THE sky-high salaries commanded by professional athletes are paid, ultimately, by the fans. They attend the games or watch them on television - network, cable, or pay-per-view. So if fans are disgusted by the inflated paychecks of mediocre free agents, the near impossibility of getting a Super Bowl ticket, or by other excesses or abuses in today's sports scene, at least they have some leverage.
That's the view held by a few activists who want to organize fans so that their complaints can be heard. One such activist is Henry Schaefer of Huntington, N.Y. Mr. Schaefer was jarred out of his easy chair in 1988 when the local cable system, run by the giant Cablevision Systems Corp., dropped the Madison Square Garden Network, which carried his beloved New York Rangers' hockey games.
Schaefer, a self-described "unemployed salesman," rallied fellow Ranger fans. After a year of public meetings and demonstrations, Cablevision restored the games. Warning on pay-per-view
"Every time you order pay-per-view, you increase its success and ensure it will happen again," he warns.
In Schaefer's view, players' million-dollar salaries are made possible by the media revenue raked in by the teams, and such salaries can be sustained only by tapping new sources of money. That means cable TV and pay-per-view. Under the latter system, cable subscribers pay a surcharge to watch a particular event or series - from $4.95 for a Cincinnati Reds game, to $19.95 for a Chicago Blackhawks playoff game at home.
One of the best-known pay-per-view ventures was last summer's "Olympics Triplecast" by NBC. It failed badly, because most viewers refused to pay a premium for something they could get a large helping of on network TV. Schaefer says that was "fan power" in action. If people are tired of the money spiral in sports, Schaefer argues, they can simply "vote" by not spending their money on something they ought to be able to see on regular television. Schaefer's group, New Yorkers for Fair Cable, also worked to pass the Cable-TV reregulation act over President Bush's veto.
The end of pro baseball's billion-dollar contract with CBS after the '93 season, he warns, could open the way for a flood of new cable and pay-per-view deals.
That concern is shared by Gary Frank, a lawyer who heads Television Viewers of America, based in Washington. He predicts a "migration of free sports to pay-per-view," given club owners' need to recoup huge outlays for player salaries. He, like Schaefer, hopes for a fan revolt. His organization has a dues-paying membership of fewer than 1,000 at present.
The call for public activism is echoed by another New York group, Sports Fans United. One of the co-founders of this fledgling organization, Adam Koltan, lists access to sports events, decisions on new stadiums, and decisions to move teams as issues that affect fans, though fans have little say about them. Player-fan ties distorted
Multimillion-dollar salaries concern him too, he says, mainly because they distort the relationship between players and fans. Look how angry fans get when highly paid athletes - such as New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing - don't perform well.
But Koltan and Schaefer say they can hardly blame players for getting the best deal they can. And the biggest names get plush deals, indeed. Players like Barry Bonds, who signed a $43.75 million, six-year contract with the San Francisco Giants, draw that kind of pay because teams see them as virtual money-making machines. When a team's performance is boosted by a slugger, not only ticket sales, but also all the revenue associated with a stadium - souvenir sales, even parking fees - goes up. An extra 2,00 0 fans or so a game can generate millions more dollars each year.
Star players also increase the revenue from their teams' share of receipts from road appearances, says King Banaian, who teaches a course in the economics of sports at Pitzer College in Pomona, Calif. In the National Basketball Association, which has a more liberal plan for sharing profits among clubs than baseball does, a player like Michael Jordan hikes earnings everywhere.
Still, star salaries stir concerns in the board rooms and locker rooms of professional teams as well as among some fans. According to Professor Banaian, the move toward salary caps in pro sports is driven by two factors:
1. The apprehension that teams in cities with smaller media markets won't be able to keep their best players.
2. The growing gap in pay between superstars and other players. Some worry that a caste system could develop, at the expense of team cohesiveness. Salaries can go down, too
As recent major league baseball free-agent and salary-arbitration dealings have shown, player salaries can go down as well as up. Former Boston Red Sox star Ellis Burks, for instance, will drop from $2.3 million to $500,000 this year when he puts on a Chicago White Sox uniform. And he has plenty of company. The smallest major-league salary last year was $109,000, a distinction shared by at least 19 big-leaguers. Richard Ravitz, the baseball owners' chief labor negotiator, has estimated that 13 percent of
the ballplayers will earn 50 percent of the total payroll.
Of course, even the lower levels of pay in pro sports are lordly by most people's standards. The media-fed wealth in athletics is affecting not only the economics of professional team sports but athletes' approach to their games as well, says John Callaghan, a sports psychologist at the University of Southern California. What he calls the "intrinsic" motivation in sports - the pleasure of playing for its own sake - is being pushed aside by the the lure of money. He sees this happening at both the profess ional and collegiate level.
The next generation of paying sports fans may be most affected by the jockeying for money evident today, says Dr. Callaghan. "Kids can't understand it when a guy they've idolized suddenly drifts off to another side of the country," he observes, describing his own children's disappointment when California Angels star pitcher Jim Abbott turned down a four-year, $16-million offer from the Angels and was traded to the Yankees.
Henry Schaefer would sympathize with Callaghan's children. He says he'd love to be able to educate kids about the "system" in professional sports today so that they could become informed fans who could make their feelings known. "You give me a million dollars and get out of the way," he jokes.