Sports in the ’80s

A sop to the poor fan

Can't make the game? They'll send it to you

Ken Asquith January 7 1980
Sports in the ’80s

A sop to the poor fan

Can't make the game? They'll send it to you

Ken Asquith January 7 1980

A sop to the poor fan

Sports in the ’80s

Can't make the game? They'll send it to you

Ken Asquith

George Orwell wrote that by 1984 we would be communicating in “newspeak.” He missed the mark for the world of sport. Amid the cheers and jeers, the sports establishment in the 1980s will be speaking even more vociferously an age-old language— “money talk.”

In the ’70s, sports litigation, mergers, teams collapsing, strikes, holdouts and free-agentry received as much and often more attention than the action on the fields, diamonds, courts and rinks. All the while the paying public was “ignored, duped and exploited,” says Peter Gruenstein of Washington, executive director of FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports). The megabucks that fuelled big-league sports in the last decade will “talk” even louder in the ’80s. Only time will tell how long and how much the fan will be willing to pay.

Professional sport is first and foremost a business, simultaneously lucrative and expensive. Because of the costs (the average annual budget for a Canadian Football League team is $2.5 million) and the worldwide economic pressures that will inflate them, the 1980s will witness a further “corporatizing of sport.” Already Gulf & Western Industries (the New York Rangers and Knicks plus Madison Square Garden) Ralston Purina (the St. Louis Blues); Labatt’s Breweries and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Com merce (the Toronto Blue Jays),

Molson’s Breweries (the Montreal Canadiens), Carling O’Keefe Limited (the Quebec Nordiques and the Toronto Argonauts) enjoy the tax and public relations advantages of playing games, and doubtless their lessons will not be lost on others. And with the ’70s having comfortably broken the $l-millionper-year salary barrier, the thrills and frills of corporate bankrolling will not be lost on the boys of summer, fall and winter.

Joe “ignored, duped and exploited” Fan will look fondly back on the days when $25 could buy a ticket to a mediocre hockey game, and what ticket stubs he can afford will be increasingly scarce in the 1980s. Already companies buy up 78 per cent of baseball’s season tickets, and fully one-third of all pro sports seats. In the park or arena the non-corporate fan can look up or around pillars at business’s other public relations scam—the broadloomed, glassed-in, catered and bartended VIP lounges. At 1979 prices these weather and tax havens go for $20,000 a baseball season

in Toronto and $35,000 for baseball and football in Montreal. In Dallas, Texas Stadium’s lounges were originally sold outright at $50,000 and now the more lavish are rumored to be valued at $300,000.

A different kind of money—TV bucks—may speak up for fans. A Miami TV station’s purchase in late 1979 of 128 seats for a National Football League Dolphins’ game so that it could be televised locally heralded a break for the exploited fan. Much to the disgust of “football widows” of the Western world, already glutted airwaves will carry more legitimate and pseudo sports, but pay-TV—licensing in Canada could begin as early as 1981 and Home Box Office (a division of Time Inc.) is doing fine in the U.S.—will allow the fans to see at home what they can’t get into the park to witness. The trend toward networks guaranteeing fees and exposure to prizefighters (witness ABC with Sugar Ray Leonard and CBS with “Too Tall” Jones) will probably carry over and into proliferating non-events like The Superstars competitions or Rattle of the Cheerleaders.

Despite fandom’s desire for more international competition, neither hockey, football nor baseball is likely to hook up with European or Far East leagues. But the world’s most popular game, soccer, will continue to blossom in North America and pro soccer will soon compete head on with the continent’s traditional sports for public, corporate and television dollars.

The fashionable fitness fad of the 1970s that saw Canadians’ participation in racket sports grow per cent, cross-country and downhill skiing 153 per cent and jogging 148 per cent over a four-year period shows no signs of relaxing. As the pros and corporations keep on padding the bulges in their pockets, the poor, paying fans will keep up the fight to reduce the bulges around their middles.