Play Ball/Pay Ball: Money and the Future of Sports


This article originally appeared in Issue# 36

It's no longer whether you win or lose, it's how you pay for the game.

"A symbiosis has developed between sports and the mass media. Sports are used to promote newspaper sales, to sell advertising space, and to win lucrative con tracts for television and radio. In turn, the media help to sell spectator sports and attendant sports-related consumer products to the public."
- Jay J. Coakley, Sport in Society

It seems ironic, but the periodic commercial annoyances that interrupt TV sports programs are the key to the presence of sports on television.

Everyone who thinks about it realizes that the viewers support the program. What's less obvious is the way sports advertising reflects the class structure of American society.

Sports became attractive to advertisers because of a few crucial demographic facts. To begin with, American males between 18 and 49 don't watch as much television as other groups. But they do watch sports. Therefore sports have become a palatable and profitable way to capture their attention.

This crucial audience, then, is further subdivided into sports for the masses (the big three — football, baseball and basketball), and sports for the classes — "upper crust" activities like tennis and golf which provide a berth for life insurance and personal computer ads aimed at the middle and upper class.

Buying Identity

Since advertisers pay the piper, they get to name the tune. Marketing issues predetermine what sports get scheduled for TV coverage, and sponsors' needs play a big role in these decisions. In general, decisions are based either on broad consumer interest in a particular sport or on a perceived match between the advertiser's wish for a certain type of audience and the demographics of fans of a particular sport. Matches made represent a particular set of values.

In addition, through advertising's images, viewers' self concepts are reinforced. When it comes to assessing the market, people who have a firm grip on the achievement ethic (i.e., that hard work will bring monetary rewards) are believed to follow certain sports. Fans of a lesser achievement level are believed to be attracted by others.

So events such as the Westchester Golf Classic feature sports cars, credit and financial advertisements. Professional wrestling or boxing, on the other hand, has commercials for less expensive cars, foot spray and orange juice. Their audience doesn't attract the same kind of large, corporate sponsors found in "richer" sports.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a period of great prosperity for network sports, sports franchises and athletes.

Sports advertising has been building up over the years, but many of today's dynamics can be tied to the financial package the National Football League owners worked out with the major networks in 1982. According to the deal, each NFL team would receive $14 million a year in exchange for the right to televise games. That package assured coverage of every team's payroll without selling one single ticket.

It's not whether you win or loose, but how you pay for the game.

The whopping football contract meant money was available, but other factors served to boost the salaries of NFL players between 1983 and 1985. Competition for name players with the fledgling U.S. Football League drove up salaries for all players. And NFL players who demanded 55% of the gate receipts taken by owners when they went on strike in 1982 were calculating their chances of injury, short career expectancy and salaries paid other television performers.

A parallel trend in baseball was helped along by the change to free agent status in 1976, which enabled athletes to bargain for the highest possible salaries once their contracts expired.

In general, legal changes giving players more bargaining power have raised salaries, although the owners' bargaining power is based on media competition for attractive sports packages. And sports was hot throughout the 1970s as rising ratings and competitions between the networks increased sports' attractiveness as a way to reach media-shy but sports-crazy 18-to-49-year-old males.

To further cash in on the sports bonanza, promoters created sports events such as celebrity opens, competitions for "the world's strongest man," and contests in which known athletes competed outside of their specialties. Special events like these, with a built-in audience, are becoming preferred packages in a sports media market that seems to have cooled off considerably in the last year or so.

Network sports departments, particularly, are tightening their belts as once-guaranteed advertising contracts begin to move to cable, syndication and non-sports programming.

The shrinking of the period is based on multiplication of media delivery systems and a possible change in the viewing ha; bits of young men, who seem to be turning to such non-sports outlets as video movies. The effects of these trends on advertising are typified by a major change in the media buying habits of Gillette, which for decades had paid top dollar for exclusive rights to the World Series And other top games. Instead, in 1985 a new ad chief sought economy by buying discounted ads throughout the sports season and forsaking exclusivity each October.

Second Look

Given this financial climate, advertisers' urge to get the greatest value for their advertising dollar is forcing some changes in theft sports involvement.

According to Bob Tassie, vice-president for communications at CBS Sports, the usual pattern was simply to buy one or several spots within a given sports event. As costs went up and advertisers wanted to make more impact, they might try to enhance their advertising by including sports program inserts for extra recognition — e.g.. "the seventh-inning stretch brought to you by Old Spice."

Now Tassie sees a new trend: corporate underwriting of entire events, especially bowl games, celebrity tournaments and other made-for-media sports. "Any legitimate sport with the support of an underwriter can be televised," he said, noting events like the "AT&T Pebble Beach Open" and the "John Hancock Sun Bowl." This regard for the bottom line, says Tassie, might even result in bringing an upscale wonder like polo to television, and it will certainly result in the careful scanning of cherished — but expensive — traditions like Monday night football.

"Baseball is not just a sport anymore; we are a business. We are show business. To compete for the enteratinment dollar you have to have more than nine guys playing baseball; you've got to have an attraction."
-George Steinbrenner, Owner, New York Yankees

As advertisers jockey to separate affluent sports fans from the average Joe (and a few Janes), aware viewers should ask themselves what kind of message the sports they watch are presenting.

Mixed Messages

Programming and ads aimed at the upper income third tend to support the idea that bard work brings financial rewards — a dubious message at best. Obviously many poor people work hard but have little to show for it. On the other hand, those with much income often have prior advantages which they forget, and advertising designed to perpetuate that self image reinforces that illusion in society.

This blind spot adds poignancy to an ad for Reebok basketball shoes that was shown during the 1986 National Basketball Association championships. The shoes were said to "take you as far as you want to go — from asphalt to polished floors," implying that sports represent a likely road to success for underprivileged youngsters.

In contrast, a 1985 television special on the "Seduction of Sports" explained that the average black youngster has a greater chance of becoming a brain surgeon than a player in the National Basketball Association. Overall, the odds against making it in professional sports are 55,000 to 1. The idea that a shoe can take you as far as you want to go is simply not true. And the prevalence of drugs in the inner city implies that many of the youth there have gotten the message.

However misleading the social implications of this ad, however, it does show an attempt to reach out to segments of the society that won't be touched by ads for MasterCard or Dean Witter. In the issue of mass versus class, viewers mean numbers but one l8-to-49-year-old male isn't necessarily equal to another. And the sports programming we get in the future may reflect this.

Author Bio: 

Paul G. Johnson is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, teaching sociology at Mass Bay College in Wellesley, MA. He is the author of "Grace for the Workplace," (2004) and is working on a book that joins sociology and theology.