Financial Stakes High for Professional Sports LABOR TENSIONS

Article excerpt

THIS fall, sports fans may need to start a league of their own.

Football is on track, but the three other most-prominent professional spectator sports are mired in financial conflict between owners and players.

Baseball's season ended prematurely with a players' strike. Hockey's opening has been delayed as team owners stage a lockout. The basketball season may begin the same way unless a breakthrough comes in last-minute talks. "It seems like it's a harmonic convergence of labor relations in sports," says Christopher Cameron, a labor-law expert at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.

The three sports all had collective-bargaining agreements come due for renewal this year. In addition, Professor Cameron says, hockey and basketball athletes are impressed by the tough stance baseball players have taken against the owners. Although baseball players have won victories in recent labor disputes, Cameron says he doubts that hockey and basketball players are on the verge of success.

The stakes in all three sports are high. Among the key issues: How will $3.5 billion (the revenues from all three sports combined) be divided? Can wide disparities in payrolls between poorer and richer teams be bridged? Will the wage total be capped as a fixed percentage of league revenues, or will a free market dictate salaries?

Perhaps most significantly, will fans tune out in disgust if the squabbling becomes protracted? Although players and owners struggle over money, and teams compete with each other for titles, they ultimately depend on each other to lure spectators to stadiums and TV sets.

"These are partners in a joint venture," says Gary Roberts, a sports-law expert at Tulane University in New Orleans. "If the players don't get enough, then they get disgruntled; too much, and teams are unprofitable."

Similarly, if leagues become stratified between successful, high-paid teams and perennial losers that can't afford high salaries, the whole league becomes a poorer product. On this issue, the key is sharing ticket and TV revenues among the teams. …