by Ryan Poffenbarger
The now former president of the Seattle Mariners, Kevin Mather, was recently caught manipulating the service time of players. This is done in order to decrease the pay owed, particularly to younger players, while also preventing other teams from signing them. As reported by CBS sports this practice is widespread but very difficult to prove in most instances. Not only are abusive practices such as this rampant in American professional sports but they also parallel issues within capitalism at large.
Just like any other capitalist business the way that sports team owners make money is through taking the surplus value generated by the workers. The American professional sports industry is valued at nearly 100 billion dollars, showing that the amount of surplus money on the table is quite large. For the NFL in particular the average value of a team, according to Forbes, was 2.86 billion dollars as of 2019. This was an 11% increase from the previous year and double the average from 2014. The increase was significantly higher than how much wages had increased for players and team staffs per year. In regard to player salaries the average in 2014 was 2.1 million dollars which grew to 2.7 million dollars by 2019, a growth of 29%, or slightly under 6% per year. Similarly, the salary cap for the NFL rose from 102 million dollars in 2006 to 155 million in 2016 or about 5% growth per year in that time.
Stadium employees have been facing similar problems to American workers at large with real wages staying fairly constant despite the rapidly rising productivity and profits. The stadium workers earn on average about twice the minimum wage, roughly 14 dollars an hour, and since the minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009 the wages of stadium employees have barely grown in that time despite the huge growth in value of teams. Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in massive layoffs of stadium employees and led to some NBA players volunteering parts of their salaries in order to help the workers that the owners wouldn’t.
Sports teams make far more money from television and sponsorship deals than they do from ticket sales and merchandise. For instance, in 2014 the Green Bay Packers made almost twice as much from the television and sponsorship deals than they did from tickets and merchandise. This was made possible in large part from two government policies the Sport Broadcasting act of 1961 and the Telecommunications act of 1996. These policies heavily deregulated how sports are broadcast with many exemptions from anti-trust and tax laws.
The way the NFL handles this television and sponsorship money is that it is split evenly amongst the 32 teams in the league for the regular season. In the playoffs the money is. split between the teams participating in each round. Similarly, NFL players also get paid evenly for playoff games in amounts that are significantly less than the average players make in the regular season per game with 27,000 dollars per player for the first round up to 118,000 dollars per player for the Super Bowl winners. What this means is that the team owners have significantly more incentive for their team to make, and do well in, the playoffs than the players do.
American workplaces are known for being very weak in terms of accommodation for injuries and illness. The workers get their insurance coverage through their employer far more than any other source and the vast majority of them are under covered in terms of insurance. On top of this, American workplaces are some of the worst in the world when it comes to time off with being the only country in the developed world without paid maternity and paternity leave and American workers are very likely to be fired over sick days. Unfortunately, professional sports leagues are also often terrible when it comes. to health accommodations. The most notorious example of this is the WWE who refuse to give their wrestlers health insurance and also are very stringent about docking the athletes’ pay for fights missed due to injury but the WWE are far from the only example Tackle football is one of the most violent sports on earth, yet the NFL spent years sweeping long term health issues that result from it under the rug. The most key example of this is the story of former Pittsburgh Steelers player, and NFL Hall of Fame member, Mike Webster, as featured in the Frontline PBS film “League of Denial.” Documents from 1999 show that the NFL knew about the long-term brain damage problems associated with the game yet from 2003 to 2009 the league funded papers denying the dangers. More egregiously for years Monday Night Football games would start with a stylized animation of two helmets slamming into each other; causing an explosion. In a 2019 interview with the radio show “The Breakfast Club” NBA All-Star player Andre Iguodala stated that when he was out with an injury his team, the Golden State Warriors, went so far as to tell the media that he was suffering from a minor bone bruise in an attempt to pressure him to come back to playing faster despite him actually having a fractured leg. Iguodala also pointed out that the coaches were constantly putting pressure on injured players to come back before they were healthy, including one of the league’s most popular players, Kevin Durant, who famously tore his Achilles in the NBA finals after coming back early from a different leg injury. Along with this, just like in traditional workplaces the players are incentivized to rush back from injuries with the significantly reduced pay for missed games in the contracts of almost every player.
Professional sports in America are not only exploitative towards employees but fans and cities as well. This is most clearly demonstrated through stadiums. For instance, the current stadium of the San Francisco 49ers, Levi’s Stadium, cost 1.3 billion dollars. 154 million of this came directly from the city and another 850 million of this came from a loan the city took out from a group of banks, the majority of which being held by Goldman Sachs. The government also provided a huge tax reduction for the team which was financed with an increased tax on local hotels. When cities are unwilling to meet these massive demands, they are met with animosity from the team owners who often gaslight the city and fanbase before leaving. The Raiders, Rams, and Chargers have all relocated in the last decade with very angry fanbases left in their wake.
Infamously, when the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore after the 1995 season, fans at the teams last home game were incredibly angry, tearing apart the stadium that their tax dollars had paid for the majority of, including stealing seats from the stands and starting fires. A very similar situation to this happens with traditional corporate business on a regular basis such as Amazon recently having cities bid for where to build their new headquarters through offering massive subsidies and tax breaks to the company. Along with this, teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays have decreased the seatingcapacity in order to raise ticket prices with the new scarcity, which is a practice that is common across most industries in order to maximize profits.
Professional sports in America parallel some of the worst aspects of capitalism. This rears its ugly head through exploiting the players, team employees, and cities that they rely on. Teams regularly work athletes to the point of destroying their bodies while trying as hard as they can to avoid paying wages or any liability for the injuries. Further, the leagues and teams benefit greatly from government deregulation, subsidies, and tax breaks in order to maximize profit at the expense of the masses. None of these issues are specific to professional sports as companies outside of sports regularly use these same tactics. These tactics are most blatantly shown through, but are not limited to, paying employees far less than the value they create, constantly fighting to avoid providing for employees who are sick or injured, and forcing the hand of cities to either sacrifice jobs or massively cut taxes for the companies while providing a huge amount of the capital costs. Sports are a wonderful thing that is very valuable for both social bonding and fitness alike, but capitalism has made professional sports toxic towards fans and employees. The economics of professional sports in America, and the broader economy that it represents, need to be drastically changed in order to stop the damage that they currently do to the working people of this country.