Thursday, April 7, 2005

42. Sports ignore customers

Despite the increasing popularity and commitment of fans and supporters, professional and collegiate sports continue to struggle to understand their role in American culture and accept responsibility for their actions. Moreover, professional and collegiate sports have lost sight of its customers, and have been slow to adapt to societal standards (such as fighting, steroid use, fair use of labor and equality).

Work stoppages in professional sports have become all too commonplace- with the latest casualty being the cancellation of the professional hockey season. Regardless of whether it is baseball, football or, now, hockey, the fact that billionaires and millionaires cannot figure out how to share large amounts of revenue is nothing less than appalling.

The question is though: Who really gets hurt during a work stoppage? Obviously, owners and players have enough money to forgo a season worth of revenue or salary. Many owners have other sources of income, in fact probably a primary source of income that was used to purchase a sport franchise in the first place. The players have been paid well enough to stash away some money or investments, and many of them have businesses of their own. Furthermore, many players have other options- playing in other professional leagues (in Europe, for example).

But what about the individuals that work for the team or at the sports arena? What will the ushers, vendors, cleaning crews and maintenance workers do without a season's worth of income. What will the individuals that print the tickets have to print, and what will the promoters have to promote. Did the owners and players ever consider these people when they rejected the latest proposal?

When there are wars being fought, people starving, and sick people dying because they cannot afford healthcare, how can these owners and players justify not being able to reach a compromise. As demonstrated through their actions, self-indulgent arrogance must consume their every thought. What happened to being blessed and recognizing one's good fortune? When individuals in this country would stand in line for a week for a $20 an hour job at Ford or Chevrolet, what right do these owners and players have to flaunt their prosperity by turning down millions of dollars?

The fans are to share some of the blame, for a number of reasons. They have essentially created this monster, not just in hockey but also in all major sports. The fans forget that ultimately, they are the customers and they control wages and revenue. If fans want the game to change, the attitudes to change- the recourse is simple...stop watching or attending the games. If fans want players salaries cut in half, stop buying tickets until prices are cut in half (of course it is not quite that simple, but the point is the same). If fans want a salary cap in baseball, stop going to games until a salary cap is put into place. If fans want a college football playoff system, boycott the first couple of games and the NCAA will be quick to listen. In what other business are the customers so silent, so ignored?

Ironically, there are some athletes that should go on strike, most notably college football and college basketball players. Especially in football, the NCAA has managed to control the system, its customers (the fans) and its employees (the athletes). Despite the overwhelming desire for a NCAA football playoff system from its fans, the college presidents, at nauseam, have been able to suppress this idea in favor of the ridiculous BCS system. Furthermore, it controls the costs of its employees, the players, by "paying" them in scholarships. Top college athletes are worth millions of dollars to colleges and universities, yet they are entitled to only a few thousand dollars in scholarships. If one doubts this, ask how much money LeBron James would be worth to Ohio State, or any other university for that matter? However, despite the athletes holding the trump card, which group (or class) of athletes is going to be the one to "strike" and risk their chance at a professional career? With fan bases numbering in millions in the form of alumni, students and other supporters, and a ready supply of cheap labor, the NCAA has, in a sense, monopolized college athletics. The final nail in the coffin for the college football monopoly was the court ruling that the NFL can impose an age restriction on its players. What recourse, in realistic terms, does anyone really have?

As a sports fan, it is becoming increasingly difficult to support professional and college sports as both organizations and athletes drift from reality. Entertainment, to be sure, is a part of American culture, but at some point, the question needs to be asked- at what cost? When are fans going to act as the customer and mandate that they be respected and considered? When are fans going to demand fairness, accountability and just a bit of integrity? After all, without them, there are no professional sports and nobody makes any money.

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