The Knicks and Rangers should wear gray flannel uniforms. Subsubsidiaries of Gulf & Western Industries, the two teams are among several that have been bought by conglomerates in a trend that has been called the "corporatizing of sport." The Houston Astros are jointly owned by divisions of General Electric and Ford. The St. Louis Blues are the property of Ralston Purina. The SuperSonics are a subsidiary of First Northwest Industries of America, Inc. Signal Co., an oil company, owns 49% of the Angels, and Labatt Breweries Canada, Ltd. is in for 45% of the Blue Jays. Sportsmen all, perhaps, yet it seems just a matter of time until someone turns on the lights at Wrigley Field and slaps a Day-Glo ad on the leftfield wall at Fenway Park.
When a team backed by its parent company's millions chooses to go after a player, what individual owner would even consider a bidding war? Not John Bassett, proprietor of the WHA's Birmingham Bulls. "I lost two players, Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey, to the Rangers," he says. "They offered Dillon $1.4 million and Hickey $450,000 to sign long-term contracts. I couldn't compete with that, so I called Madison Square Garden and told them if they sent me some dough, they could have them right away. I mean, if the Prince of Saudi Arabia takes a shine to your wife, it's hard to compete with him. That's if your wife happens to be mercenary."
The Green Bay Packers are the antithesis of corporatizing. A sports anomaly, they are a nonprofit organization, wholly owned by the city of Green Bay, Wis. Though the Packers were once the pride of the NFL, the league has discouraged any more municipally owned teams. Nonetheless, Buck Chairman of the Board Jim Fitzgerald, among others, believes that the Packers represent "the ideal form of ownership. There is no debt to service, and there are no dividends to pay. It's the perfect setup. But I guess that it will not happen any place else."
San Antonio Spurs owner Angelo Drossos begs to differ. "I envision that, within a decade or two, city governments will own teams," he says. "Many teams are already being subsidized by the community in the form of low rental agreements on stadiums and arenas. The Superdome loses money each time the Saints or Jazz play there, and the same is true of most arenas around the country. So it would seem to me that at some point the cities are going to decide that they might as well own the team and operate it in the manner they wish."
Meanwhile, management and labor are girding for the next round of bargaining sessions, leading off with hockey this summer, baseball in 1979, then basketball in 1980 and football in 1981. Despite the caterwauling, prospects for a minimum of discord are good, if only because the war over player freedom, the big sticking point in previous negotiations, is over. And both sides are aware that there is little public sympathy left for the strikes and walkouts that marred their last round of talks.
Economists perceive an even better reason for optimism, because the present chaos was not only predictable but is also evidence that a new and better order will emerge—just as soon as everyone gets the ground rules straight. "It is true that owners do not know how to react in the new environment," says one economist, "and some will get burned and some may go bankrupt. The new procedures require a different kind of expertise, and as the owners collect knowledge and experience, they will behave. They have a workable system and will enter the 1980s with their labor relations in good order. Owners and players will start being happier again."
Those happier days will be marked by a modicum of stability, which will be achieved as more free agents sign long-term contracts. And the law of diminishing returns should discourage owners from overloading their rosters with high-priced stars. Franchise-hopping will abate as more communities resort to legal action to prevent their teams from departing. The economic shakedown, with its premium on management expertise, will tend to cast off the part-time, playboy owners. And the controversies about overpaid players will lessen as six-figure salaries become commonplace.
Most important, the games themselves are more robust and compelling than ever. Marvin Miller says, "I concluded a long time ago that baseball as a product is so good that it prospers in spite of the owners."
Cub General Manager Bob Kennedy even thinks global expansion is a lead-pipe cinch. "There should be teams in Tokyo, Mexico City, Manila, Sydney, Rome, Havana, Buenos Aires, San Juan, Russia," he says. "Without a doubt Russia should be involved. Then when you have a World Series, it really will be a World Series. And instead of 87 million fans watching on TV, there will be 600 million."
As they ponder such thinking, all parties concerned would do well to heed a classic opinion offered by an old Yankee. "Money," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "often costs too much."