Professional sports need to hear ‘no’ for a change

Published 11:24 am Friday, January 14, 2011

Vikings fans may wonder who their quarterback will be next year and Packers fans may hope for a win in Atlanta on Saturday, but there are bigger questions and bigger games going on in the National Football League.

For one, there’s the question of whether there will even be a season next year. Players and owners are at odds over the contract that governs labor and management’s relations in the bizarre and topsy-turvy world of NFL employment. The contract expires March 4 and it is possible that owners will lock out the players and either skip the 2011 season or play it, as they have before, with bad replacement teams.

Although the details of their earnings are secret, no one seriously believes that the sharp operators who own NFL teams aren’t making plenty on their investments. And the players’ gigantic salaries are well known; Brett Favre, to name an extreme example, took home millions for playing a few games of bad football this year.

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Closer to home, the question isn’t whether there will be a 2011 season but how long the Vikings will be Minnesota’s team. With their Metrodome lease soon to be a thing of the past, the Vikes very much want to have a new stadium. NFL owners throughout the league love new stadiums, because new means the chance to make more money in all sorts of ways: More luxury boxes, bigger and better concessions, huge gift shops, museums, parking concessions.

All of those are particularly profitable if someone else foots the bill for the stadium.

The Vikings recently said they would pay for one-third the cost of a roofless stadium, a project that would probably cost about three-quarters of a million dollars.

Where would the other half-million come from? The taxpayers would be asked to pony up for the privilege of having a pro football team in the state. Because the implicit threat is that without a stadium deal, the Vikings will be off to another city, probably Los Angeles.

So on one hand, we have the billionaires vs. millionaires contract fight. On the other, we have a billionaire owner asking for someone else to build his team a stadium.

Of course, you don’t get to be ultra-rich by paying for things yourself. You use other people’s money.

The truth is that there’s something badly awry with pro sports, possibly a symptom of some of America’s larger ills. Because the value equation makes no sense. Is it really worth half a billion dollars of taxpayer money to have team to call our own? Do we get any more pleasure from the Vikings (or, to be fair, the Packers or Bears or Patriots) than from watching a well-played high school game?

The crowds I see at high school and small college game seem to be having just as much fun as those at the Dome.

The folks watching their kids (or their friends’ kids) play Pop Warner football or hanging out at the Blue Sox game seem to be having quite a bit of fun, too. And nearly for free.

Which isn’t to say that the spectacle of a pro game isn’t grander than at some park in Austin. But is it really that much better? Really?

It seems like it might be time for a professional sports re-set. Maybe it’s time for fans to say “no” to spending their tax money on stadiums and, instead, put it either into their own pockets or, if we must collect these taxes, into better schools, more firefighters, improved roads.

Maybe it’s time for fans to turn off the television rather than enable millionaires to argue with billionaires.

Maybe it’s time for owners’ greed (and players’ too) to simmer down a few notches. The NFL and other pro sports could still be wonderfully entertaining at about one-tenth the total cost. There would still be eager owners. There would still be eager players. There would still be plenty of fans.

And there are always alternatives. Even on a snowy January, taking a kid bowling or going for a walk could easily fill the three-hour hole left by pro football.

The NFL’s value equation is way out of whack. Fixing it means saying “no” for awhile.

Sunday in Insight: Political commentary from George Will