If you read my blog regularly, you have observed that I do not write often about sports. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I shall leave for exploring some day when I have writer’s block. Two recent sporting events, however, evoked some thoughts regarding our identify with local sports teams: the start of the football season, and the America’s Cup races.
Beyond the weekly analysis of whichever sport is in season, two major themes have been debated in the past few years: use of performance-enhancing substances, and multi-million dollar contracts for players. A common motivation that I obseve in each of these issues is winning at all costs. Coaches, trainers, and players disregard the risks to their health, reputations, and careers in order make the team and starting line-up. Owners and managers disregard their financial liabilities, and the effects of the top paying teams on smaller-market franchises when they offer multi-million dollar contracts to “star players”. A third factor that I see driving sports further into corruption is fan identification with their team.
That team could be the professional team in town, or the region in which one grew up (full disclosure, should I side with professional teams, they would be the SF Giants and 49er’s, for no other than reason than I grew up in the area), a college team, or local high school team. For sports fans, their mood rises and falls with the weekly or weekend’s game results. “The (vicarious) trill of victory and agony of defeat”. The players, coaches, trainers, managers, owners, teachers, and principals/university presidents, have a lot of people looking to them to pull through. Directing as much money as possible to the sports program, and turning a blind eye to that pill, powder, injection, nutritional suppliment, are justified to bring the win for the fans.
Now this might have some basis, if the fans actually had something at stake in the competition. But, these days teams have little to do with the locations which identify so much with them. Players are drafted, recruited, traded from all around the country and world to build a winning team. When some do not match the style of team or fulfill their expectations, they are off to some other team, or back to the minors.
This is where the America’s Cup race comes in. Recently, Team Oracle, representing the USA, won the competition with a spectacular rally of 8 wins in a row. This winning team included a manager from New Zealand (ironically winning over the New Zealand team, which needed only one more win when the USA team started their 8 win streak), a captain from Australia, and a crew which included only two members from the USA. Furthermore, they were loosing with this team, until they scratched one of the two Americans and replaced him with a British crew member. To be honest, I do not know how much other teams were respresented by their citizens piloting their boats and working as their crews. But, I suspect that most teams had a mix of nationalities represented. Who cares whether Team USA or New Zealand or Britian or Japan or… won if the competition were really a bunch of really tallented sailors mixing up teams for a good race. We in the USA have nothing to be proud of. New Zealand has nothing to regret.
Ultimately, winning at any cost gets back to money. Winning teams get more prize money, more broadcast revenue, more endorsements and adveritising options, more alumi support, more school board funds. This is obvisously a complicated calculation. But, also recently, I heard a couple of comments about football and money.
One comment was that most NFL teams’ stadiums are subsidized about 70% by local communities. The rational is that the team brings in millions of dollars in secondary spending, at parking lots, restaurants, retail shops, etc. which increase the tax base of those localities. However, this gives the owmers leverage againt the community: build us a better stadium or we move (hey, aren’t those SF 49er’s getting a new stadium in Santa Clara not San Francisco? Guess it is close enough to still count as being in the Bay Area). Still, do teams hauling in millions need to load up citizens with bonds to fund their stadiums? Futhermore, I head that the NFL is not a corporation, but a non-profit organization. Again, for an organization that funnels millions around (the Commission earned $30,000,000 last year), what public good justifies evade paying taxes on some of that money?
My solution is to put the local identify back into the teams. This would require that teams voluntarily set up regional boundaries. Say, 150 to 200 miles around the place to which they attach their name. From these regions, a majority, say 51% to 75% of the players need to originate or live. The rest could be recruited to the team. The fans would now have a greater possiblity of being connected in some way to the players. If colleges applied this same rule, regions could then become invested in developing athletes at the high school level who would play for the local college and then local professional team. The New England Patriots might actually be from New England. The Detriod Redwings might be from the mid-west. The LA Lakers might be from Southern California. Boise State could develop its players from Idaho. The Mountaineers would come from the mountains of West Virginia, western Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
I observed this phenomenon for a few years, when Linda taught me the rules of hockey. She had grown up following the Boston Bruin. Moving to the Washington area, she started to attend Washington Capital’s games (mainly to see the Bruins, et al). One of the rookie players, in 1999, was Jeff Halpern. He was from the Maryland. He was the local boy done good. The crowds were wild about him. Of course, the rest of the team was made up of Germans, various eastern European and Russian players, and a few Canadans. One local player. Since becoming a free-agent, he has played for Dallas, Tampa Bay, Las Angeles, New York, Montreal, Team USA (Olympics), and teams in Switzerland and Finnland (during season delaying lockouts). Money was usually the reason he switched teams, either his ability to sign a higher paying contract, or the team trading him to someone else in exchange for a couple of players or draft picks.
In our current system of sports teams, money drives the players and owners to either be mercenaries or slaves-owners. Loyalty to the hometown is mainly a marketing scheme. If the player can get a petter contract, and the league rules allow him or her to leave, he or she will. If the managers believe that they can get a better set of players by a trade, the players have little say in the matter. Maybe if we had more of a real sense of location, Halpern would have stayed with the Washington Capitols… except for those lockouts…
Okay, sports fans, I’ll go back to writing about the farm and theatre and travel, and let the game go on.