I confess to knowing next to nothing about Americans’ favorite sports, football, basketball and baseball but I had heard of Dave Zirin thanks to the Grumpy Sociologist. I had read a few columns from him and enjoyed his writing. So, I decided to read Bad Sports – How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love.
I should note that I also picked it as my first non-fiction Kindle reading, hoping that it would not be too scholarly and would be a good start in the process of doing all my reading on Kindle (that is, based on what is available since academic books seem to be underrepresented on the e-book market).
Bad Sports is a quick read. The writing is quite pleasant and informal. Obviously, Zirin enjoys throwing a few punches around. The book is about how extremely wealthy team owners make like bandits by blackmailing cities into getting them brand new (and obscenely expensive) stadiums and arenas, and gorge themselves on public monies while delivering lousy results, squeezing the fans for as much money as they can, all the while promoting ultra-right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity.
It is the story of mostly white men who got enormously successful (often by inheritance, almost always with political connections) in a variety of businesses and decided that being successful in one area would translate easily into another. So, they bought themselves teams (it does not look like which sport is involved actually matters, Zirin covers football, basketball, baseball and hockey), and then ruined them while laughing all the way to the bank at the expenses of the taxpayers and fans.
The book exposes the sense of entitlement, arrogance and condescension these men display. Somehow, they reminded me of the Wall Street CEOs after the collapse of 2008. In many ways, this is the same story. These men use their political connections to make a lot of money. They make a lot of really bad investments. Taxpayers are left to pick up the tab and watch the ruins. And, based on what Zirin writes, it is not like these men are really good at being sports team owners: they recruit the wrong players, fire competent coaches and managers, and hire toadies in their stead, and have nothing but contempt for the fans and the day-today workers of their team. In many ways, from the way Zirin tells it, they behave like the dictators of failing states. Good things these sports can’t be outsourced to the global South because otherwise, Americans would be watching their beloved sports on Tv with games played in peripheral countries.
This story represents one small aspect of what has happened to the economy in the past 30 years or so: the triumph of neoliberalism with massive redistribution towards the top of social ladder, and flat income lines for the vast majority of the population. It is the story of the triumph of the transnational capitalist class and its capture of the nation-state institutions that now work almost thoroughly as funding and enforcement arms of a corporate regime:
“During the economic boom of the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, publicly funded stadiums became the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. These stadiums, ballparks, arenas, and domes were presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay, and suburban flight. They are now the excrement of the urban neoliberalism of the 1990s, sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. In the past twenty-five years, more than $30 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast.” (Highlight Loc. 211-16)
And even this, stadium construction as public policy, does not work. It is just another form of plunder, or as Zirin puts it, a form of “shock doctrine”:
“This, remember, is the best-case scenario for stadium development. Recently, sports economists Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland and Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Alberta asked whether building new stadiums spurred the local economy. In their study—which spanned nearly thirty years and examined almost forty attempts to lure teams—they failed to discover a single example of a sports franchise jump-starting the local economy, including of course, the Camden Yards example. In fact, they uncovered the opposite trend: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area. . . . Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” This is seen ever so clearly in the service jobs created not only by the gentrification that surrounds Camden Yards but the stadium jobs themselves. They are poverty-wage occupations where $7.00 an hour is the going rate.” (Highlight Loc. 2026-34)
It is though a form of blackmail: if owners do not get a taxpayer-funded arena, they take their ball and move to another city. As Zirin puts it, it’s “your money or your team“. This is another aspect of these owners that Zirin emphasize as well: they are vindictive and love to punish everyone and anyone who does nor bow to their will, again, from moves in the middle of the night, to blackout policies, to shutting out of critical reporters.
For Zirin, most of what ails sports (including steroids and other drugs) can be laid at the feet of these owners. The buck stops with them even though they often get away with a lot, and the blame gets assigned lower on the sports stratification ladder. Political connections are useful in that respect.
So what is the solution? When an owner ruins a team, athletically and financially, then, the community should be able to take over, in the form of a Green Bay Packers model kind of ownership and management (even though it is not possible, as the masters of the game have ruled it out of their by-laws). Zirin is a populist when it comes to sports: the fans matter, the players matter and that is what makes the heart of the game. Corporatization and its strongmen have ruined it.
It is quite an entertaining read even for someone like me with non-existence knowledge of the subject. Zirin is quite an encyclopedia of sports. He is a true fan of the sports he writes about. But don’t be fooled by the punchy writing style, there is a lot of information and analysis in the book and a lot to learn. As I mentioned above, count this a another datapoint in the triumph of neoliberalism and corporatism with the same effects in sports as in other economic areas.
Highly recommended even if one is not a sports fan.