I am a free market and capitalism advocate; the more society has of these two, the better. I was also a dedicated sports fan for many years, starting at childhood. I use the past tense to describe my sports dedication because I lost my passion for pro sports years ago.
What bled my love for pro sports? The quick answers are free agency creating continual player turnover, organizations constantly moving teams from city to city for more lucrative arrangements, and player branding superseding team performance. In short, profit motive and self-interest.
How can I be an advocate of capitalism and the free market and then lament professional sports being driven by money and individualism? This question confounded me every time I was frustrated to hear about a team abandoning its city for a more lucrative zip code. I felt for the betrayed fans of the team, yet I knew a business’ duty is to pursue a profitable path. Same mixed feelings when a star player hopped from one team to another chasing a bigger contract.
Teams and Leagues Break the Social Contract
But then it dawned on me that professional sports are different than other industries and businesses. Pro sports have a social contract with society.
Leagues are granted a near monopoly, the ability to control wages ala the salary cap, public subsidy for venues, and various exemptions from a host of regulations that the rest of us are subject to. In exchange, the leagues are supposed to agree to take a stakeholder long view, with each team in the league developing roots in the cities and regions where they are situated. Moving and short-termism would only be applied in dire situations where the team was facing insolvency. Pro sports under this compact were a more lucrative, sexier version of a public utility. Sort-of private and at the same time sort-of public works.
The social contract between leagues/teams and their traditional cities/regions has transitioned into a new arrangement between pro sports and big money pools.
The money pools are television/media and booming cities looking to lure teams away from their traditional homes. The transition allowed professional sports to retain all the benefits of the original social contract while being released to commit to the highest bidder.
That isn’t capitalism or a free market. Instead, it’s a public-works model that was commandeered into an oligopoly colluding to maximize its economic rent at the expense of the towns, regions, and fans who paid up front and held up their end of the deal for years. Traditional fans, legacy cities, and taxpayers are getting hosed. The market does not function as a free one but instead functions as a controlled one through the collusion of the few.
Athlete Morphs to Brand
While leagues and teams learned how to break the social contract with legacy cities while keeping its benefits and pursuing more lucrative opportunities, the professional athlete was not sitting idle.
Today’s professional athlete has become a discrete media brand. Performance in the game is now just a means to the end of the star’s ‘platform.’ Touchdowns, three-pointers, home runs, and goals only matter today if they convert into internet clicks and social media followers.
This startling transformation was completed within three generations. Baby boomers grew up idolizing sports when teams and star players didn’t move. Clemente is always a Pirate, Rocket Richard is a perpetual Canadien, Russell is the eternal Celtic, and Jim Brown is forever a Brown. The stability of great players built the brand, image, and culture of players, teams, divisions, and leagues.
Then came the advent of wider-spread free agency and the big money of television in the 1980s and 1990s.
Beloved teams moved from city to city to chase public subsidy and generous handouts. Free agency went from exception to rule, and the star spending an entire career with one team started to become something special. Fan trepidation loomed when a big-name player had a contract expiring and coming up for extension. The stars increasingly engaged in musical chairs: Gretzky left Edmonton for L.A., Montana went from 49er to Chief, Shaq switched the Magic for the Lakers, and so on.
Jerry Seinfeld nailed this era when he quipped that sports fans started rooting for laundry, because players and teams were moving from city to city. Should Nolan Ryan’s plaque show him wearing a Mets, Angels, Astros, or Rangers cap? The 1980s and 1990s saw player and team movement starting to shift fan loyalty from team to player.
There was once a reliable, sequential formula for pro athlete success: the expression of individual talent via the highlight reel and stat sheet, then the championship title, followed by endorsements and bigger contracts. The formula worked for decades, with the exemplar being the career trajectory of Michael Jordan.
That formula no longer applies.
Today’s stars are focused on how many followers they have on social media, not whether their team wins a title. Players and advisors manage playing time and career decisions to maximize brand beyond the field-court-rink. If a player creates tension between individual brand and team when posting something on social media that will attract followers of the player but also draw team critics, today’s athlete looks after #1 and worries about the team later.
The concept of continuity of a team has been undone, so that the modern fan doesn’t associate with teams. Fans now follow an individual athlete, and more so the player’s social media posts than his stats (gambling and fantasy leagues aside). Why be concerned with what laundry the player is wearing this season? The laundry’s logo will surely change before you know it. This is what athletes pursuing their self-interests looks like in 2021.
What’s a Fan to Do?
Feeling unease with the current state of pro sports does not conflict with advocating for free enterprise and capitalism. With the social contract between pro sports and their traditional homes breached, fans are free to pursue enjoyment guilt-free.
Fans have two paths to choose from. One path is to get with the times: stop rooting for team laundry, download the popular social media apps to follow favorite brands (what we used to call players), and replace televised games with internet clips of player highlights, fashion, and skits. The other path is to stop following current sports and instead revisit prior teams, games, and players immortalized in the YouTube time vault. Outside of the Super Bowl or Final Four, sign me up for the latter.