealing to use them. (Ice hockey, however, is still unlikely to follow this trend.)
It is only a matter of time before advertisements appear on player uniforms. Revenue streams will be such a large part of a franchise's continued success that this one won't be ignored in North America much longer. Don't anticipate seeing the Addidas logo overshadow the NY and the pinstripes, however. It's more likely that a single advertiser's patch will be permitted, either on the sleeve of the jersey or on a shoulder patch. And don't look for a team's uniform to look like a NASCAR stock car with labels all over. And teams will definitely not be renamed for a sponsor, like the New York Red Bulls were in MLS.
Ticket prices will continue to rise until they meet demand. And when demand is met, teams will start moving in to smaller facilities to increase demand before deciding to lower ticket prices. Oh, and variable rate ticket pricing – based on opponents and/or days of the week – will more than likely be the norm within a decade. Tickets will cost more for rivalry games and against teams from bigger cities (New York, Chicago).
The Internet has had a dramatic impact on how fans follow and support their teams. A fan of the Miami Dolphins with a computer and a satellite dish can follow his team's exploits in Anchorage, Alaska – and the growth of fantasy sports makes fans more knowledgeable about players on teams other than his or her hometown teams. In fact, the Internet makes it possible for people outside North America to follow a major league team – and to be relatively knowledgeable about their team (and players) at the same time. On the downside, people can set up websites demanding a coach be fired before he even holds his first practice with the team. And I won't even mention anything about Dan Ellis.
Women's pro sports leagues cannot survive in the long term. Anyone who anticipates women's professional team sports, or women playing in existing male leagues, lasting for more than a short period of time is dreaming. Yes, people like Lorena Ochoa, Candace Parker, Danica Patrick and Diana Taurisi are admirable in their performances. However, few people actually want to pay money to go see them play on a continuing basis. Danica, of course, is a special case, as she is "playing with the boys". However, I doubt that a racing series comprised of strictly female drivers would be financially viable at any time in the future.
Viable alternatives to the existing major sports leagues are highly unlikely – thanks to Vince McMahon. The failure of the XFL basically ended any and all serious attempts at creating viable alternatives to the existing major pro leagues (MLB, NFL and NBA). The reason, of course, is that all of the major TV networks saw how the league's ratings eroded so quickly, making the televising of any similar endeavor seem suicidal. There is the exception of leagues outside of North America (such as the Russian Super League of hockey, or the Japanese Major Leagues); however, their popularity within the United States is unlikely to surpass that of the existing major leagues.
No non-Major League team sport will retain its popularity for as long as the "Big Three" of baseball, basketball and football. As popular as NASCAR and golf are now, the cycle of popularity will eventually swing away from those sports to either the three sports that were first turned pro in the US, or to other sports. At some point, lacrosse or MMA or horse racing or any of a bunch of other sports may take precedent in the nation's consciousness – but eventually, everyone will come back to MLB, the NBA and NFL.
The only way that any Major League sport will go out of business is if people stop coming to games. The "SEW" principle is the primary reason why baseball came back from the strike, the NFL survived the player strike in the 1980's, and basketball has weathered its labor strife: if you decide to stop going to games, someone else will buy your ticket and go. Until such time as people decide, en masse, to stop going to games, there will be an NFL, an NBA, MLB – and even a NHL. It has always been true of pro sports – the fans vote with their feet.
For the first time in decades, the owners have an advantage in labor-related issues. The NHL's cancelled season had a huge role in that change, as did congressional investigation into performance enhancing drugs. Players unions can now no longer rely on the fact that the owners will cave in to demands if they strike; the C-words (contraction, cancellation) and the R-word (replacements) have become viable threats to players and their labor leaders.
Money can't buy you championships. However, put the money in the hands of people who know your sport, and it can move mountains. The equation is essentially money plus knowledge of the sport (plus pure dumb luck) equals success. This explains the New York Yankees as much as it does the New York Rangers. What money does allow you to do, however, is recover quicker from poor player acquisition choices (read: drafting and free agent signings).
The National Football League is in a class by itself in comparison to all other team sports in North America. No other team sport should even think about comparing itself to the NFL, whether it is for a salary cap, revenue sharing or other forms of business operations. The NFL is so unique as a sport that it is on a level that no other sport, save perhaps baseball in the first half of the 20th Century, has ever achieved in its existence in North America. There are so many exceptions and "onlies" surrounding their operations that it would be pointless for any other league of any other sport to try to be like them – completely. In fact, there is only one other professional sport globally that can compete with the impact that the NFL has on the US and North America – and that is major professional "futball" leagues across the globe, like the UEFA Champions League and its associated leagues.
ESPN should be careful that they do not allow the "E" in their name to outweigh the "S". As the so-called "Worldwide Leader In Sports" tries more original programming and movies, they are moving dangerously away from being a Sports network towards an Entertainment network. They are giving tenuous explanations that what they are showing is actually "sport" (poker, competitive eating, etc.). It would be a good idea for them to remember that it is emphasis on the four "major" team sports (and the "major" individual sports of golf, tennis and auto racing) is what made them in their first 25 years. Returning to the days of cheerleading contests and tractor pulls won't get them to the next 25 years.
Gambling will destroy a sport if it is allowed to permeate the game. The primary reason why players, owners, coaches and officials gambling on their sport is bad for the game is very simple: their own self interest of their wagers overrules the interest of their team or their sport. Even if a player is betting on his own team, it overrules the concept of being a "team player" because the player is trying to win more than just a game. Thus, it is for this reason and this reason alone that any athlete, official, owner or manager who is caught gambling on his sport should be suspended from the game indefinitely. Suspensions for drug use, law breaking, and other assorted misbehavior are minor compared to gambling. And yes, I am including performance-enhancing drugs in that generalization. The absolute worst thing for a sport is for their officials/referees/umpires to be "on the take". If the officiating is questioned because of gambling, the entire sport could be on the verge of collapse.
The law of averages suggest that even the worst team in a given sport will eventually win a championship. Someday, the Houston Texans will win the Super Bowl; the Memphis Grizzlies will win the NBA title; the Phoenix Coyotes will win the Stanley Cup, and the Washington Nationals will win the World Series. It might not happen in our lifetimes, nor may it happen while the team is playing where they are now – but it should happen. It actually takes more talent (in a backwards kind of way) to not win championships than it does to win them – which makes the 100-plus-year drought of the Chicago Cubs all that much more impressive.