'The Media and Stadium Politics: The Need for the Industry Context'
Charles E. Euchner
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
It follows that no one -- not newspapers, not mayors or governors, not
citizen groups -- can understand the whole team relocation and stadium
issue unless they
understand the peculiar form of monopolism that is professional sports
Let's look at some of the elements of monopolism in professional sports
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
Is it too much to ask mass media to provide, in a compelling way, the
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
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
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
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
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
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.