*In the past month two major events occurred in American sports: the death of Dr. Jerry Buss, the primary owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, and the realignment of the Big East Conference in Division 1 college sports.
At first glance these two phenomena are not related. But for certain owners in the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, these two events combine to become a wake up call regarding the way they operate.
Let me explain.
The Big East Conference was formed in 1979 with a combination of schools that focused their athletic program on basketball and some other schools that focused on basketball and football. Over time college football became more prestigious; in recent years there has been a clear distinction between these two classifications of schools leading to the football schools to look for greener pastures in other conferences.
The bottom line is that the schools that field Division 1A football teams have a certain vision of what success that differs from the schools that do not emphasize football. What became obvious to the people in charge is that because of these differing visions, schools in these two groups should not be in league with each other. And so the Big East is getting a makeover. And in the universe of college athletics this makes sense. Small colleges and universities like St. John’s fund a 15 person men’s basketball team and be able to fund a women’s team to remain federally compliant much more easily than it could an 80 person football team and the various women’s teams it would need to remain compliant with Title IX.
Professional sports should be different story. Teams in the NFL exist only as football teams. There is no rule saying that some of their attention needs to be devoted to other sports or tasks. In addition in three of the four major sports leagues have salary caps and the fourth has a luxury tax, all of which are efforts to level the playing field; furthermore in each of these sports doing poorly in one season ensures a team of a better chance to pick the best available players for next season.
In short there should be no difference of vision between sports franchises the way there is a difference between colleges. But there is. In professional football, basketball, baseball, and hockey there are perennial doormats that somehow end up at the bottom of the standings each year. And the reason for this is ownership which brings us to Dr. Buss.
By all accounts Buss was a major reason the Lakers won so much in the 1980s and 2000s. There were different players coaches and front office personnel but Buss was a constant emphasizing his vision for how the franchise should be run. Not all of his colleagues share the same vision or, it would seem, the same passion.
As I have recounted before sports are boons to local economies. It has been estimated that the departure of Lebron James cost the city of Cleveland $1 million. And if we are going to treat sports like the big business it is, we have to further incentivize winning or somehow punish losing. Most sports franchises are great at making money whether the team is in first or last place.
The answer may lie in the English premier soccer league. There are different divisions and depending on your record teams can be promoted to higher competition or relegated to a lower division. All of these leagues have some version of revenue sharing and it would be very interesting to see how owners would react if a franchise’s cut of league revenue was tied to performance. This would conceptually mirror the bonus structures in the contracts many of these owners draft for their players. You get some base compensation but get more if you perform; why can’t the owners be evaluated in the same way? Relegating teams to a lower percentage bracket would also mirror being sent to a minor league.
The problem is that the owners are all literally in league with one another. And none of them is going to implement a rule that could come back to bite them in the future. So unfortunately fans in Pittsburgh will have to suffer through another summer of Pirate baseball with no real push from ownership.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org