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.

''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.

* Running back Herschel Walker left college in his junior year last winter to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League (USFL) at a reported $4.8 million for three years.

* John Elway, the All-America quarterback from Stanford University, last month agreed to a $1 million-a-year contract with the Denver Broncos of the NFL - a league record.

The inflated salary structure even applies to head coaches and field managers , once expected to work for modest salaries while trying to coax championship performances out of their higher-priced athletes. Billy Cunningham of the Philadelphia 76ers has just agreed to a new contract that will pay him an estimated $400,000 a year.

''There will always be a great imbalance [between athletes' salaries and those in other occupations],'' says Upton Bell. ''For as many people who might be jealous, there are just as many who say, 'Hey, more power to 'em!' ''

Recently a Boston newspaper polled readers on the merits of paying the Celtics' Bird what he wants. Respondents spiced their replies with such comments as, ''Nobody is worth $2 million,'' and ''$2 million equals 40 teachers at $50, 000 per year.'' But 85 percent of them wished to see Bird remain in a Celtics uniform even at that price.

Says Herb Escot of the Center for Sport and Social Issues at Northeastern University in Boston: ''All of the teams' assets are players. Take away the players and what have you got? A few desks. They're simply taking their revenues and distributing them among their assets.''

What these salaries have wrought, however, is a subject of endless controversy. Huge contracts are no guarantee of success on the field or court. And when teams fail to perform as expected, fans often turn on the owners and the owners sometimes turn on their own players.

Baseball players have declined the opportunity to play for the prestigious New York Yankees because of owner George Steinbrenner's reputation for criticizing his employees in public for not winning.

There also appears to be substantiation for the claim that many highly paid athletes pamper themselves at the first sign of illness or injury. Ken Lehn, an economist at the Washington University School of Business in St. Louis, recently found a 165 percent increase in the number of days that major-league baseball players spent on the disabled list after signing contracts that guaranteed their salaries whether they played or not. Using 1980 as the base season, Dr. Lehn found that players with at least three years remaining on their contracts averaged 79 percent more time on the disabled list than those with one or two years left.

Some attempts are being made to come to grips with the spiraling salaries. Beginning with the 1984 season, most NBA teams will be bound by a $3.6 million total payroll cap, in agreement with the league players' union. Thus, if a team owner agrees to pay one player, say, $2 million, the remaining 10 players on his roster will have to divide $1.6 million.

The cap increases to $4 million for 1986, when the agreement expires. Teams already over the limit may remain over, but may not sign free agents or trade for additional players who would increase their payrolls.

At the same time, however, efforts to control the increase in NFL player salaries may have been handed a setback: Players there have been given increased bargaining power by the USFL, nearing the end of its moderately successful first season. Previously they only had the NFL or the lower-prestige Canadian Football League to deal with.

Under its new league contract, the NFL Players Association is putting together a complete file of copies of individual contracts through the 1988 season. The data are being shared with every player, along with a detailed analysis of salary trends. It is, boasts the players association, something no team general manager has comparable access to.

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