profit-masters of sport: dave zirin’s bad sports

Worried about the impending NFL lock-out that lies unresolved amidst the uber media-hype leading up to Super Bowl Sunday? Tired of millionaire athletes wanting more money, and billionaire owners refusing to budge an inch?

Here’s my review of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, Dave Zirin’s thorough breakdown of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about professional sports ownership, but are (rightfully) afraid to ask.

My review in the current issue of the International Socialist Review, though not on their website.


Cage-dancing cheerleaders. Beer you can buy in the bathroom. Stadium security guards who prevent fans from leaving their seats during the Seventh Inning Stretch. American flags branded by Lockheed Martin that are handed out at the ballpark in celebration of July 4th. A 73-year-old grandmother and lifetime season-ticket holder who is sued by the team she adores. Welcome to the world of sports, early 21st-century style. We’ve come a long way since the naive, simple-minded days of Dr. James Naismith and Abner Doubleday. 

It’s not easy to be a sports fan these days. In addition to navigating your way through the ridiculousness listed above, there are still the rising ticket prices, the overly mediated ESPN experience, and the constant threat that at any moment, the team you love, that you’ve outfitted yourself in, whose fandom was your birthright, could pack up and move. Or worse, the owners could decide they need a brand-new multi-million dollar stadium, which they won’t pay for.

Who are these people, who so effectively play on our heartstrings while purging our wallets? And what kind of people are we, who so willingly, so helplessly, stay in such dysfunctional relationships? These questions and more are expertly and entertainingly answered in Dave Zirin’s newest offering, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love.

With his weekly Edge Of Sports column, and through his other books and radio work, Zirin has been standing up for fans and athletes for years. In Bad Sports, he dedicates the full venom of his own fan-aticism frustration to the self-appointed caretakers of the sporting world: the owners.

“Players play. Fans watch. Owners are uniquely charged with being stewards of the game,” Zirin charges. “It’s a task that they have failed to perform in spectacular fashion.”

Throughout his career, Zirin has highlighted the politically active history of the sporting world. With Bad Sports he turns his attention to revealing the wizards lurking behind the curtain of our current “modern athletic industrial complex.” It’s a revelation fans have been waiting for, and a unique portrayal of our sports culture.

The irony is that, the occasional George Steinbrenner or Jerry Jones aside, for such an overly-funded, well-connected group, sports owners retain an amazing amount of anonymity. Yet, while ownership may not want your adoration, or even your attention, they do want your money. At the ticket window. In the fan shop. And especially, in the tax code.

And it is this collective devotion to the bottom line, regardless of their team’s place in the standings, that has ushered in a new era of sports ownership: that of revenue-sharing, brand-management, and the new “grand-daddy of them all,” the publicly-funded stadium.

“In the past twenty-five years,” notes Zirin, “more than $30 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast … monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America’s billionaires built with funds that could have been spent more wisely on just about anything else.”

As we continue to endure the current economic recession, it’s hard to imagine any city that wouldn’t welcome re-allocated tax dollars by which to fund the re-opening of schools and libraries, let alone the infrastructure upkeep of highway bypasses and levees. But membership does indeed have its privileges. And sports owners have made a habit of taking theirs to the bank.

“It’s going to be seen … as one of the real crimes of American government,” suggests former Major League Baseball All-Star Jim Bouton, “to allow the funneling of people’s money directly into the pockets of a handful of very wealthy individuals, who could build these stadiums on their own if it made financial sense. If they don’t make financial sense, then they shouldn’t be building them.”

This disgraceful tax-funded stadium era began when Former President George W. Bush was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush’s Rangers benefited from an atrocious law: the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), which was signed into law by the late Texas governor, Ann Richards. Amazingly, the ASFDA actually “had the power to seize privately owned land deemed necessary for stadium construction,” notes Zirin.

The ASFDA was as unprecedented as it was shameful. “Never before had a municipal authority in Texas been given license to seize the property of a private citizen for the benefit of other private citizens,” states journalist Joe Conason. Talk about redistributing the wealth. Of course, “[Bush] didn’t blush when he proclaimed that his [gubernatorial] campaign theme would demand self-reliance and personal responsibility, rather than dependence on government,” continues Conason.

“Eminent domain – for the wealthy – had struck again,” Zirin laments.

The issue of publicly funded stadiums is a central one for Zirin. In receiving tax dollars, owners are able to allocate citizen interest to very specific, usually right-wing (Christian) causes. Like the popular Faith In The Park days.

“It doesn’t matter if you call it Buddha-Jesus-Jewish-Vishnu-Islamic-Wicca Awareness Day,” pleads Zirin. “We just want to go to the park without feeling like we’re covertly funding Focus on the Family’s gay-retraining programs.”

Several owners have blurred the lines between sports revenue and religious funding. But no one has financed his religious bully pulpit as effectively as Orlando Magic’s owner Dick DeVos. “The next time you wonder why the religious right has influence so disproportionate to their actual size,” Zirin notes, “it’s because of people such as DeVos.”

A former head of the Republican Finance Committee, DeVos is cofounder of Amway, a multi-billionaire, and an extremely active funder of right wing causes. “The DeVos Foundation pumps millions into groups that support radical reparative gay therapy, anti-evolution politics, and other ‘traditional’ family values,” notes Zirin.

One of those other groups is known as the Dominionists. “Their agenda makes Limbaugh look like Noam Chomsky,” Zirin quips. “They want a Supreme Court that adheres to Old Testament law. They want LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people in prison and women who seek abortions to join them. For the Florida-based DeVos nonprofit, supporting this kind of work classifies as ‘charity.’”

Unfortunately, this is the sport legacy created by tax-funded sports owners primarily concerned with financing their own cultural crusades. As Zirin notes, “Religion and sports: it’s a marriage in desperate need of a divorce.”

To see an actual alternative model of sports ownership in America, there’s only one place to look: northern Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers, in addition to being football’s original franchise (the Super Bowl’s Lombardi Trophy is named after their illustrious coach), the Packers are the only team in any sport that is collectively owned by their fans.

“The nonprofit team is financially solvent, competitive, and deeply connected to the community,” notes Zirin. “It deserves to be replicated. So, of course, the NFL has written into the rulebook that no way, nohow, can any community replicate the Green Bay model.”

Why? Because of revenue sharing, and the easier collusion wrought by an even more exclusive ownership fraternity. NFL owners collectively share all tickets sales from all stadiums, all television contracts from all media markets, and all merchandising sales from all registers anywhere in the world. And they could be making more money with a team in media-crazy Los Angeles than they do with a team in Green Bay, or some other smaller market location that is more likely to appeal to a team owned by its fans.

Still, Zirin is hopeful fans will organize and fight back. Like the followers of English soccer club Liverpool, who have formed Share Liverpool FC, an organization “that is attempting to recruit a hundred thousand shareholders to purchase the team outright” from co-owner Tom Hicks, who also owns the Texas Rangers.* “Share Liverpool,” continues Zirin, “cites the Green Bay Packers as their working example of community ownership.”

Fan organization is a model Zirin believes could work in the States. “If owners threaten to move clubs, fans need to press the state to sue for the right to buy the team,” he suggests. “They should claim the teams themselves are the intellectual property – the eminent domain – of their communities.”

Ralph Nader agrees. “In any tax-supported sports facility,” he suggests, “there should be organized fans’ groups that can sit at the table. Anything that intersects public policy with the sports teams, the fans have got to have representatives at the table.”

There is no arguing that the continued presence of a cherished sports team helps mold the community, and becomes an integral part of a people’s shared history. “Sports teams operate on an entirely different emotional, or even spiritual, plane then any other corporate entity,” notes Zirin. Indeed, teams often become as cherished as other local landmarks. “No one expects [a] team to move any more than we would expect a person to buy the St. Louis Arch and place it in Reno.”

Yet this is the kind of unrequited love affair that today’s sports fan must give in to, even if we cannot help ourselves. Fans are a desperate lot. Beggars for good sports, to paraphrase Eduardo Galeano. We “go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums [pleading]: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’” And if we are fortunate enough to witness a brilliant play, or an epic game, we “give thanks for the miracle.”

In the end, Bad Sports is not about bad owners, but about bad ownership, and shortsighted, if not non-existent sports stewardship.

The sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past few decades, as it promises to transform itself even more in the years to come. The issue is, how will it change, and how will this change be reflected by society? Dave Zirin urges fans to consider these aspects of the “modern athletic industrial complex” sports scene now, before we are reduced to complicit “scenery for television broadcasts.”

* This past fall, Liverpool FC was purchased by Tom Henry, and the ownership group of the Boston Red Sox. To read more about Share Liverpool FC, see my October 12 blog post.


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Filed under Accountable Wealth, Class, Consumerism, Lifestyle Economics

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