What do people want from sports? Just ask them in 2000 and 2009
By Evan Weiner
April 26, 2009
(New York, NY) As an opinion writer whose words are analyzed in college sports business management classrooms across the United States and as a lecturer who has represented his country as part of a State Department imitative at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A and M in College Station, Texas in August 2007 on how the business of sports operates in America to 16 foreign nationals from Canada, Venezuela, Turkey, Nigeria, Russia and Indonesia along with four Americans and as someone who speaks globally, it is incumbent upon me to review my thoughts on a constant basis. Do I need to review my opinions, do they stand up after all of these years? How many times have I been wrong and when do I admit it? It all goes into being a diligent observer.
There is a lot of noise coming from the sports columnist community about the ticket and concession costs at the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Apparently many of these writers along with the chatter from sports talk radio have woken up to the fact that sports is a business and a costly one at that. My advice back in January 2000 was the sports writers, commentators and other reporters needed to leave the protective cocoon of sports media and talk to real people with real lives about sports. That didn't happen and now the scribes and the noisemakers are beginning to take notice of a trend that has been part of the industry for nearly a quarter of a century.
Sports costs are been rising for years and someone needed to pay for it. The well heeled started buying luxury boxes and club seats in the 1960s and the blue collar fan was pushed into the "Bob Uecker seats" or moved farther away from the court, the gridiron, the diamond or the rink. Cable TV operators and sports owners cut large deals giving owners millions in the 1970s and that proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s. Cable TV took sports off of over-the-air TV because cable TV was paid in two ways, subscriber fees and advertising. Over-the-air TV stations got money from just sponsors. The "real" fans started watching more games on TV instead of attending games which were becoming more and more expensive. They were replaced by customers, the corporates looking for a good time out.
Back in January 2000, the three legged stool of financial support for sports, government paying for stadium/arena facilities, large cable TV contracts and selling tickets to corporate buyers who could write the cost of ever increasing ticket costs had taken hold. But in 2000, that formula was 14 years old. Sportswriters, sports columnists, and the noise crowd from sports talk radio never looked at how federal legislation had changed sports right before their collective eyes.
Nor did fans. Or did they?
Back on January 24, 2000, this was my op ed in the Sports Business Journal. It seems sportswriters, sports columnists and the noise community blasting out of AM radio and maybe a few FMs and satellite radio has finally caught up to the fans after seeing the new Yankee Stadium. It may be a little late though for them in looking back at the January 24, 2000 piece I penned.
"What do people want from sports today? As someone who gives speeches and lectures about the business and politics of sports before college kids, young adults, middle-aged adults and senior citizens, I ask that question. The answers from across the board are generally the same.
People want good entertainment value for their money but feel cheated today.
The No. 1 complaint is the cost of tickets and how expensive it is for a family to see a major league contest. Second, those who have attended my speeches say there is too much inconvenience in physically attending games.
People don't like the loud, continuous music and the fact that team owners think a game experience should include ear-splitting music, sideshows and boorish actions by fans that in theory give a hometown team an edge. In fact, people have told me after my speeches that games are supposed to be a leisurely activity and for the most part have become hard to attend for numerous reasons.
People 35 and older don't like the fact that they cannot discuss any aspect of a game during any dead moment because some programmer has turned up some heavy metal song to the noise level of a jet taking off at an airport.
People don't like the boorish behavior of young people who seem to use the excuse of going to a sporting event to get drunk and spit out mean-spirited, foul-mouthed obscenities or start fights with others.
Others don't like all the sideshow aspects connected with the presentation of the game because it interferes with their intent of watching a baseball, football, basketball, hockey or soccer game. That includes shooting T-shirts into a crowd where people jump over one another for a chance at getting one of those prized garments. That includes people dressed in sumo wrestler suits fighting at center ice between periods at hockey games.
People don't mind seeing kid hockey players having a mini game between periods at hockey games or Punt, Pass and Kick contests at halftime of football games. That's not artificial entertainment. People don't like the ersatz quality of most sideshow promotions that teams run today.
People do tell me boxing and track and field offer events to watch without the sideshow. Even though boxing is a sideshow in itself with its bikini- or swimsuit-clad card women, still, the action in the ring is the thing.
Some people are very interested in how their taxes go to support stadiums and arenas and how the general public is left out of the public financing debate for athletic venues.
There are a few hecklers here and there who tell me I don't know what I am talking about. That's fine. They are entitled to their opinion as long as I am entitled to mine. And I don't mind the hecklers as long as they realize I get paid and they don't.
College-aged people accept sports as a business these days with grievances, threats of franchise relocation, strikes and lockouts as parts of the sports landscape. They aren't bothered by the turmoil because they don't know anything else. Some of them weren't even born when baseball shut down during the 1981 player walkout.
People 35 and older are resentful of the high salaries and the business aspect of the sports industry.
I do get a cross-section of people in my audiences, some sports fans and some not. The non-sports fans seem to have the most curiosity about the business and politics of sports. They don't go to the game yet are paying for it through government financing of arenas and stadiums.
In downstate New York, people wonder why their taxes go to upstate New York for minor league venues in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton and Albany. People in Michigan wonder why, when they went to Seattle, Tampa, Miami and Texas, they paid extra car rental and hotel/motel and restaurant taxes for venues that they probably will never use.
(Former Baseball Commissioner) Peter Ueberroth once told me never to underestimate the intelligence of the public. I think sports operators should forget about focus and research groups and head to a library, a local Y, a senior citizens home or a college and give a talk. They might be surprised by some of the feedback they get and might listen to people who are not screened and eliminated by some focus coordinator. They actually could learn something from the average person — who might really be a paying customer."
Those 35 year olds back in 2000 are now 44 and older. They have become more detached from sports in terms of watching live events because it costs too much money and with big screen TVs with High Definition capabilities, they get a better view of the game.
Meanwhile, local and state governments are on the hook for billions for facilities which local officials promised would bring jobs and serve as economic engines. Stadiums and arenas have done neither, just ask those in Cleveland and Seattle to name two cities.
In Europe, I learned that Liverpool football fans were frightened with the prospect of American sports owners Thomas O. Hicks and George Gillett turning the Liverpool Football Club into some sort of a American business complete with a new stadium and higher ticket prices which would create a consumer base of just very well off fans who would attend matches. The construction of the new stadium has been delayed because of the global recession.
Sportswriters, those who still have jobs, are producing prose that includes how Yankee Stadium is promoting a caste system of fans. My advice to those writers, review what you have been writing about for years and figure out where you went wrong in your coverage. The caste system was created in 1965 by Houston Astros owner Roy Hofheinz with the opening of the then so-called "Eighth Wonder of the World," the Houston Astrodome that came complete with sky boxes which separated the rich of the blue collar fans. Of course to be technically correct, the Roman Colosseum also had a caste system when it opened in 80 AD.
The concerns of January 2000 by sports fans haven't changed. It appears the "we want customers not fans" mentality is here to stay with the mantra of we need customers to support the high costs of sports. The recession is now hitting the sports world, it seems that for those who claim to be the moral guardians of the game, the sports media, they were just as asleep at the wheel as sports costs soared as they were doing the so-called baseball steroid era. They failed to keep up with their readers, listeners and viewers who knew that sports was no longer live entertainment for everyone anymore.