Sports fans are always bellyaching about their plight, but never with better reason than in 1994. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Strike and Typhoon Lockout was galling enough, but even worse was the assumption by the warring parties in baseball and hockey that once those benighted sports resume play, the fans will come flocking back. In essence what the owners and players have been squabbling about in their tiresome labor disputes is how to divvy up the loot provided in the years to come by you-know-who.
Of course it's hard to feel too sorry for the fans, who have been getting gouged and dissed for years but have to share the blame. If tickets cost too much, it's because the fans are too quick to cough up the dough for them. If athletes are lousy role models, it's the fans who are foolish enough to make them role models.
Still, year-end SI interviews with scores of fans in a dozen cities indicate that their pain is real enough. Asked to enumerate their grievances, fans are quick to bring up players' megasalaries, but it's clear that the size of Glenn Robinson's 10-year, $68.15 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks isn't really what irks them. The No. 1 source of their discontent is that the people traditionally thought of as "the fans"—Joe Sixpack, Mom and Dad and the kids—simply aren't as important to the powers-that-be in sports as they once were. They've taken a backseat to: 1) TV viewers, who needn't be hard-core fans as long as they tune in spoils broadcasts and buy the autos and razor blades advertised there; and 2) expense-account types, who have pushed ticket prices skybox-high by paying a premium for waiter service and other amenities, the better to close deals while watching (maybe) the game.
Meanwhile the people who plunk down their own hard-earned dollars to attend sports events, often to sit in the far reaches of the stadium, are ignored, save for the ever-growing bombardment of sales pitches directed their way. Remember when the mercantile impulse at games was confined to the ads in the program or a haberdasher's sign on the outfield fence? Now, on the scoreboard of Chicago's United Center, for instance. Miller beer presents the instant replays...and Montgomery Ward brings you music videos...and did you catch the players wiping their brows with the Gatorade-logoed towels?
Even as sports has boomed, many fans have become alienated. Seattle financial planner Dave Garberg: "Everything is money, money, money—I'm tired of it." San Francisco housewife Anne Osterloh: "It's gotten real corporate—they shaft the casual fan." Steve Pinsky, a salesman from Haddonfield, N.J.: "There's a lot of bitterness in me, and it gets worse and worse."
More than a few fans say they're surprised at how little they miss baseball and hockey. Even in sports bars, those normally high-spirited emporiums of beer and betting (not to be confused with Fehr and Bettman), you can find people who swear they've about had it with sports. Might it be that a few fans won't be back?
In the face of this widespread disaffection, the owners and the players react by—what else?—throwing stones at each other. "Players have to have a better image," Philadelphia Phillie president and chief executive officer Bill Giles recently preached. "They have to understand who pays their salaries.... It's the fans." But Philadelphia clothier and Phillie fan Alan Herring has the cart and the horse in the right order when he says, "The fans are an afterthought with the owners, and if the owners don't care about them, the players won't either."
In fact, the owners have done plenty to damage the images Giles professes to worry about. For example, they've made the players look bad in the eyes of the fans by claiming that swollen team payrolls have driven up ticket prices, when the reverse is the case: the Streisandesque ticket prices have helped make high salaries possible. Does anyone seriously believe that if payrolls were magically cut in half, owners wouldn't go on charging fans whatever the market will bear?
Players and owners need to mend fences, both with each other and with the fans. Maybe providing waiters at games isn't such a bad thing (even if, in the case of the 4,200 club seats being introduced at Yankee Stadium, they're New York waiters), but for openers, shouldn't tickets be priced within reach of the people whose tax dollars are building the stadiums?
For that matter, shouldn't fans be treated better generally? It was a much-appreciated gesture, you may be sure, when San Francisco Giant owner Peter Magowan personally phoned a number of season-ticket holders recently to let them vent their anger about the baseball strike.
Memo to players and owners: Not a bad idea Magowan had. You can call fans too, maybe from your cellular phones in the limo en route to lunch with your agents/corporate backers. Important: Don't play for sympathy by complaining about the upkeep on your mansions/private planes...And, oh yes, don't call collect.