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Dollars Define Decade: Sports Experience Shaped by Finances

By Reid Cherner, USA Today

Dec 24, 2009

As we look back on the decade in sports, it will not be all about the Tigers, Kobes and A-Rods.

When we sum up the past 10 years, it will be all about the Benjamins.

It was Dorothy Parker who wrote, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at all the people he gave it to.”

Certainly, fans will argue over whom the sports gods have blessed since 2000. However, one thing that is clear is how big an impact money had on everything from athletes to coaches to teams to fans themselves — and how they experienced the games.

Stadiums and content networks with seemingly unimaginable accoutrements were built for unimaginable sums and designed to produce unprecedented streams of revenue for companies, owners, players and coaches who became intent upon creating, protecting and promoting corporate, league, team and personal brands.

The ways and means of consuming sports grew exponentially, transforming spectator sports into faux participatory sports and making the games and the people participating in and promoting them endlessly accessible yet increasingly distant and unknowable.

Speak to fans about the decade in sports and money, and the conversation quickly gets to the issue on a consumer, rather than cosmic, level.

Phil Economou, 57, who works for Amtrak in Philadelphia, says this is the “Decade of the Die-Hard Fan.”

But the emphasis is die-hard.

Economou’s 1967 World Series ticket cost $4.50. His tickets to this year’s Series: $225.

“The average blue-collar worker … has absolutely been priced out of being able to go to more than one game, if one game,” Economou says. “Corporate America has really taken over the majority of the seats where the big-market teams play. That is probably why minor league baseball has had such a resurgence, why it’s an exciting place to go, where you can get Dollar Dog Night on a regular basis.”

For Rick Lieberman, 53, a small business owner in Chesapeake, Va., it is “The Decade of Accommodation.”

A guy “who would rather go to a ballgame than eat dinner” has seen rising costs prevent him from getting high-priced tickets.

So to get to five events a month — “the other 25 days I’m watching games on TV” — he’s opened his wallet to Old Dominion football and basketball games as well as minor league hockey and baseball plus high school events.

“I look to the least-expensive sports,” he said. “Going to a (Washington) Redskins game … you can’t even go. It is a money thing, or I’d go to more games.”

Money that fans don’t spend on going to games might go toward paying for high-definition and pay-per-view telecasts, satellite, expanded satellite, digital cable, broadband and/or smart-phone data service.

To view that longstanding prime-time institution, Monday Night Football, fans now have to pay (except in the home markets of the teams participating in a given game). In 2007, the show moved from over-the-air ABC to cable’s ESPN, which parlayed its power of a dual revenue stream — advertising and subscriber fees — into platforms and offerings so vast that it is nearly indispensible to sports fans.

“There continues to be an explosion in media to fulfill the insatiable appetite for sports,” says Kevin Sullivan, the former White House communications director and PR executive for NBC Sports. “How many leagues in 1999 had their own TV network? Only the NBA. The notion that NBC would be live-streaming Sunday Night Football would not have been believed 10 years ago.”

Supersized Stadiums

The notion that a stadium would include a $40 million video board stretching more than 50 yards also would not have been believed. But there it is, amid the grandeur and expanse of the $1.15 billion Cowboys Stadium, into which 100,000 people (or many other stadiums) can fit.

The New York Giants and Jets are doing their best to keep pace, with an 82,500-seat stadium opening in 2010. Amenities will include four 30-by-118-foot HD video display boards in each corner, a 48-inch-by-2,200-foot ribbon board that circles the interior bowl, and more than 2,100 HD monitors.

Baseball in New York, at a combined cost of $2.3 billion, did not take a back seat. The Mets have Citi Field. As for the Yankees, well, the “House That Ruth Built” has been replaced by the “House That Steinbrenner Built” right across the street that includes a historical homage to the old place, including a transfer of monuments and retired numbers.

But not all of the money from these palaces goes to the team owners. In 2000, two of the 30 major league teams had player payrolls in excess of $90 million — the Yankees at $92.9 million and the Los Angeles Dodgers at $90.4 million. This year, 12 teams shelled out more than $90 million, led by the Yankees at $200.45 million and Mets at $149.3 million.

In the salary-capped NFL, four teams had payrolls above $58 million in 2000. By 2008, all but eight of 32 teams were paying more than $100 million in salaries. The Oakland Raiders ($152.4 million) and Dallas ($146.4 million) led the way.

And athletes no longer are just athletes — they are brands. Following in Michael Jordan’s footsteps, Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning, among others, made more money from corporate endorsements than they did in salaries or winnings. Some, such as Chad Ochocinco, spent as much energy developing their brand as they did playing their sport. David Beckham combined the two in a complex, $250 million deal with Major League Soccer and its Los Angeles Galaxy franchise that involves salary, royalties and merchandise.

“They’re thinking: How can we transition from being an accomplished athlete into a superstar?” says Robbie Vorhaus, founder and chief executive of Vorhaus Communications. “How can we transition into a person who’s bigger than life?”

One answer: by communicating less through traditional media outlets and more through personal websites and other social media.

Thrown for Loss by Economy

As the decade came to a close, not everybody was a winner. The larger economic meltdown was even felt in sports, although some less-entrenched leagues and teams were hit hardest. The Houston Comets, winners of the WNBA’s first four titles, closed shop in December 2008. The Arena Football League, founded in 1987, suspended operations in 2009 but hoped to re-emerge in sleeker form in 2010. The LPGA tour has been forced to reduce its number of events.

“I think the economy showed its teeth, and there is a greater differentiation between tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 franchises (within each sport),” says Larry Lucchino, Boston Red Sox president and overseer of the Fenway Sports Group, which has diversified by investing in such sports as bull riding, NASCAR and golf. “There used to be a common valuation. If one team sold for $100 million, the next might sell for $110 (million). Not so with developments in the last 10-15 years.”

Contributing: Seth Livingstone, Michael McCarthy and Tom Pedulla
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