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'The Media and Stadium Politics: The Need for the Industry Context'

Charles E. Euchner

01.22.98

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Edited transcript of keynote speech delivered Jan. 22, 1998, at The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center conference on "Reporting on New Sports Stadiums: Is There a Payoff for the Public?"

Jim Borgman, the editorial cartoonist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, recently diagnosed the newspaper industry's uncanny ability to make exciting and vital subjects seem boring and incomprehensible.

In a cartoon titled "Journalism 101," Borgman offers "tips to guarantee reader disinterestedness."

The first tip is: "Whenever possible, assign mind-numbing catch phrases to issues in the news." The cartoon shows a man getting a Novocain shot in the head as he reads the headlines, "Fast Track Trade" and "Unfunded Federal Mandates."

The second tip: "Report medical news out of context. Randomly run conflicting followups throughout the year." The cartoon shows two identical guys in baseball caps reading newspapers; the headline in one reads "CKRA Prevents Brain Cramps" and the headline in the second paper reads "Except in Balding Twins." And so on.

Sports reporting is supposed to be different. Sports writers, after all, get to talk about the dramatic exploits of Bears and Bulls, Yankees and Rebels, Lightning and Magic, Giants and Vikings. Unlike other reporters, sports journalists actually see their subjects do what makes them notable. Even when the drama is low, sports writers spend so much time with their subjects -- following the routines, the personalities, the internal politics, the raw human emotions of amazing physical specimens playing kids games -- that they can tell stories about an unreal world that teach us much about real life.

Sports journalism offers a unique opportunity for print and broadcast media to teach us about everything that touches sports. Newspapers spill absurd buckets of ink, and broadcasters devote absurd quantities of time, covering the agony and the ecstasy of this one slice of our life as a national community. And readers devour it all. With the growing importance of business and politics in sports, sports journalism offers a unique opportunity to teach us about how the rest of the world works, as well.

The public's interest and knowledge of sports offers a great opportunity to provide instructive journalism that teaches us about business and politics. Regrettably, the media usually fall short in covering the politics and economics of sports. Whoever tries -- sports reporters, local beat reporters, business reporters, and even a new breed of sports business reporters -- usually fails to provide a compelling account of player salaries, national and local broadcasting, corporate sponsors, and the operations of leagues and franchises. Not to mention the biggest sports business story of our time -- the political and economic battles over franchise relocation and the demands of teams for new stadiums and arenas.

It is the stadium question that I want to focus on today. Everybody knows the story. The owner of a sports franchise decides that he wants a new stadium because he wants to make more money. The owner makes public statements about the obsolescence of the existing facility, mourning that he cannot produce a championship for the loyal fans unless he gets extra revenues to lure the sport's best players to town. Government officials respond -- it doesn't matter how, whether it's negatively or positively, because the demand for a new facility has now been made. Consultants for the team produce reports boasting about the incredible economic benefits of teams, the dollars that roll in from outside and multiply throughout the local economy. Skeptics sneer. Negotiations take place. People take sides. Boosters mobilize. A tug of war occurs. Public authorities act. The team stays or moves. The process begins anew.

Media usually focus on three or four key angles to this story:

  • The personalities.
  • The debates over the economic costs and benefits of subsidizing a professional sports team. I should say that this story, once covered poorly, now gets fair treatment.
  • Whether the team needs those subsidies to be competitive in the league. The psychic value of a team for a community.

To these focal points are added some other matters, often at random:

  • Behind-the-scenes accounts of how the deal either succeeded or fell apart.
  • Community reaction to the team and the stadium proposals, usually a debate between the civic-pride argument and the NIMBY ("Not in my back yard") reaction of neighborhoods directly affected by the proposal.
  • An occasional reckoning of how the money could be spent on other things, like schools or parks or public health clinics, and a counter-argument that sports subsidies are different and they cannot be easily transferred to another line on a budget.

The result of all this coverage is curious. On the one hand, sports issues are so potently symbolic that they cannot help but rivet the attention of newspaper readers. Professional sports, alas, is one of the few topics that attracts the constant attention of the public. The personalities can be powerful and even cartoon-like (think of people like George Steinbrenner and Robert Irsay and Al Davis and Paul Allen and Ed DeBartolo and Ted Turner and Wayne Huizenga). And, like all of sports, the whole drama produces clear winners and losers.

On the other hand, the whole sports-stadium drama feels oddly undramatic. The story lines are fragmented. The details of the deals are complex and presented out of context, in a sequence in which the issues at points A, B and C are hard to connect to points D, E and F. Many of the key details get dropped from reporting after one or two articles. The economic issues are complex. Even the colorful personalities seem to get dulled by the process. At the end of the whole controversy, people end up feeling as enlightened as they do after reading one of those arcane articles about an anonymous source's leak of an investigation of the local sewer commission's payoffs to in-laws and associates and dummy firms. MEGO: My Eyes Glaze Over.

The problem can be summed up with one word: context. The reporting of controversies over team location and new stadium proposals is inadequate because it does not create a context that can help people understand the issues.

The most important context is the structure of professional sports as an industry. The leagues differ in their particulars, but baseball, football, basketball and hockey all operate like monopolies. Only Major League Baseball enjoys vast immunity from antitrust laws, but as Mike Barnicle recently wrote in The Boston Globe, about the only thing the National Football League lacks is a nuclear deterrent. All of the major sports leagues control their unique products, squash opponents, force people they do business with into Faustian bargains. They cannot do everything they want to do, when they want to do it, but if they are willing to play hardball, they can manipulate a lot of people and win concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

It follows that no one -- not newspapers, not mayors or governors, not congressmen, not citizen groups -- can understand the whole team relocation and stadium issue unless they understand the peculiar form of monopolism that is professional sports today.

Let's look at some of the elements of monopolism in professional sports today:

  • Territorial exclusivity. Consider how the competitive balance that is so absent in sports today -- and drives up the demands for new stadiums, especially in the so-called "small market" cities -- owes itself to the way that team fortunes are linked to the size of their home market.
  • Supreme reign over television broadcasting. Consider how the big leagues block upstarts from a decent shot at broadcasting contracts.
  • The buyout of critical posture toward the sports business that comes with huge broadcasting agreements. Consider the words of a reporter at the CBS Boston affiliate after news that the NFL would return to the network: "I'm one excited person right now. I have goose bumps. We were hoping against hope it would happen. ... We're ready to roll. It's called being reborn."
  • Lucrative corporate tie-ins. Consider how companies like Nike extend their own monopolism to the leagues, reinforcing both league and corporate hegemony.
  • Collective bargaining agreements that have the effect of binding players' interests to those of the monopoly.
  • Collusion with another hegemonic power, that of intercollegiate athletics.
  • Hegemonic power over minor league systems that develop and feed players to the major leagues -- including the so-called independent leagues.
  • Arcane rules governing the ownership and movement of players. Consider the absurdly rococo arrangements involving the NFL's "franchise players" and Major League Baseball's free agency system, which violate all of the free-enterprise clichés spouted by the owners in their other businesses.
  • Restriction on the number of cities considered "major league." Consider the slow pace of expansion compared with the real demand for teams.
  • A growing number of international agreements that give the leagues exclusive access to player markets, broadcast opportunities and nascent league opportunities. Consider the NFL and NBA's movement into the world market.
  • A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too arrangement between the leagues and teams in which the ability of teams to extract benefits from cities are then used to create industrywide standards reinforced by league offices. Consider that every time a team negotiates a lopsided deal with its host city, the commissioner or league president swoops in to declare it the new industry standard for facilities and leases.
  • Enough wealth to stifle significant court challenges to league dominance. Consider Major League Baseball's settlement of a serious antitrust suit with Vincent Piazza.
  • A growing system of corporate ownership of teams. Consider the ways that people like Ted Turner and other media moguls manipulate their teams for tax, broadcasting, advertising and other purposes -- thereby increasing the entry costs of newcomers inside the league and outside the league.
  • An increasing willingness to allow people to own more than one sports entity. Consider Wayne Huizenga's ownership of the baseball Marlins, football Dolphins and hockey Panthers -- or the growing media and other corporate presence in the owner boxes.
  • A willingness to do whatever it takes to lobby people with power. Consider the late Jack Kent Cooke's all-expenses-paid Super Bowl orgies attended by members of the Cabinet and Congress, judges, media heavyweights and assorted business people and celebrities.
  • Tax advantages. Professional sports holds a unique advantage over other industries because it can depreciate the value of players' salaries over a five-year period. Which explains the growing turnover of team owners and the willingness of the new owners to spend exorbitantly -- driving up the overall costs of doing business for all.

The monopolism of professional sports is the single most compelling factor in stadium politics today. Yet few reporters ever address the issue when teams twist the arms of government and civic leaders to get new stadiums and other benefits.

Let me tell you a story about that. When my book, "Playing the Field," came out, I got hundreds of calls from newspapers, magazines and television and radio stations. They all wanted me to comment on the latest stadium controversy in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Tampa Bay, Edmonton and other cities. I was flattered by the attention, and I wanted to do what I could to explain the larger contest of the story.

In every interview, I stressed the importance of understanding the peculiar nature of the industry in question. Understanding the unique makeup and place of the sports industry, I said over and over, was the single most important factor in understanding stadium politics -- and in thinking about policy responses to it. I usually suggested that the only thing that would alter the dynamics of the city-team relationship was if, through some lawsuit, a federal court acted to bust up organized sports, Ma Bell style. I usually repeated the point, emphasizing the importance of creating competition among leagues where none existed to give cities and fans a better chance to get the product that they sought.

As far as I know, only two publications ever quoted me on this point. They were the Alberta Report and People magazine. The only publications that were willing to look at this larger context were a magazine lost in the tundra of western Canada and a magazine with a cover story titled "How the Stars Fight Fat." That's the legacy of my personal effort to get journalists to place the stadium issue in the larger context of the sports industry. I had better find something else for my tombstone.

Now, I suppose there's only so much we can ask media to do, whether they're covering elections or stadiums or school boards or housing authorities. A society needs other mechanisms to teach itself about the important issues of the day. We need more robust political parties, at all levels. We need more creative and engaged civic organizations. We need more vibrant community organizations. We need better schools and colleges. Media cannot be expected to be the all-wise teachers of every issue that becomes part of the civic agenda. But media should do more. They should get out of their routines, take more chances, get over their Woodward-and-Bernstein scoop mentality, stop thinking about Pulitzers and other awards they give themselves, and work hard to help us to understand a complex world.

Is it too much to ask mass media to provide, in a compelling way, the context for complex stories? I think not. When they are willing to study, get away from the pack and think outside the box of their beats, journalists can do some amazing things.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlanta Constitution have done some great and riveting reporting on the housing-finance industry. The New York Times does a great job placing welfare and technology and education in a larger context -- just to take three issues of interest to me. The High Country News puts western development issues into perspective every week. The Chronicle of Higher Education always seems to create a meaningful context for its stories. A couple years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle did some great articles on parks issues. A few years back, The Nation did an amazing issue on the savings and loan crisis. And, some time back, The Washington Post did some amazing work unraveling a far-reaching scandal called Watergate. I could go on, but my point is that when they want to, journalists can take any subject and make it informative and compelling. I dare you to tell me otherwise.

What it takes is imagination, research, good desk editors who teach their reporters and a desire to get the story more right than anyone else. Contrary to conventional wisdom, technology offers great tools for newspapers to make themselves more relevant. The newspapers provide the tangible everyday product, and electronic technology provides the support. In this age of the Internet, newspapers could make sure that readers have a full archive of every important issue -- complete with statistics, timelines, charts, maps, photos and links to superior interpretive reporting. Most newspapers do provide some archives of their materials, but it's often poorly arranged. And it's only as good as the context of the reporting itself.

I could go on. My point is that context, far from making stories harder for reporters to write and readers to follow, is absolutely basic to journalism -- and good policy. Sportswriters, business reporters and local beat reporters can all do a much better job helping their communities understand even the most complex issues swirling around stadium politics. It requires more than writing one great context piece and then dropping it. It goes beyond putting a nut graf in every article. What is required is a way of covering and writing stories that places every development into the larger context. Along with Who, What, When and Where, it's "How does this all fit in?"

As critical as I have been here today, let me close by saying I love newspapers. I love a good lede, a good photo, a good headline. I like the slang and the puns and the everyday drama and humor, as well as the amazing reports on difficult issues that I see in a whole raft of papers. I would apply what Anna Quindlen said about a good tabloid -- it makes you nudge the person you're with and say, "Hey, get a load of this" -- to all good print and broadcast media.

I think of newspapers and other media the way that Woody Allen described the trials and tribulations of love and life in "Annie Hall:"

There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

The same goes for newspapers. Full of scandal and trivia and clichés and news all out of context, and not enough of it. So give me more, but please provide the context. Make it good, and with the right portions.

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