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Fans are good sports about being suckers; Rooters remain loyal despite strikes, lockouts, arrogance of millionaires


FALL for sports fans in America means more than bowl games and free throws. It's the season for televised prizefights between billionaire team owners and their millionaire players.

Which means it's also the season for reruns of the mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it-anymore American sports fan. Cast as the helpless victim, he pops up on the evening news gripping a beer mug, shaking his head and figuratively burning his season tickets -- basketball tickets this year.

This might be it, we're told: the demise of the golden goose. The long-awaited popping of the speculative bubble. These unsportsmanlike sportsmen have finally gone too far. They have squandered fan loyalty and will suffer a deserved drop in ticket sales, television viewership and Rotary Club speaking engagements.

An irresistible theme of repudiation. Were it only true.

The sad reality is that the American sports fan is the Neville Chamberlain of popular culture, a hopelessly accommodating creature who clings to appeasement well past the point of reason.

Consider baseball. No sport has been harder on its fans during the past six years. A strike in 1994 canceled a World Series and left ugly scars. Calls for serious revenue-sharing reform -- something that could provide the basis for lasting labor peace -- were answered with unsatisfying half-steps. And the 1997 World Champions were dismantled at the whim of a gazzillionaire owner who was mad that nobody was building him a ballpark to replace his 15-year-old one.

How have the fans demonstrated their justifiable ire? By paying more money for more tickets to more games. And, just in case the message was lost on the lords of baseball, by pushing up television ratings.

Hardly the stuff of deterrence theory.

Sure, this year's World Series was a flop for the networks. But what did they expect? The San Diego Padres were playing. Or, more accurately, losing. Badly. Nobody wants to see a movie with so obvious an ending.

More telling were the regular season ratings, which grew considerably. The numbers for Fox's Saturday broadcasts were up 15 percent. Other broadcasters reported respectable increases, only a portion of which could be attributed to McGwire-Sosa Fever. So good were the numbers, some baseball officials whispered that they wished they could renegotiate the TV rights packages this year rather than in 2001.

Record attendance

The news was similarly encouraging at the ballparks. Attendance hit a record 70.6 million last season. Doomsayers like to point out that the record was owed to the inaugural seasons of two expansion teams. But, if baseball were Wal-Mart, analysts would gush over the addition of new franchises. And, like Wal-Mart, baseball has been adding outlets at a furious pace: Four new teams have been added since 1993, a 17 percent increase.

Another healthful sign: Ticket prices have climbed 57 percent during the past six years, a period of uncommonly low inflation. If General Motors raised its sticker prices by that much, we'd be bracing for another Japanese invasion.

Team owners like to blame player salaries for boosting ticket costs. But as any undergraduate economics student can tell you, the process actually works the other way around: Prices get pushed up by customer demand, and players then capture a share of the proceeds in the free-agency auction house.

The fact that baseball can get more people to buy more tickets despite higher prices is a pretty good sign that all is forgiven. Even Microsoft has to be impressed at that sort of market domination.

Other sports are showing similar robustness, despite their own labor dustups. Football went through an especially ugly fight with its players, first crushing them at the picket line in the late 1980s and then getting sacked by them in federal court several years later. Fans reacted predictably: Some banded together in "fans unions" to fight for their rights. Others swore off games for life.

But mostly they waited patiently on the sidelines for the games to resume. More than 800,000 people streamed into NFL games each week during the just-concluded regular season, filling the stadiums to better than 90 percent of capacity on average. They, too, are paying for the privilege. An average NFL ticket sells for 70 percent more than it did in 1991 (and that doesn't include seats in the pricey "club" and skybox sections, which can go for $300 a game).

Cleveland bounces back

Attendance during the 1998 season was 15.36 million, the highest in the game's history. In Cleveland, a city that suffered the indignity of its team running off to another city, the outraged fans really let the NFL have it. First, they voted to approve $154 million in taxes for a new stadium. Then they bought more than 50,000 season tickets before the replacement franchise, its owner or a single player had been named.

So much for the bruised feelings of the Dawg Pound and the Bleacher Bums. If they're crying in their beer, they're paying more for that, too. Beer prices in NFL stadiums have gone up by nearly a third during the past six years, according to an annual survey by Team Marketing Report.

On the broadcast side, the NFL's success is legendary. By the end of the current package of TV contracts, each franchise will get $90 million a season from the networks.

No wonder expansion franchises fetch $500 million. They make a lot of money. Aiding this cause is the fact that the professionalization of the industry in recent decades has brought new sophistication to the art of wheedling dollars from fans, sponsors -- and taxpayers.

Moreover, the teams are winning at the voting booth as never before. During the past decade, voters have approved twice as many stadium referendums as they've rejected, committing billions of dollars to subsidize a prospering industry. If there is festering resentment over past strikes among the fans of Denver and San Diego, they left it at home when they went to the polls last fall and approved new stadiums. The Padres and Broncos won bigger than the Democrats.

It's not surprising, then, that David Stern felt confident enough to cancel a half-season of NBA games. The players were confident enough to dare him to cancel the other half.

Both sides knew the fans would be waiting for them. It might take a season or two, but they'll come back.

Jon Morgan covers the business of sports for The Sun. He is the author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL," about the move of the Cleveland Browns, and "Gaining a Yard: the Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium."

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