Sunday, December 13, 2009

Your team made 20 million bucks by not caring about you. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

This week, there was a minor... extremely minor ... flap as "Disgraced Ref Tim Donaghy" decided he wasn't done being kind of famous yet -- fame on the level of, say, Tiger's 10th or 11th girlfriend: Famous enough to get mentioned on a blog, but not to host a panel discussion with Kate Gosselin -- and announced that the NBA was fixed.

"Disgraced Ref Tim Donaghy" (now his official name, I believe) hardly dropped a bombshell; everyone knows the NBA is fixed -- not that it needs to be, given that 31 of the 32 NBA teams make the playoffs, and the playoffs themselves last more than 2 years. (Any day now, the NBA expects to finish the 2007 Finals. I'm breathless with anticipation!)

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that every major sport league is rigged, including the NFL, and I can prove it. But they're not rigged to favor gamblers or certain teams or only the Mannings (okay, the NFL is kind of rigged to favor only the Mannings, but can you blame them? They're a nice family.)

No, sports leagues are rigged to favor corporations, and they're ruining your game to do it. You, the little guy in your Manning jersey, are getting screwed over because you aren't a corporation.

You, per se, don't matter to the sports leagues. You as an individual don't matter not a single tiny little bit to the sports leagues. They don't care what you think, unless what you think is "I'm going to throw this beer at Ron Artest," in which case, they'd officially rather you didn't do that but unofficially would be okay with it because it would make an otherwise 2nd-tier player into a higher-level media interest and let them get him to Los Angeles where he can keep the television money rolling in. (Ron Artest is another guy who benefitted greatly from being Kerriganed.)

That television money -- and other corporate bucks-- are what controls sports, and it's why sports are rigged (to favor corporations) and why you don't matter.

In the NFL, the television money pays the players. That's more or less how it works out: TV pays a bunch of money to televise the games (even though the NFL is undercutting them with the NFL Network, proving that (a) TV stations are stupid enough to pay their competitor and (b) there's way too much money to go around in sports) and that bunch of money more or less covers, almost exactly, the players' salaries.

The team owners, though, still want to make money. Making money is the number one reason sports teams (or any business, except maybe the Salvation Army) exists. (Never forget that: Sports teams don't want to win championships. That's for players and fans; sports teams want to make money.) Team owners need to make money, and because TV pays their players, they make their money off merchandise and ticket sales and concessions at the games.

This holds true not just for professional sports leagues like the NFL, but for "Professional-but-we-say-they-aren't-so-we-don't-have-to-pay-the-players" leagues like college football, where teams get $18 million for playing in a bowl game and where a team like the Wisconsin Badgers can pay another team $1 million to come play in Madison, because if they do, then the Badgers will still rake in two million.

But don't get excited: Just because teams want you, with your Manning jersey on, to come buy a ticket at their stadium and pay sixty bucks for a pizza, doesn't mean they care about you. They don't. Not really.

Sure, they want you to fill up those seats that they wouldn't otherwise sell, like standing-room-only areas for $29 (Twenty-nine bucks to stand in a hallway at a stadium and watch the game on TV? Sign me up! Wait, no, don't!) But they don't really care about you one way or the other, because you don't have the big bucks.

And teams need big bucks. They're not going to survive on people buying $29 tickets and $60 pizzas, not for long. I mean, they could, but if they did that, where would their owners get outrageous sums of money to spend on personal jets?

Corporations, that's where. Corporations have the big bucks, and are willing to shell them out to be associated with NFL teams, for exclusive selling rights with NFL teams, and for the right to attend games in luxury boxes. Corporations have lots of money, and they'll use it to get what they want from sports teams, and they have more money than you have, so they'll get what they want, each time.

Let's take a look at the math. Look at Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers are held up as an icon of some sort or other in sports leagues because they are owned by us, the little guys -- stockholders, not some Fat Cat Johnny Wall Street. So they'll protect the little guys, right, and make most of their money off the little guys?

Lambeau Field holds 72,928 people. The average ticket price for a Packer game is $64. That means the Packers make $4,667,392, gross, off ticket sales for each home game, or $37,339,136 for the regular season off of you. (Not off of me; I don't go to games in person.)

The Packers also have 166 suites, described as "state-of-the-art suites featuring increased square footage and high-end custom finishes." Back in 2003, those suites went for $115,000 annually. I wasn't able to find out how much they're going for now before I got tired of looking, so let's use that figure. That's $19,090,000 -- in 2003 dollars, remember. The Packers also have 6,000 "club seats," 3,000 of which are indoors. Those cost $600-$1,200 per seat per game, so averaging them at $900 shows the Packers gross $43,200,000, at least, from those.

So the Packers make $37,000,000 of their gross cash from you, and $62,000,000+ from corporations and other big spenders. Guess who they're listening to when they decide what to do with the facility or the team?

Not you and me, that's for sure. The Packers stopped listening to you and me not long back when they decided to stop being such a losing organization. And by "losing" I mean "losing money."

Back in 1999, NFL documents show that the Packers were second-to-last in the NFL, earning only $288,000 in profits that year. That was following years and years of great successes, including two Superbowl appearances. The Packers were media darlings and had great, legendary players.

Last year, the Packers' operating profit was...

get ready...

$20.1 million.

The Packers netted $4 million last year. After "significant" investment losses.

(One of those losses? Lost souvenir and Favre sales after the team got rid of him: the Packers lost $5 million in local souvenir sales.)(But still turned a $20.1 million profit.)

How did the Packers, in ten years, increase their profitability by a factor of ten? By shifting TV money from players to the organization: By paying players less, so that TV money supports their bottom line, their profit. They're making a profit off of corporations by selling them nice seats, and off of TV money by not using it to pay players -- and they're putting an inferior team on the field for you and I to watch.

The numbers show that the Packers are intent on not signing big name players and not paying their players that much. In 2009, the Packers were $16,080,000 under the salary cap -- 3rd highest in the league, and trailing only Cleveland and Tampa Bay. They were about $24,000,000 under the 2008 salary cap, and $30,000,000 under the cap at the start of the 2007 free agent season. They have an inexperienced head coach without a big resume -- a move that many teams make to save money, hiring a younger, cheaper, but not-as-good person to fill a mostly-expendable job.

The result is this: A Green Bay Packers team that has few big name free agents, that makes no effort to go after (or retain) big name free agents, that has a nobody coach who's ineffective... and a very attractive bottom line.

Do you fans, freezing in your jerseys in the cheap seats, want a $20.1 million profit? Or do you want a big-name free agent catching touchdowns?

Then again, it doesn't matter what you want, because you are not a fatcat corporate sponsor, and teams like the Packers and all sports teams pay attention to the corporations, not to you.

As does the NFL, which doesn't listen to you either, and does what it can to promote the teams' courting of the corporations and big-spenders. The NFL has a stake in this: they make stadium loans, and they want franchises to remain profitable so that they don't face movement from one city to another (always controversial) and don't face the ignominy of having to take over a franchise, or, God forbid, fold one. (The WNBA has folded two franchises fairly recently.)

So the NFL does what it can, too, to keep corporations -- not you, corporations -- happy.

One obvious area where the NFL courts corporations, and not you, is in locating the Superbowl. In the whole history of the Superbowl, only three of those games have even been played north of the Mason-Dixon line, and those were in domes in Minneapolis and Detroit. The three Superbowls scheduled for the future are all in warm-weather locations.

If the NFL cared about history and the fans and interesting games, why wouldn't it simply rotate the Superbowl around among stadiums? Why not have a game at historic Lambeau Field and award the Lombardi Trophy... along Lombardi Avenue?

Simple: Corporations don't want to go to cold weather locations to celebrate the Superbowl. They simply won't go there, and the NFL won't schedule them to go there, unless the city makes major concessions. Minneapolis, to get its Superbowl, had to promise to link the Metrodome to the skywalk system it uses, so Corporate Fat Cats wouldn't get chilled walking to the game. (They were going to tear down a historic site to do that.) Indianapolis, in trying to get a Superbowl, promised to fly NFL execs to Florida to play golf that week.

The corporate aversion to cold weather works in more subtle ways, too. Look at the Packer schedule this year, set by the NFL: Green Bay has four home games in November and December -- but only two in December, when the weather can really work to the Packers' advantage. And only one of those is late December. Green Bay has two other cold-weather games, at Chicago and at Pittsburgh, in December, but finishes in a dome against Arizona. No Ice Bowl for you this year, fans.

In Week 14 of the NFL season, there are only three games that could be considered "cold weather" games. Week 15 fares better: 6 of 16 could be considered "cold weather" games, including sending a warm-ish weather team, the 49ers, to Philadelphia. In Week 16, half the schedule is cold weather, but week 17 drops back to 3 cold-weather games. So of the final 64 games, 19 are "cold weather" games -- just over 1/4 of the games the NFL plays in December will be played outdoors in cold weather.

This is from a league that still shows footage of "The Ice Bowl" every year to remind you how great they are, and a league that has eleven teams playing in cities with outdoor stadiums where the weather is frigid this time of year.

There's an even more subtle effect that corporations and big money can have on the game: the timing of games and who plays when. The NFL sets the schedule, determining who plays when (matchups are largely set in advance; the date and time of games is determined by the NFL.) The effect of television and corporate money on those scheduling issues is easy to see. Take the Week 17 schedule, for example. Week 17 is played on Sunday, January 3, 2010. It features, this year, Philadelphia playing Dallas as the only marquee matchup between two teams that could be expected to be vying for a title at that point. The remainder of the games are throwaways, with no big rivalries or highlights to finish up the season. Buffalo, for example, finishes against Indianapolis: Buffalo fans who traditionally have a team that's out of contention long before week 17 will get the low-light of a finishing game playing against a Colts team that will be resting starters and preparing for the playoffs, and the NFL gets a game that nobody can decide was "tampering" with the playoffs.

Why not give Bills fans a game against Miami on the last weekend, so that even if neither team is in contention, the fans get a good rivalry and the fun of seeing Miami come to Buffalo on January 3? Because the corporations wouldn't want it: January 3 isn't going to be a big day for ratings in football, the NFL doesn't want some teams to have big games while other teams are packing it in, and corporations don't want to go to Buffalo in January.

Week 16, the action is hotter, and more lucrative for corporations. The NFL moved the San Francisco-Tennessee game up to Friday the 25th, shorting those teams time to practice (even though both might need a win to remain in playoff contention) in order to up TV ratings by playing games on a Friday. They're not doing that to make fans happy, just as they aren't shortening the practice time for teams by making them play on Thursdays a couple times a year to make the fans happy.

Week 15, the NFL has shortened the practice time for four teams, playing both Thursday and Saturday games (shortening the practice week for those teams in one week means, also, they get more recovery time the next week.) And, looking at the schedule, I noted that Dallas -- with its new stadium -- finishes up at home against Philadelphia. Dallas has, the last few years, stunk in December, so it's possible the NFL decided to keep corporate money happy by making sure that Dallas would have a meaningful game against a major rival in December at home, no matter what.

Disgraced Ref Tim Donaghy was right: The sports leagues are rigged. But not for bettors or the Mafia or to influence the outcome of games, at all. After all, the outcome of games is something only you and I care about.

Instead, the leagues are rigged to make money. That means that fans don't get to watch any more "Ice Bowl" games, don't get to have big name players on their teams, have to watch their team struggle on short practice (as Pittsburgh did against Cleveland this week) and otherwise get jerked around to accommodate the big money that lines the owners' and the league's pockets. College teams buy opponents to come in and play them, NFL teams shortchange the fans and the teams' prospects to improve their bottom line from $288,000 to $20 million, the NFL decides that warm weather is what Gatorade wants so Seattle won't host a Superbowl...

...but, hey, it's all just entertainment, right?

At least, until it stops being entertaining for you.

But maybe then the corporations can buy up all those empty seats and get someone to watch on TV? Sports leagues better hope so.

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