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Original Issue


Time for a time-out. Called by the Shirts, of course, because the Skins have at the moment run up such a commanding lead in Moneyball that the owners are regrouping and some of them are calling for a drastic new tactic in-the 1980s. It is called teamwork, a game plan heretofore wholly alien to the hierarchy of professional sports. It will take some adjusting, because while the owners agree that nothing less than a new spirit of cooperation will suffice, that is typically about all they agree on. Still, it is a start and, as Phoenix Sun owner Richard Block suggests, the sports industry is still feeling its way. "It is one of the last businesses that no one knows anything about," says Block. "There are a lot of myths, and we all repeat them."

Fable No. 1 is that professional sports must adhere to the old monopolistic practices to prosper. The owners still operate their franchises like fiefdoms, and good resolutions will not change that.

Neither will a two-thirds majority vote of the owners. The leagues require that major changes be approved by at least a three-fourths majority of the owners. Hence doing away with territorial rights is not even discussed, because the bloc of big-city teams would never accede. Gate sharing, a more easily implemented and instantly beneficial reform, has been frequently suggested in the NBA and NHL, but again the owners controlling the strongest markets will have none of it. "We live by the Golden Rule," says Angel Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi. "Those who have the gold make the rules."

Inertia is the result, and the National League is its leading disciple. The reason it has failed to expand in recent years or to approve interleague play is that its bylaws stipulate that such weighty matters must be decided by the unanimous vote of all 12 owners, setting up a kind of Catch 12 situation. As Met Board Chairman M. Donald Grant recalls, the snag snuck into the bylaws when "one person a few years ago said, 'I will vote for such and such if in the future we won't do such and such unless it's enacted by unanimous vote,' and it went through at that time."

The upshot, says Expo owner Charles Bronfman, is that "you have a situation where every time you want to change anything, everybody takes a quick look and says, 'Now how's that going to affect my revenue?' And when you have a constitution like we have, that's just ridiculous. The unanimity rule has to be changed to a three-quarters rule." Small chance, because Catch 12 stipulates that the vote to change the rule on the unanimous vote must be unanimous.

Ranger owner Brad Corbett, among others, feels that his peers' recalcitrant ways, as epitomized by the National League unanimity rule, are the reason that they were a setup for the gains made by the players' unions. "We are stuck with this free-agent draft because of the stupidity of some hard-line owners in past years," he says. "They didn't give multi-year contracts, they didn't give players security, and in some cases, they didn't give players what they deserved. We had a good dance for a lot of years in baseball because of those tactics, but now we're having to pay for the fiddling."

Another young Turk, Phillie President Ruly Carpenter, feels betrayed by the prices that Corbett and the other big spenders are paying for free agents. "No court in the world can make a Gene Autry or a George Steinbrenner give a player $3 million," he says. "The courts cocked the gun. It's the owners who pulled the trigger."

Name calling knows no season and is as much a part of the pro game as keeping score. In fact, the boardroom tally never changes: two dozen strong-willed owners equal 24 factions. Personal rivalries abound. Cliques clash. The have-nots challenge the haves; East takes on West; young badgers old. And if an occasional ashtray is thrown in anger, everyone understands. "We're all little boys," says Bronfman. "If we weren't, we wouldn't be that interested in sports. We'd be much more interested in what General Motors stock was doing."

"Let's face it," says SuperSonic owner Sam Schulman, "owning a pro team is an ego trip." Lest anyone doubt it, a group of financial consultants recently did an appraisal of the value of a baseball franchise, and when they arrived at the final figure, they added on an extra $2 million and listed it as "ego ride."

The initial cost of the trip has become so expensive, however, that single occupancy is being replaced by group excursion. The era of the "sportsman owner," personified by the Red Sox' Tom Yawkey and the Cubs' Phil Wrigley, all but ended with their recent deaths. In their stead have come faceless ranks of syndicates, shareholders and conglomerates. Cincinnati is solid syndicate; the Reds, Bengals and Stingers are all owned by local investment groups whose involvement is pretty much limited to hiring a general manager, staking out their private boxes and taking their kids into the locker room to mingle with the stars.

The Knicks and Rangers should wear gray flannel uniforms. Subsubsidiaries of Gulf & Western Industries, the two teams are among several that have been bought by conglomerates in a trend that has been called the "corporatizing of sport." The Houston Astros are jointly owned by divisions of General Electric and Ford. The St. Louis Blues are the property of Ralston Purina. The SuperSonics are a subsidiary of First Northwest Industries of America, Inc. Signal Co., an oil company, owns 49% of the Angels, and Labatt Breweries Canada, Ltd. is in for 45% of the Blue Jays. Sportsmen all, perhaps, yet it seems just a matter of time until someone turns on the lights at Wrigley Field and slaps a Day-Glo ad on the leftfield wall at Fenway Park.

When a team backed by its parent company's millions chooses to go after a player, what individual owner would even consider a bidding war? Not John Bassett, proprietor of the WHA's Birmingham Bulls. "I lost two players, Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey, to the Rangers," he says. "They offered Dillon $1.4 million and Hickey $450,000 to sign long-term contracts. I couldn't compete with that, so I called Madison Square Garden and told them if they sent me some dough, they could have them right away. I mean, if the Prince of Saudi Arabia takes a shine to your wife, it's hard to compete with him. That's if your wife happens to be mercenary."

The Green Bay Packers are the antithesis of corporatizing. A sports anomaly, they are a nonprofit organization, wholly owned by the city of Green Bay, Wis. Though the Packers were once the pride of the NFL, the league has discouraged any more municipally owned teams. Nonetheless, Buck Chairman of the Board Jim Fitzgerald, among others, believes that the Packers represent "the ideal form of ownership. There is no debt to service, and there are no dividends to pay. It's the perfect setup. But I guess that it will not happen any place else."

San Antonio Spurs owner Angelo Drossos begs to differ. "I envision that, within a decade or two, city governments will own teams," he says. "Many teams are already being subsidized by the community in the form of low rental agreements on stadiums and arenas. The Superdome loses money each time the Saints or Jazz play there, and the same is true of most arenas around the country. So it would seem to me that at some point the cities are going to decide that they might as well own the team and operate it in the manner they wish."

Meanwhile, management and labor are girding for the next round of bargaining sessions, leading off with hockey this summer, baseball in 1979, then basketball in 1980 and football in 1981. Despite the caterwauling, prospects for a minimum of discord are good, if only because the war over player freedom, the big sticking point in previous negotiations, is over. And both sides are aware that there is little public sympathy left for the strikes and walkouts that marred their last round of talks.

Economists perceive an even better reason for optimism, because the present chaos was not only predictable but is also evidence that a new and better order will emerge—just as soon as everyone gets the ground rules straight. "It is true that owners do not know how to react in the new environment," says one economist, "and some will get burned and some may go bankrupt. The new procedures require a different kind of expertise, and as the owners collect knowledge and experience, they will behave. They have a workable system and will enter the 1980s with their labor relations in good order. Owners and players will start being happier again."

Those happier days will be marked by a modicum of stability, which will be achieved as more free agents sign long-term contracts. And the law of diminishing returns should discourage owners from overloading their rosters with high-priced stars. Franchise-hopping will abate as more communities resort to legal action to prevent their teams from departing. The economic shakedown, with its premium on management expertise, will tend to cast off the part-time, playboy owners. And the controversies about overpaid players will lessen as six-figure salaries become commonplace.

Most important, the games themselves are more robust and compelling than ever. Marvin Miller says, "I concluded a long time ago that baseball as a product is so good that it prospers in spite of the owners."

Cub General Manager Bob Kennedy even thinks global expansion is a lead-pipe cinch. "There should be teams in Tokyo, Mexico City, Manila, Sydney, Rome, Havana, Buenos Aires, San Juan, Russia," he says. "Without a doubt Russia should be involved. Then when you have a World Series, it really will be a World Series. And instead of 87 million fans watching on TV, there will be 600 million."

As they ponder such thinking, all parties concerned would do well to heed a classic opinion offered by an old Yankee. "Money," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "often costs too much."


The spirit of cooperation sought by some owners could result in global TV for the World Series.

Players are the subject of next week's report on money in sports: What do they make? How do they spend it? Does it dull competitiveness?