Trying to limit out-of-the-ballpark salaries in professional sports
Wealth doesn't weigh heavily on Dave Winfield's broad shoulders. ''I live well - like I'm probably entitled to,'' he says pleasantly. A New York Yankee outfielder of considerable talent, Mr. Winfield is sipping a soft drink amid the din of the visitors' clubhouse before a game at Boston's Fenway Park. He is reflecting on the high salaries paid to professional athletes - a trend that has made him and a growing number of other sports pros very comfortable financially.Skip to next paragraph
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''The sport can handle it,'' he says. ''There is extra money in the game. It's just a matter of how they allocate the money and what they want the individual to do to earn that money.''
The issue of high salaries in professional sports is likely to get fresh attention as the National Basketball Association (NBA) holds its collegiate draft today. After the process ends, the roster of millionaire athletes will almost certainly increase by one. The Houston Rockets will claim 7-foot, 4-inch University of Virginia center Ralph Sampson on the first pick of the draft. Conventional wisdom is that it will take as much as $1.5 million to sign him to a contract.
Salaries of those proportions used to be the exclusive preserve of movie stars and captains of industry. No longer. Now those who can run, jump, throw, catch, or hit better than their peers can command what is known in the business world as ''serious money.''
Noted Boston sports attorney Bob Woolf, who has negotiated 1,800 contracts for athletes, says, ''As ridiculous as [salaries] seem now, they're going to go higher.''
Adds Upton Bell, one of the nation's best-known radio sports talk-show hosts and a former pro football executive: ''The situation will not stop until the same thing hits sports that hit the auto industry.
''Our entertainment demands are highest during times of stress,'' he maintains, referring to such ordeals as the Vietnam war and the recent recession. ''And the less we have to do, the more we're going to watch.''
The battle for viewers (and advertising) between network and cable television is expected to enrich professional sports for years to come - providing teams with added capital to invest in players.
Last year the National Football League (NFL) accepted a five-year, $2 billion contract with the three major commercial TV networks. Because of the pact, each of the league's teams will automatically receive $13 million a year. This spring , major-league baseball approved a six-year, $1.1 billion deal with ABC and NBC beginning in 1984 - over and above the value of local TV and radio contracts.
Cable TV's growth has been uneven so far. But by the National Cable Television Association's projections it will increase from 32 million US households now - or 38 percent of all TV households - to 55 million (or 58 percent of projected TV households) by 1990. Already cable companies are involved in the ownership of professional teams, notably baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves.
To the dismay of many fans and nonfans alike, meanwhile, the cavernous salary gap between those who play sports for a living and those in more conventional occupations is growing wider.
Whereas a public-school teacher or police officer may not hope to earn more than $30,000 a year:
* Winfield, of the Yankees, has a 10-year contract with the team worth an estimated $25 million - he claims the actual value ''is much greater than has been published'' - and says: ''I would hope I'd be making double what I'm making now by the time I finish the game.''
* Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the object of a bidding war among NBA teams that will likely push him into the $2 million-a-year bracket. Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird also is a candidate for a $2 million-a-year contract.
Even at that level, they wouldn't be as highly paid as Moses Malone, who recently led the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1982-83 season NBA championship. Mr. Malone accepted a six-year, $13 million offer from the 76ers last fall. Not counting his share of the playoff money, he earned an estimated $2.97 million in salary and bonuses for the season just ended.