“The Answer to All Your Questions Is Money”

Why are world class athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and Dustin Johnson playing in clearly inferior leagues when they can still compete at the highest level?

Why is the college football playoff expanding to 12 teams?

Why is the NFL considering hosting the conference championship games in neutral venues?

Why is it becoming increasingly necessary to subscribe to a dozen different streaming services to watch our favorite sports?

Don Ohlmeyer, the late television producer, had a legendary answer when asked why the stakeholders in sports – owners, media companies, players – do the things they do.  “The answer to all your questions is money.”

You’re probably thinking: “No shit, way to be a master of the obvious, Fred.”  It’s been abundantly clear for decades that money drives decisions in sports.  Fans understand and accept that ultimately sports are a business.  Not only have many fans made peace with this notion, despite the occasional, egregious excesses, but they’ve bought into the idea that free market approach to sports overall is a good thing. 

But have we reached a point where it’s time to reconsider our underlying assumptions and attitudes about commerce and sports?  Should we accept the idea that sports really are a business, or are they something different?

Sports always have played a distinct role in our culture, different from a typical business.  From the earliest days of organized competition, sports teams and events were deeply rooted in our communities.  Sports provided much needed entertainment and a healthy, constructive distraction and release of passion for working people who labored long and hard in thankless, and often tedious, jobs. 

Believe me, I’m not so naïve to think sports were “pure” in the past.  Money was a factor in the “good old days” too.  It started the moment the earliest sports entrepreneurs realized what people would pay to watch others compete.

But the scale of it today is on an entirely different level.  Media and tech companies spray fire hoses of money at sports rights holders for exclusive access to broadcast their content.  All this money doesn’t buy more access for fans – quite the opposite.  Thanks to the collapse of the cable ecosystem, largely due to the exponential increase in the cost of sports rights, sports content increasingly is moving to streaming platforms, making it that much harder and more expensive for fans to view.

But the real sea change (and blame) is how owners view their teams and league.  The mega rich billionaires, and even nation states, that run sports today think of their teams as assets to be exploited for growth or, in some cases, to achieve larger geopolitical aims.  Teams are largely monopolistic entities in their communities, in some cases they enjoy government exclusion from anti-trust regulations that other businesses are bound by.  As a result they have virtually no limits on pricing power.  So values that can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet like ensuring broad access, community enrichment and preserving time-tested traditions all take a back seat to maximizing revenue growth and profitability.

The notion that a team is more than just another asset on a balance sheet, but an inextricable part of a community, like a park or cultural center, is considered laughably quaint.  This is not to say there aren’t exceptions among certain owners, but in most cases these values are little more than lip service in a press conference.  In fact, this laissez faire approach to the sports business is so deeply ingrained that suggesting anything to the contrary would be considered an affront to our capitalist sensibilities.

With that in mind I realize what I’m about to say will be deemed blasphemous by many – but Jerry Jones doesn’t really “own” the Cowboys.  Or at least he shouldn’t in the sense that he owns anything else.  The Cowboys belong to the people of Dallas.  The Cowboys are a communal institution just as much, if not more so, than any other of the city’s cherished institutions.  I could say the same thing about Hal Steinbrenner and the Yankees or any other team.

What Jerry, Hal and every other owner should be is a steward of a community enterprise.  A steward is not the same as an owner.  A steward’s mindset puts the needs of the other before the needs of the self. A steward’s job is to protect, preserve, provide access to the institution, not exploit it for material gain.  The operating paradigm for our teams should resemble that of how New York City looks at Central Park or the federal government looks at our national parks – ensuring that they are managed for the collective good of all.

I don’t have all the answers, but at a high level under this type of paradigm fans would have meaningful equity in the teams.  Leagues would be more highly regulated so community and cultural considerations would play a large role in decisions about media rights, ticket prices, stadium investments and potential relocation.  I’m not suggesting that teams shouldn’t seek to generate money, but the pursuit of profit and wealth needs to be better calibrated to the broader good of the community.  Clearly, owners and rights holders have demonstrated that they can’t or won’t do this on their own.

Look, I realize this may sound hopelessly naïve or whiffs too much of socialism for the typical American businessperson.  Nor do I have any illusions that the decisions governments make with our parks and public spaces are always for the collective good. 

But one thing to me seems certain – if we continue down this path sports will cease to be a positive force in our culture.  You can see evidence of it everywhere.  Rather than being a collective good enjoyed by the masses, sports will become irreversibly a tool for the rich, the elite – and not an institution meant to be cherished and enjoyed by the entire community.

I remain a firm believer in the free market economy.  But throughout history we’ve seen repeated examples where power concentrated in the hands of the few leads to a corrosive form of capitalism.  When that happens all of us suffer.  That’s where we are in sports today.  And that’s where we will stay until we find the will to create a new paradigm that makes Ohlmeyer’s maxim about sports and money a thing of the past.

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