In Sports, How Much Do Fans Matter?

Team owners are beholden to the players and to their own desire for profits. Where do the people who come to see the games fit in?


Marc Serota/Reuters

On Sunday morning the New York Times reported that the cost of courtside Madison Square Garden seats for New York Knicks games will jump from this year's $330 to $825 next season as part of an overall price increase of almost 50 percent. For those ever alert to evidence of sharp sports ownership practices, the timing for the story could not have been better—that afternoon the Boston Celtics knocked the Knicks out of the NBA playoffs. But given the state of contemporary sports, it is hard to say that the news had any shock value.

The article quoted long-time Knicks ticket holders who are honest enough to recognize that even $330 was well beyond the means of almost all of the team's fans. And even the new pricing is a "bargain" compared to the $2,000-plus a pop that the Los Angeles Lakers charge for their courtside seats. But the article did clarify the fundamental reality of the relationship between a team and the fans who keep it in business—and where the players fit into what is usually portrayed as a two-sided economic tug of war between ("greedy") owners and ("loyal") fans.

The bottom line is that NBA team owners and players are partners in a revenue-sharing system in which the owners have a quasi-fiduciary duty to maximize profit for the benefit of both. If they can increase revenues by jacking up ticket prices, they owe it to the players to do just that. What of the interest of the fans? However necessary they may be to a team's economic prosperity or even survival, fans, however loyal, long-suffering, faithful, etc., simply have no contractual or legal "rights" in the team and no say in its management or operation, whether in selecting playing personnel or setting ticket prices. Fans do have one right, it is true—to quote movie producer Sam Goldwyn, "If people don't want to come , you can't stop them." But that is the only "right" they have. What fans certainly don't have is any standing as a partner in a joint enterprise along with players and owners as stakeholders—although they pay the bills.

Of course, teams enjoy a countervailing right: to pull up stakes and head out of town, a right that has often been exercised—and certainly more often threatened—to greater effect than fandom's "right" to spend their entertainment dollars on other pastimes. The current controversy over the troubled present and uncertain future of the Dodgers has spurred an outpouring of nostalgia in Los Angeles about the team's golden years in the City of Angels and lamentations over its present difficulties.

But any thinking about the Dodgers' better days in the City of Angels cannot help but summon memories of the original sin which begat that franchise in the first place: the team's move from Brooklyn after the 1957 season. Whatever the rationale offered by Dodger owner Walter O'Malley at the time and his defenders ever since, the decision to abandon Brooklyn was his alone to make, and needless to say it was made without consulting the team's Brooklyn fans. If any one moment made it absolutely and unequivocally clear that the fans essentially counted for nothing (except when it came to the privilege of buying tickets) in the profit-seeking calculus of team management, that was it. Nothing has happened since to change that basic and brutal fact of sports life one bit, except that the vastly enriched player class are now more readily identifiable as ownership's peers when it comes to pursuing their own interests, whatever the cost to the fans. Witness the current lockout dispute in the National Football League.

It is now almost 50 years since Boston sportswriter Harold Kaese observed that "if ever a paradox were true, it is that big league baseball is strictly a business to those who make money off those who think it is strictly a sport." To which one only add, can anyone still think that baseball (or football or basketball, or hockey for that matter) is strictly a sport?