The Revolution Has Been Televised: On Big Sports and Big Money

May 9, 2016 | 4 books mentioned 8 min read


Years ago, I wrote a book about the women’s professional tennis tour. In 1973, the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, access to players at most tournaments was easy; few agents or managers walled them off from the press. Coaches? Unheard of. Nutritionists? Please. The very best female tennis pros in the country earned thousands of dollars for winning ($25,000 for the U.S. Open), not millions. To save money, they overnighted at the homes of local enthusiasts.

Now, like other sports, tennis is a billion-dollar enterprise and players like Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova rank high on Forbes “Richest Athletes” list. The inflation is just as obvious in my other favorite sport, baseball. A recent Wall Street Journal article on New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, whose 2016 salary is $607,000, carried the headline “Baseball’s Underpaid All-Stars.” The average baseball salary this year is $4.4 million.

coverMark McCormack, the agent and lawyer who made Arnold Palmer golf’s first millionaire, and Marvin Miller, the undaunted leader of the baseball players’ union, are among those generally credited as important nonplayers who helped turn sports into a business that benefited its “workers” as well as their employers. There are numerous others, though, and in his new book, Players, Journal reporter Matthew Futterman thoroughly investigates the financial revolution in pro sports. He describes how athletes like hurdler Edwin Moses, unheralded executives like the NFL’s Frank Vuono, and people like McCormack enabled players grab the power that once was in the hands of team owners and event promoters. The revolution, argues Futterman, has in many ways improved the sports that fans love to watch; well-played players who no longer need to work at other jobs in their free hours are better trained, better conditioned (and yes, better compensated). But has the revolution gone overboard?

coverPlayers might be the best book about the business of sports since Moneyball. Instead of investigating one sport through the lens of one team, Futterman looks at several major sports, focusing on key participants. He begins with McCormack, whose story has been told before but is still the spark that gave rise to the revolution. McCormack’s guiding principle was that “stars were the gasoline that made the engine of any sport go…They were a salable commodity that was being undervalued…” As a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s, he loved sports and even when “alone on his porch throwing a ball in the air all afternoon, he was always keeping score.” He became a lawyer and an excellent amateur golfer.

Arnold Palmer was a great golfer. But his earnings were tiny. His big paycheck came from an endorsement deal in 1954 with Wilson for $5,000, yet their clubs were not even premium products; Palmer crafted his own clubs in his home workshop. Moreover the company had the right to renew the deal each time it was about to expire. After convincing Palmer he could do better, McCormack became the golfer’s agent and finally extricated him from the Wilson deal, setting up instead Palmer’s own golf club company. “McCormack was playing a new game,” writes Futterman. “The object was liberation.” His plan to give Palmer control of his own name and marketplace worth would be the template for every other arrangement McCormack made.

McCormack moved on to tennis. After meeting the chairman of Wimbledon, he realized the most prestigious tournament in the world was not taking advantage of its image, and arranged to market the film rights to the tournament. Eventually came the windfall — a six year deal with NBC for Wimbledon TV for $5.2 million. It was, writes Futterman, a key element in his vision — to widen the popularity of his players, he needed to showcase them on a mass scale. TV would grow the prize money and thus the value of players’ names to sponsors. McCormack, like Hollywood czar Lew Wasserman, would control not just the stars but the venues. “Wimbledon doesn’t break a leg, sprain an ankle, fail a drug test or lose six-love, six-love,” he told others.

By the 1990s, McCormack’s influence was so pervasive that his company, International Management Company, or IMG, was referred to by nasty nicknames: “I Am Greedy,” “I Manage God.” By 2001 his management roster went well beyond sports — its list included Margaret Thatcher and the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Every sport had its own path to big money and professionalization. Before 1968, writes Futterman, the men who ran tennis “starved the sport.” Stars who went out on their own, like Rod Laver, barnstormed for peanuts on a pro tour while being barred from the top tournaments like Wimbledon, which was open only to amateurs. Although they were allowed to participate in the Grand Slams after 1968, the International Lawn Tennis Association raked in money while offering poor purses and no say to the players who made it great. This led the men, who had joined together in the Association of Tennis Professionals, to stage a boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon event. It severely hurt the career of American Stan Smith, the defending champion, who honored the boycott. Ultimately, the tennis lords caved, and Smith eventually got his measure of fame by having his name on a best-selling shoe.

The boycott was incredibly successful; it led to a boom as the sport was taken up by recreational players and pros reaped the rewards of wider exposure. The total prize money at the U.S. open was $160,000 in 1972. By 1983 it was $2 million. The growth meant the explosion in the care and nurturing of stars who hired coaches, physiotherapists, and nutritionists, and companies that produced new racquets made of space-age materials. By last year, the male and female U.S. Open winners alone earned over $3 million each.

Baseball, the professional sport most dominant in the first half of the 20th century, saw a similar upward dollar trajectory. Here, Futterman uses pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to tell the story of free agency and the resulting monetary explosion. His career showed how an athlete from a poor farming family in North Carolina upended “the entire salary structure of sports,” showing every “athlete a better lesson in free-market economics than anyone could have gotten at Harvard Business School.” The lesson: “the person who gets paid the most sets the market for everyone else below him,” i.e. a rising tide lifts all boats. How big a lesson was this? In 1966, despite having its own union headed by Miller, baseball’s reserve clause that bound a player to one team meant that the average major league player’s salary was $14,000. Topps paid each exactly $125 to put them on a bubble-gum card.

I’m sorry Futterman did not mention the two-man holdout by the Dodgers’ great pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale before the 1966 season, when the two asked for a million dollars over three years and settled for about $130,000 for Koufax (in what became his final season) and $105,000 for Drysdale. It was a landmark in the struggle for free agency, which culminated in Hunter’s battle with the “perhaps the greediest and most penurious” ballclub owner, Charles O. Finley of the Oakland A’s.

Players details the almost unbelievable tale of how Finley’s stupid missteps allowed the owner to be declared in default of his contract with Hunter. (Among other things, Finley claimed it was awkward for him to get his estranged wife’s signature on a document.) The pitcher was declared a free agent, an open market bidding war began, and the Yankees signed Hunter to a multimillion dollar contract “worth roughly fifteen times more than the next highest player.” The rest is, well history, right up to Jacob deGrom’s measly $607,000 salary, which is so low because with only three years in the big leagues he is not yet eligible for free agency.

In football, Players dates the revolution not to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is often hailed for dragging the NFL into modern times, but to the league’s actions in 1978, when it adopted rules that made offenses more potent. The owners were persuaded by Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys that unless the game permitted higher scores, it would stagnate. Indeed, once rules limiting defenses in hampering receivers and offensive linemen, and once the “west coast offense” gave quarterbacks a chance to move the ball with lots of short, high percentage passes, it was, in Futterman’s words, “easier for players to thrill fans.”

The star system took hold. In 1990, the league created the Quarterbacks Club, to which the likes of Troy Aikman and Dan Marino lent their names to lucrative licensing arrangements. Where NFL players lost was that, previously, their union had handled the licensing. The new arrangement bled the union dry. Today, football generals get huge salaries but the privates get nonguaranteed contracts.

Players also demonstrates how the business revolution worked in licensing, with Nike manufacturing Michael Jordan sneakers that youngsters would literally kill for, and in developing their own cable networks. If there is a villain in the book, it is Lance Armstrong, who for Futterman represents the “win at all costs” mentality that has been foisted on fans by Nike and other greedy sponsors. This seems too simple. Armstrong’s desire to win came in the context of a sport that had long had a doping problem, even before there was millions of endorsement dollars at stake.

In the end, the author notes that despite the wall-to-wall TV coverage of sports, both viewership and youth participation in team sports has declined. “Money in sports isn’t on its own, a bad thing. But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing,” because it leads to stars who are more concerned with endorsements than with team victories, and to teams more concerned with TV revenue than individual players. Agree or not, it is a complex tale, compellingly told. Players is more fun than watching a major golf tournament and certainly easier than playing in one.

Baseball pitchers’ salaries have correspondingly risen precipitously, especially those of closers, who can make more than $100,000 per inning, as Jason Grilli did last year for the Atlanta Braves. When Sandy Koufax finally agreed to that low-ball contract back in 1966, he was not only baseball’s best pitcher but perhaps its most pain-wracked one. His left arm was crooked. It “ballooned to cartoonish sizes” in between starts and had to be drained. He had to swab a hellish chili-pepper hot “balm” on it to mask the pain. But that was before Tommy John submitted to surgery in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe. His torn ulnar collateral ligament in the arm was replaced by a tendon from his wrist. A year and a day later, John was able to retake a major league mound. Grilli, too, underwent this surgery, which led him to the payoffs with the Braves.

coverIn a fitting complement to Players, sportswriter Jeff Passan peers into this surgery and its aftermath in The Arm, looking at how huge salaries for pitchers — the quarterbacks of baseball — have affected their quest for longevity. These salaries have also infected the attitude of kids who hope to emulate professional players. The book is principally an exhaustive look at the development of Tommy John surgery through two major league pitchers, one of whom has rebounded from two TJ procedures.

Passan suggests that the TJ phenomenon has gone way overboard. A recent study of five years’ worth of records showed that half the surgeries were performed on teenagers, an idea Passan regards as frightening. What’s more, there are only guesses when it comes to successful rehab and post-surgery plans. Should pitchers limit their innings? Slow their velocity? Alter their mechanics? No answer is definitive. As long as major league teams are willing to shell out $150-million over six years for a proven starter like the Cubs did for Jon Lester (plus $250,000 to ferry his wife and kids around in a charted jet), pitchers in search of millions will undergo the operation that Passan describes in grisly detail. What is amazing, as Passan tells us, is that despite major league teams operating “more than $600 million in the black” in 2014, they have spent next to nothing on injury-prevention research.

As for that underpaid Mets all-star Jacob deGrom, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, let’s hope he has a great, healthy season, so he can sign for closer to his rightful worth. He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration next year. Surely he looks forward to 2020; that’s when he becomes a true free agent. And if you happen to see him pitch in short sleeves, notice the long scar on the inside of his right arm; it looks a bit like the seam on a baseball.

Image Credit: Flickr/401(K) 2012

is a former reporter and national correspondent for The New York Times. She is the author of four books and has contributed book reviews and articles to the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, NYCitywoman, and other publications. She lives in New York and is a passionate Mets fan.