Benner/Sports and Opinion and Professional Athletes and NFL and Pro Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: Enabled by us, the rich squabble over billions

March 5, 2011

In the run-up to last month’s Super Bowl in North Texas, I spent back-to-back days at news conferences listening to the polar opposite perspectives being served up by the National Football League and the NFL Players Association.

The billionaires and the millionaires are arguing over how to divide a staggering $9 billion in revenue.

There was only one area of agreement coming out of both propaganda pitches, er, news conferences.

And that was the desire to reach a resolution “for the fans.” A romantic notion, yes. But hardly the reality.

I believe no one—league officials, the owners, the players—could give a rodent’s rear end about the fans. At least not to the point where they are even the slightest consideration in the $9 billion debate.

That’s because they don’t have to be. We’re hooked on sports in general and the NFL in particular. It is the opiate of the masses. Instead of shouting, “We’re angry as hell and we’re not going to take a $50 nosebleed seat and an $8 beer anymore,” we say, “Can we have our fix, please?”

We don’t want our football. We need our football.

Now anyone who has followed my ramblings over the years knows that I have been pro-sports. In particular, I have supported the infrastructure investments—Market Square Arena, Conseco Fieldhouse, the Hoosier/RCA Dome, Lucas Oil Stadium—necessary to keep the Indiana Pacers and attract and keep the Colts. That those venues had or have multiple uses is critical, as is their place as part of an overall strategy to increase the city’s viability as a destination.

I also supported the construction of venues such as Victory Field, the Indiana University Natatorium, the Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium, the Major Taylor Velodrome, the Pan Am ice rinks and the Indianapolis Tennis Center as part of that sports strategy, and I lament that the Tennis Center is gone and that others need significant upgrades to remain viable.

Yet in these not-quite-post-recession days with an at-best flat-lined economy, how can Indianapolis, and cities—and fans—throughout America, continue to feed the beast that is sports? (Please note, I exclude the family-friendly and affordable Indianapolis Indians.)

We’ve had the dot.com bust, the real estate bust, and the savings and loan bust.

When do we have the sports bust? When do we say that $23 million is too much to pay a quarterback, or $3 million is too much for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial, or $5 million is far too much compensation for a college football coach, or $675 million for a stadium is something a city and its taxpayers can’t afford?

For now, the free market says write the checks, levy the taxes, raise the ticket prices, and charge $8 for that beer. Whatever it takes, we’ll pay. In fact, we have waiting lists. In fact, we have fans so desperate to be part of a Super Bowl that they will pay $200 a head to stand outside the stadium in 40-degree temperatures and watch the big game on a big-screen television.

Supply and demand. We demand what the NFL and other sports entities supply.

Anyway, as the “middle class” storms statehouses in Indianapolis and elsewhere, that same middle class holds its collective breath as the NFL owners and players do their $9 billion dance. Make no mistake, that middle class makes up the bulk of those “fans” I believe the NFL, the owners and the players really don’t give a hoot about—although I credit our own Tweeter Extraordinaire, Jim Irsay, with being more fan-engaged than his peers.

Now believe me, I want a season as badly as anyone, mostly because I don’t want anything to ruin the immense amount of work, planning and money that’s already been plowed into Indy’s Super Bowl.

But I also have concern for the common folks—those who run concessions, park cars, work security and, in our particular case, all the downtown hospitality employees who wouldn’t benefit from the robust business generated by NFL game days (and nights).

Then there are those who work for the franchises … again, not the high-salaried executives, but the worker bees.

In time, there will be a settlement, and you can bet it will mean the cost of football will go up. And I’m so ticked off about it all that I just renewed my season tickets. So there.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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