You can hear it. Power thrums through the corridors like traffic through the streets of Gotham, five stories below. Roone Arledge became president of ABC News exclusively in 1986, and from his elegant office here he can now look at sports as a father might look at somewhat disappointing children who have left the nest.
He sat by, gaping like the rest of us, as CBS overpaid for baseball by half a billion dollars in 1990. He calls the NFL's most recent television contract "a stroke of luck," after watching the league stuff Rupert Murdoch's money down its pants like a frenzied participant in a Dash for Dollars contest.
Arledge worries that these price tags may one day hang like toe tags on American sports. "The basic ill in sports today has got to be money," he says, "and it's ultimately going to corrupt everything. You have owners who can't control themselves giving all this money to players. You have 25-year-old kids making several million dollars a year and thinking they're entitled to it: They argue that rock stars and movie stars make that kind of money, and they're performers just like athletes are. But I would like to think there's a difference between an athlete and a rock star. Unfortunately, it may well be that as new generations come along, they won't miss the virtues that used to be at the center of sport. They may see sports only as a means to a sneaker deal."
With all these chickens coming home to roost, doesn't this television executive feel a little like Harlan Sanders? Arledge acknowledges his and TV's place in "the feeding chain." But network execs—and team owners and athletes, for that matter—are entrepreneurs who can do as they please. Arledge makes $3 million annually, but he also made his sports division, traditionally a loss leader for a network, eminently profitable.
It is state-sponsored sports fanaticism that he finds particularly vexing, all of these modern-day ancient Romes across America, obsessed with gladiators and lavish Colosseums. Think of all that a new NFL team will do for Charlotte, Arledge says—wonderful, inestimable things—but also think of all that a new NFL team will not do for that city.
"I think a question that has to be asked is, In a time of poverty and homelessness and crime and all the other problems this society has, should we be building $400 million stadiums with public funds?" he says. "In most cases these stadiums are publicly financed but privately profitable. And there are very few other places where that is true. It is not true of the Metropolitan Opera. We are notorious in this country for not subsidizing the arts and politics and things that we should. And yet, we do it in sports without even thinking about it. In fact, it's a hallmark. If you don't do it, you're somehow second-rate."
In other words, you're not...major league. Up-and-coming cities need major league franchises to be considered major league, and they need gleaming new stadiums to attract the franchises. It is the magical mantra of the film Field o) Dreams: If you build it, they will come. One man understood this better than any other. Nobody built a bigger field from bigger dreams than Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was himself as big as all of Texas.