Saturday, July 02, 2011

Life Without Math Only SOUNDS Like a Good Idea

Were I a sports editor at a major newspaper, Web site or periodical (and God forbid all three, I haven't sinned that much) I would require each and every reporter covering a professional sport to take an introductory finance and economics course at the nearest business school. This would limit, if not eliminate, the utter bushwah that gets published, posted, tweeted, etc. every time there's an argument about money in sports, which is of course every day.

Case in point, the NFL lockout. The breathless reporting on negotiations and litigation in this dispute has mostly been a fevered scrutinizing of the bark on the trees as the reporters remain lost in the forest. We don't need economics or even arithmetic to get a handle on this story. A little empathy and common sense will do.

First, the empathy. Dear reader, how hard would YOU fight for a share of the divvy of 10 billion bucks per annum? It's easy to say that such a sum can be sensibly and fairly divided without any fuss. It often is said. And if human beings weren't involved, it might be true.

We have here a business dispute over a huge sum of money between two partners who have excellent reasons to distrust each other. One partner is an entity of 32 incredibly willful and arrogant individuals. The other is an entity of about 1600 just as willful and arrogant individuals. Do we begin to see why the two sides might find it difficult to reach agreement?

Always envious of the NFL, the NBA had embarked on its own lockout. I have no intention of thinking about it for quite some time after this post is done. I usually lock the NBA out of my brain from the solstice until about Columbus Day, and see no reason to change that policy. But I will say this. Anyone credulous enough to repeat the NBA owners claims that they're losing money hand over fist is the dream date of all three-card monte entrepreneurs.

As a rule, when businesses lose money consistently, their owners get rid of them. They either sell out or shut the puppy down. If pro basketball franchises were doing as poorly as they say they are, the evidence would be a significantly high number of franchises being sold at (and this is the key) lower and lower prices.

Nothing of the sort has taken place. Franchises have relocated to get more and better public subsidies, but none have folded, and none have changed hands at bargain prices. It is thus safe to develop the working hypothesis that the "losses" claimed by the owners are just more evidence that accounting has evolved into a branch of the creative arts, with the spreadsheet being to the accountant what the canvas was for Jackson Pollock.

NBA players are gifted, driven men who unfortunately appear to be pretty much helpless in life when they're not wearing shorts. Otherwise, they'd react to the lockout by finding a few tame multimillionaires desiring publicity, a few underutilized arenas around major U.S. population centers (there are at least five within 90 minutes of Boston) and start their own damn league. They won't, of course, because to them as to most of us, money means security, and new sports leagues are about the only area of sports business where owners DO take on the risks of capitalism.

I covered my share of sports work stoppages. I understand why reporters hate them. If there's no NFL, just exactly what is John Clayton supposed to do? And why exactly is ESPN supposed to pay him for it? But that's no excuse for being so damn frenzied about each twist in the story. NFL fans love the sport as much as do NFL reporters. They also, however, know that it is July. A football-less September would find them frenzied. Now, not really. No matter how hard a reporter tries, he or she will never convince fans that a canceled exhibition game is of any importance to anyone on earth.

I understand why NBA reporters jumped to the worst-case "there will be no season" scenario on Day One of their lockout, too. Otherwise, no one would pay the slightest attention to their reporting. People intuitively grasp that a labor conflict is a phony war indeed until it starts to cost both sides money, a state which the NBA won't reach for months yet.

But it's REALLY in the interests of NBA owners and players to put the doomsday scenario out there. Customer anxiety is one of the big weapons in sports labor negotiations. It's a weapon that tends to blow up both sides, but hey, you go to war with you have.

Remember how dire the statements were back in February from Roger Goodell and DeMarques Smith, when NFL lockout was getting started? Now that the bargaining is down to real numbers, they're BFF.

NBA reporters ought to remember. It might help them to realize they're getting played.


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