Pro sports call timeout to settle some old scores

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During the next few months, it's conceivable that fans in this sports-crazed nation will be reduced to watching athletes slapping contract proposals rather than pucks, slam-dunking salary caps instead of basketballs and swinging lawsuits instead of Louisville Sluggers.

Three of the nation's major-league sports are in the midst of some of the most contentious contract negotiations in their histories. Players in the fourth, football, are publicly grousing about their collective bargaining agreement, which was reached last year after six years of bitter strife.

Even the Jockeys' Guild contract expires at the end of this year, raising the prospect of picket lines at racetracks.

What has become of sports in America? In a word: money.

Leagues, once the province of weekend athletes and vaudevillian team owners, have long outgrown their pastoral adolescence. A professional cadre of managers and sophisticated players unions are now fighting over the bounty of franchises worth up to $200 million each.

"Years ago, you used to watch the scoreboard, not the bottom line. But there wasn't much of a bottom line to watch," said Art Modell, who bought a controlling interest in the NFL's Cleveland Browns in 1961.

Not anymore. Had the baseball season ended with an out, instead of a strike, the 28 teams would have brought in about $600 million from tickets, $800 million from TV and radio, and $85 million from merchandise sales. When combined with all other baseball revenues, it brings the total to nearly $2 billion.

Combined, the four big leagues earn nearly $6 billion a year from television. Sales of hats, shirts and other team-related merchandise top $10 billion a year, and corporate sponsorships are running at about $2.4 billion, according to the Sports Business Daily.

Players have enjoyed the riches. A top baseball player can earn $7 million a year for the same job that 30 years ago paid $40,000.

The Major League Baseball Players Association has grown into one of the nation's richest labor organizations, with $80 million a year in revenues and an executive director who earns $1 million a year.

"This is our livelihood. Now there's so much money at stake, you really have to hold your ground for fear the other side will take advantage of you," said Orioles pitcher and union representative Jim Poole, who was slated to earn a salary of $270,000 this year.

"Money always creates tension," said Edward W. McCaskey, chairman of the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Turning point for future

This year's bruising labor fights could determine the balance of power between players and owners for decades to come, said William B. Briggs, an adjunct professor of law and associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University who has consulted for the NFL Players Association.

"I don't think it's coincidence all this is happening at the same time," he said.

If the owners of hockey and baseball can persuade their players to accept a salary cap tied to team profits, as those in basketball and football have, values of franchises will explode, he said.

But there's more than greed at work, Mr. Briggs said. As in the auto and steel industries, the sports business has matured to the point that there is plenty of money and the workers and managers have gotten better at fighting for it, he said.

"The people running teams are no longer former players and nephews of the owners, and they do have to run them as businesses," Mr. Briggs said.

The new breed of owners, who recruit their accountants before their starting pitchers, see worrisome trends.

A growth industry?

"I think there is a realization that the profligate, wholesale growth that has characterized sports over the past 20 years is a thing of the past," Mr. Briggs said.

One result: Cost containment has crept into the clubhouse. But team owners are finding it hard to squeeze players in an industry generating record profits, he said.

"In some ways it's easier to deal with a flat-line industry or an industry in decline. . . . Where you have the uncertainty of a growth industry, you have more additional pressures," Mr. Briggs said.

The National Basketball Association persuaded its players to accept a cap on team salaries in 1983, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Now the league is one of the great success stories of the past decade, and the players are looking to shake off the cap, while the owners want to tighten it. The start of the season could be in jeopardy.

The ensuing fight and those in other leagues are also complicated by a slew of legal and economic peculiarities not faced by other industries.

Antitrust, for example. The leagues see themselves as an association of teams, not subject to antitrust laws that limit cooperation between competing companies. The players see the teams as competitors who shouldn't be allowed to collude on pay rates.

On the players' side, unions have fought to establish minimum working conditions but let members and teams establish each player's pay. Team owners have pushed for a more traditional labor-management arrangement where salaries are controlled through collective bargaining.

"For many years, the players had it tough and were not treated fairly. I believe now the direction has shifted to such a degree that the players have a great deal of power and a correction is needed," Mr. Sachs said. It was not always so.

Former Baltimore Colt Ordell Braase was president of the NFL Players Association in 1965 when the union, still unrecognized by the owners as a bargaining agent, first got the league to sit down and talk.

The initial meeting was held in a Florida hotel, and participants were arrayed around a U-shaped table with each team owner sitting next to the union rep from his team. There were no lawyers or professional negotiators, just Commissioner Pete Rozelle chairing the meeting.

"How much are you going to pound on the table with the guy that signs your paycheck sitting next to you?" Mr. Braase said.

The meeting started with Bears owner George Halas standing up and saying, "The game is bigger than all of us," and urging cooperation.

It ended about five hours later without official recognition of the union, but with an agreement to let a player sit on the pension board and to meet again.

Mr. Braase said it was an important first step that eventually led to recognition.

"This industry has changed remarkably," said the Browns' Mr. Modell, an early architect of NFL labor policy. "It's incomprehensible to me. The games have gotten so big and the salaries and franchise values have gotten so big. There are philosophical differences that were not in existence years ago.

"The bottom line is that people are sick and tired of labor disputes. The fans come home from the factories, and their own labor disputes, and they want to watch sports. We have a tremendous hold on the public, but we better be careful."

WHERE THEY STAND

Baseball: In the 52nd day of a strike with no end in sight. Owners are discussing the use of replacement players. The union is pushing Congress to strip the sport of its antitrust exemption.

NHL: Contract expired September 1993, but last season was played under terms of old agreement. Union offered Thursday to play the regular season and playoffs without striking if the owners agreed not to lock them out. But owners deferred a decision, postponed the opening of the season -- set for yesterday -- until Oct. 15 and asked the players to resume bargaining. The players have agreed.

NBA: Contract expired June 23, and next month's scheduled start of the season could be in jeopardy.

NFL: Signed an agreement last year that lasts until 2000, but the union recently filed a grievance over the way it is being

implemented.

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