Play ball or pay ball?

By

HARD BALL: THE ABUSE OF POWER IN PRO TEAM SPORTS By James Quirk and Rodney Fort Princeton U. Press 256 pp., $22.95

George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees, once stated that his players get paid on the basis of "the number of fannies they put in the seats."

Many would argue that stuffing fans in stadiums and buying the talent to attract them is what drives professional sports.

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Consider: It would take a minimum-wage worker more than six years to make what Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Kevin Brown earns per game ($105 million over seven years).

But that's sports nowadays. Greenbacks and monopolies rule the leagues as never before. In "Hardball: the Abuse of Power in Pro Team Sports," James Quirk and Rodney Fort set out to illustrate how sports have become a cash cow and how to rein it in.

The text peels back the layers of player signings, union demands, and media celebrations that have spiced professional sports in recent years. Such as the story behind Kevin Garnett's six-year contract paying him $126 million or Michael Jordan's impact on the NBA when he walked away to play baseball. Fortune magazine estimated his contribution to NBA revenues during his career at $500 million, and his impact on the economy as a whole at around $10 billion.

The authors also jump feet-first into the scads of detail behind the fleecing and financing of the Seattle Mariners' new field.

A large portion of the text is devoted to players and their contracts. Quirk and Fort contend that players are paid what they are expected to bring the franchise. In other words, teams pay for a player's revenue potential, in addition to how the player will perform in games.

On a philosophical rampage through the world of sports, these two economists call foul on the monopoly power of professional teams and the headlock they hold on the industry. They make a radical economically driven proposal for reorganizing professional sports leagues by introducing more competition into major metropolitan markets. This, they argue, is the best way to control the monopolistic abuses: "The monopoly power of leagues is at the root of essentially every problem that plagues pro-team sports."

While their proposal attempts to combat the oceans of money the league is swimming in, it lacks balance because the authors fail to get the players' or owners' points of view.

Still, the book contains pages of charts that detail everything a nosy fan would want to know: the operating income of NBA and NFL teams, NBA team salary breakdowns, and the average won-lost percentage compared with the average player costs.

But don't expect a breezy read. The book is choked with numbers that would fascinate only the most ardent sports nut, and there are enough statistics wedged in here to make an accountant dizzy.

Still, it's an interesting look into the world of professional athletics. Sports isn't a Pollyanna world, and owners will always look out for their bottom line. But the grand scheme the authors propose, while unlikely to happen, is a fresh perspective on an industry increasingly scrutinized and under fire.

*Lane Hartill is on the Monitor staff.

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