When Will Fans Revolt Against High Prices?
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 06, 2006

HOW MUCH is enough for owners and players? How much longer will fans put up with rising ticket prices before they rebel? These are a couple of the questions that raced across my mind as I read about the dispute between NFL owners and the Players Association over the extension of their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

We commonly equate the various Player Associations in sports with unions, but they are unlike any other unions. I know from experience, having been a member of the SFO Newspaper Guild (now re-named the SFO Media Workers Guild) since I came to The Chronicle in April, 1963. I am still a member, in the retired category, because I appreciate what the union has done for me and my colleagues.

But my union has negotiated basic working conditions and a basic salary scale for employes. In our case, the scale is for six years; those with special abilities can negotiate “merit raises” beyond that. There has never been any need to negotiate free agency because we have always had the freedom to leave any time we got a better offer. Strangely, there has never been the demand for newspapermen that there is for an offensive tackle who can protect the quarterback’s blind side.

In the dark days of pro football, in the ‘70s, Ed Garvey, then the executive director of the NFL Players Association, tried to negotiate a contract with owners which would have wage scales for players, much like a regular union. The owners, who had control of the game at that point, called Garvey a Communist.

It took work stoppages and decertification of the Players Association (not to mention the fear that other owners had that then 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo’s free-spending ways would drive up player salaries to the breaking point) to get an agreement between players and owners that provided for both a maximum and minimum salary cap, the latter a bone for the players because some teams had low payrolls, especially Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.

That agreement produced a system that is quite unlike what Garvey proposed and quite unlike any other union. Free agency after four years has produced unprecedented salaries for the most sought-after players, but it has also caused veteran players in the mid-range to lose their jobs, because teams have signed players at the bottom of the salary scale to be able to fit the stars in under the cap. The on-field result has not always been pretty. All those delay of game penalties, false starts and early use of timeouts are traceable to the fact that it’s hard to put together a team that will stay together for a considerable period of time.

Frankly, I think it would make more sense to try to phase in the type of structure Garvey envisioned, but PA executive director Gene Upshaw would face an open rebellion if he tried that. So, he’s trying to negotiate more total money for the players, which really means even more money for the players with top contracts. The Raiders may even be able to keep Kerry Collins, God help us.

THE OWNERS are no better.

One of the sticking points in the NFL discussions is how much revenue from new stadiums will be included in the revenue-sharing. Upshaw, to his credit, is concerned that the rich will get richer, creating the kind of economic disparity that exists in baseball.

Though teams are supposed to be sharing revenue – and they do in the most significant revenue source, television rights – they do not share equally in gate receipts because revenue from luxury suites and club seats is excluded from the general revenue totals. That obviously benefits owners who have built new stadiums. The argument by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that owners have put their own money into new stadiums and deserve to reap the benefits is a specious one, because those owners have already benefited from big rises in the value of their teams. Tagliabue’s real reason for excluding the extra revenues produced by new stadiums is his desire to see every team with a new stadium. The perpetually-stalled stadium plans for the 49ers must cause him to gnash his teeth daily.

Of course, the greed of the NFL owners pales in comparison to baseball owners like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner and the Red Sox’s John Henry.

Steinbrenner has led the charge, though everything he’s said has been echoed by Henry, calling baseball’s current revenue-sharing a “socialist” plan that rewards those who don’t operate their franchises efficiently.

There should be one significant change in the current plan: Teams which receive revenue from the plan should be required to put that into payroll, instead of their pockets.

But, don’t ever feel sorry for the Yankees and Red Sox. They have their own cable networks which bring in tremendous revenues – in Steinbrenner’s case, more than the total revenues for some teams – and that isn’t even considered in their total revenue, so they don’t have to make revenue-sharing payments from that. Steinbrenner still makes a sizeable profit, even with his oversized payroll, but it’s not enough for him.

THE FINAL FACTOR in this equation is the fans and, frankly, I’m surprised at what’s happening with them.

Thirty years ago, I was writing that teams would price themselves out of the market. Not one of my most accurate predictions. Driven by the greed of players and owners alike, ticket prices have gone through the roof. I still hear from people who have been priced out of the market, but attendance – and profits – have gone up in all sports.

Many of these fans are not the committed fans of earlier times, so team attendances can rise or fall dramatically, depending on a team’s success. Still, overall, the sports of football, baseball and basketball are all in good shape.

I still think fans will eventually rebel against the high ticket prices. I’m not going to predict when, but I think both NFL players and owners should be thinking about that as they debate who gets the biggest slice of their pie.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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