Sports Salaries Soar, Impact On Fans Grows

From the cost of tickets to what children expect.

President Clinton gets paid a salary of $200,000 a year. Juwan Howard, a forward for the Washington Wizards, gets $10 million. Alan Greenspan, steward of the American economy, makes $137,000. Albert Belle, outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, makes $10 million - and wants to renegotiate.

With each passing season, the paycheck comparisons are getting stranger and stranger. From the baseball diamond to the gridiron, players' wallets are bulging. The Forbes Super 40 - the nation's 40 richest jocks - watched their salaries swell by 24 percent last year to an average $17 million per athlete. Since 1983, the average baseball wage has risen by 870 percent, to $1.3 million.

Now, one of the greatest grumbles of sports fans everywhere - salaries - has again become more of a story than the game itself. One-quarter of the pro basketball season has been lost as owners and players squabble over billions in league revenue.

While the escalating economics of athletics - be it players' salaries or owners' profits - is hardly new, there is growing evidence that its effects are becoming more profound on fans and the nature of pro sports itself.

"The escalating salaries in professional sports today is absolutely the biggest problem that all of the four major leagues [basketball, baseball, hockey, and football] face in terms of their ability to thrive in the next millennium," says Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketer. "There is nothing that is even a close second."

In addition to labor strikes, a host of other problems - both obvious and subtle - can arise from increasing salaries, experts say.

Mr. Bonham worries that owners, faced with an increasing payroll, will make the fans pay for it. "My concern is that after communities spend billions on a team, the fans will have to watch the games on pay-per-view," he says. "So long as the owners' focus is not on controlling costs, they will continue to look for other revenue streams."

Huge contracts for premier athletes are also skewing the expectations of children, particularly in the inner city. A recent survey in Boston found that 66 percent of African-American males in the seventh and eighth grades are sure they will play pro sports. "Kids hear these salaries and they don't want to do a normal job," says Art Taylor, a professor at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "The effect of these salaries on kids is terrible."

The high salaries in the NBA have already given the league an image problem. In July, the National Basketball Association (NBA) locked out their players in an effort to scale back salaries that are larger than many industrial corporations' total revenues. But the talks have seemingly stalled, and no further negotiations are scheduled anytime soon.

The NBA's quandary

To be sure, the issue is not one faced only by the NBA. Mike Piazza of the New York Mets baseball club recently signed a record seven-year, $91 million contract. (That's $82,000 per game.)

But the salary explosion is especially acute in the NBA, because the teams have fewer players, and can therefore pay each more money. Last year, Michael (do we need to say Jordan?) took home a whopping $31.3 million (not to mention another $47 million in endorsements). According to Forbes, Jordan has made $300 million since 1990 in salary and endorsements. And, he's not alone - last year, three hoopsters inked multiyear deals worth more than $100 million each.

The soaring salaries are the result of lucrative television deals. NBC and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the NBA $2.6 billion through the year 2002. That's up from $1.1 billion in its prior four-year deal. The same is true for football, where TV revenues are up $800 million.

TV competition

Behind the big TV deals is cutthroat competition. The networks, with stagnant sports ratings, had resisted paying more. Then, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network entered the picture. "Fox said we'll pay more than it's worth to get in the door," says Scott Branvold, an associate professor in sports management at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.

This year, the extra money helped kick up salaries in the NFL, where the average salary is now close to a $1 million per player. However, the NFL has survived the wage inflation better because it has a hard cap on how much salary a team can pay.

Through their union, the basketball players have resisted the same kind of agreement. In their last contract, the owners agreed to pay the players no more than 52 percent of their revenue. Last year, NBA salaries hit 57 percent of revenues. Now, the owners want to tighten up the loopholes and limit the players' salaries to 50 percent of revenues.

But the players are distrustful of the owners. They simply want the owners to spread the wealth that they believe is there. If the money actually is there, however, is open to debate. "It's really hard to tell if they are losing money or making money," says Dennis Wilson, an assistant professor in the Sports Management Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Now, the sulking millionaire players and owners are further turning off fans. The United Sports Fans of America, based in Boca Raton, Florida, says its soapbox on its web site (www.usfans.com) is filled with comments from irate fans. "The real basketball fans are getting antsy and militant," says Frank Stadulis, the head of the 11,000 member group. "They are saying let's strike the NBA, let's boycott it, it's getting ugly."

The NBA says it's aware that it could get the cold shoulder from the fans once it settles. It took baseball nearly three years to win back viewers after the 1994 strike. "We know we will have to try to win them back once this thing is over," says Chris Brienza, a spokesman for the NBA.

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