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Friday, September 22, 2006

Compelling Unsuccessful Owners to Sell a Team

Bear with me here.

Suppose you live in a town where your team has lost more than it's won for more than ten years in a row. Suppose that during this time the same ownership group has owned the team for seven years. It's a fact that the four major sports leagues have a monopoly on the sport in your town. In any other business, if you have seven bad years in a row you're probably out of business and the management team is gone, most likely long gone. In baseball, basketball, football and hockey that doesn't happen.

Al Davis continues to run the Oakland Raiders into the ground.

The Pirates have had, what, 14 straight losing seasons (and the same ownership group has owned them for more than five years, I believe).

David Glass hasn't done anything to help the Kansas City Royals' fortunes.

Up until recently, Donald Sterling made the L.A. Clippers the laughingstock of the National Basketball Association.

I'm sure that there are other examples.

The point is that the local fans are stuck. There was a great debate last week on ESPN Radio about the walkout that 1000 fans staged at Camden Yards last week to protest Peter Angelos' ownership of the Baltimore Orioles. If you know anything about Baltimore, you know it's a great baseball town. Its stadium is terrific, and its history from the 60's to the 80's was rich. Since the late 1980's, though, Baltimore fans haven't had much to cheer about.

So the fans staged their walkout. Peter Angelos, a pugnacious lawyer (and, no, that's not redundant), chastised them for their behavior, claiming that they didn't know what they were talking about and that they were dissing the players on the field (query whether, if asked privately, the players would have agreed with them about Angelos' ownership of the team). The bottom line, as Angelos should know, is that the figures don't lie. The great thing about sports is that the won-lost record is the final metric as to whether you've had a good season. And how many consecutive losing seasons have the Orioles had? Nine, to be exact.

Mike Greenberg thought the gesture was eloquent, but in the end he agreed with Mike Golic that the walkout would have no effect. The fans really aren't going to turn their backs on baseball. Sure, some will, as there are many who won't support a perpetual loser. Fair enough. But for the rest of us who don't want to throw out the experience of sharing a great game through the generations of our families, we're stuck. Sure, we could switch allegiance to an out-of-town team, but it's not easy to travel hundreds of miles to a game and it's not a guarantee that you'll be able to get tickets. Put simply, you're stuck with the bad ownership for as long as they decide to own the team. You'll go to the games because you like the sport and because the opposing team might have some good players, but you're experience will be a relatively numb one.

And that's just plain unfair. I won't argue the merits of whether pro sports are a "business" according to the U.S. Supreme Court and, as a result, deserve the protections they get as monopolies, but I will argue to the Lords of Sports the point of fundamental fairness -- it just isn't fair to Royals' fans or Raiders' fans or even Phillies' fans (the last 2 seasons and 1993 notwithstanding, as the past 22 years under the current ownership has been a painful experience for the most part) that they have to suffer with unsuccessful ownership for years on end. The fans should have some say, shouldn't they? Or, if they shouldn't have those rights, shouldn't the sport as a whole have some say so as to police its trademark and the quality of the game? Shouldn't they say to Kansas City, "hey, you've had your shot, ownership, but now it's time to sell the team. Auction it off, get New York investment bankers in a bidding war for a new toy, sell it for hundreds of millions, but sell it and let someone else try to run the team. Someone who, as a qualified bidder, will agree to increase the team's payroll well past the Florida Marlins' "Loria" line of $15 million to the average of the league within three years of owning the team. Someone who will have to sell the team if they don't have a certain amount of winning seasons over a certain period of time.

That rule, in and of itself, will make all pro sports leagues more competitive and give the loyal fans in some towns with historical doormats some hope. Royals' fans who so loyally supported George Brett and Company deserve better, as do Raiders' fans who recall a time when no one wanted to face Ken Stabler, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Pirates' fans deserve a return to the days of Pops Stargell and Dave Parker at some point, don't they? The pro leagues all have their pockets of perennial losers. And, yes, now the Baltimore Orioles fit that bill.

Sorry, Mr. Angelos, but your team has had nine losing seasons in a row. Clearly, the genius you have shown in winning lawsuits has not translated to the baseball diamond. There's no great shame in that. You entered the arena, did the best you think you could have, but you did not succeed. Many don't. But unlike the real world, where businesses that can't turn a profit end up getting acquired or shuttered, you can continue on with your exclusive license, charge more than five bucks for a beer and throw out a pitching staff more ready for a beer league than the Major Leagues.

And get away with it.

That's just not right.

The fans of Baltimore, Oakland, Kansas City and all of professional sports deserve better. All organized leagues should adopt a "call" rule that enables them to require a franchise's ownership group to put the team up for sale if minimum requirements for success are not met. America is the great meritocracy, so if these are our great American games, they have to compete on a fair business playing field that enables the consumer to have a chance at seeing a winner. Putting in this "call" rule will ensure loyal fans that they will actually have a chance to root for a winner.

Is there anything wrong with that?

There are little boys and girls in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Kansas City who have grown up and are growing up watching bad teams. Don't try to buy them off with the fact that at least they get to see the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, A's, etc. come to town, and they should be satisfied with that. Who is satisfied with that? Who likes rooting for a team with no hope? It's just not right.

I watch my local team, the Phillies, with excitement these days. Last night they lost a compelling game to the Astros, a game between two teams fighting for playoff spots. There was a sellout crowd, and the fans hung on every pitch. The hometown nine lost, but the game was a great one. It was a great feeling to be able to watch a game that meant something on September 25 for only the second time in the past 20 years (and the second time in the past two years). Too infrequent, of course, but fun last night (and, yes, I still believe that the best thing the current ownership group could do is sell the team, because they would have been out of business and jobs years ago if the market in which they compete is truly competitive). Everyone should have that feeling -- or at least the chance to have that feeling.

Walkouts like the one the Orioles' fans staged are noble but won't achieve the goal of having current ownership sell the team. But they should send a message to professional sports leagues that they should not tolerate bad ownership groups who are not committed to fielding winners.

It's time for a change.


Blogger ButteAmerica said...

In MLB's case, Congress should revoke the exemtion from the Sherman Act that is enjoyed by baseball's owners. The other leagues? not sure about them, but I agree: Losing teams should be sold if their owners can't(or aren't willing) turn it around.

4:16 PM  

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