This year, for the first time ever, Adam Smith was a bigger part of the sports landscape than Bruce Smith, Ozzie Smith, Red Smith, or Dean Smith. You couldn’t open a page of any sports section without finding a story with a dollar sign in the headline. Kevin Brown’s $105 million contract. The NBA lockout. And every city this side of Hoboken trying to figure out how to finance a new stadium. And while there was plenty of ink spilled on the economics of sport this year, there was precious little light shed.
The singular exception to this strange I’ll-write-about-business-but-I-won’t-like-it trend was Andrew Zimbalist, and that’s why he’s been selected as the Village Voice‘s 1998 Sports Journalist of the Year. An economist by trade— he’s a professor at Smith College— he writes regular guest editorials for the SportsBusiness Journal and has contributed often to the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. “Sports is a $324 billion industry,” explains John Genzale, executive editor of SportsBusiness Journal. “The U.S. auto industry is an $80 billion industry, and yet we have so few people taking sports seriously.” On a subject too often poisoned by ignorance, emotion, and just plain jealousy, Zimbalist has been a refreshingly intelligent, analytical, and, too often, lonely voice.
For example, he methodically explained how the supposedly moribund Florida Marlins actually made money, what it means when a team goes public, who’s really driving the NBA lockout, and why, when a local politician starts talking about a new stadium, you’d better reach for your wallet.
While his analysis is quite thorough, the thing that separates Zimbalist from the pack is his reporting. He follows the money better than anyone since Woodward and Bernstein. And he’s shown time and time again that he’s not afraid to wade into the fine print of financial statements, where the real story often lies. How good is he at figuring out how teams cook their books? The Internal Revenue Service has hired him as a consultant.
His just-the-facts method has made him a de facto defender of players’ rights— not because they’re sympathetic, but because they’re in the right. “Baseball players and basketball players and hockey players have just as much of a right to be treated fairly as anyone,” he says simply. The dark cloud he sees looming on the horizon is the growing trend toward media companies buying franchises. “Large media companies treat franchises as programming. They don’t see a team as a profit center, but as a component part of a profit system,” he explains. “So Kevin Brown is worth more to Rupert Murdoch than Marge Schott.”
He sees that this deep-pockets approach will erode competitive balance. Which will set the Cassandras of the mainstream media wailing about player greed. Which will encourage the owners to try to balance their budgets on the backs of the players. “The media overwhelmingly regurgitates the interpretation that ownership gives,” Zimbalist explains. “And what that does is give ownership more arrogance and aggressiveness, which creates more problems at the bargaining table.”
Unlike most sportswriters, Zimbalist has a more straightforward agenda, and he’s not ashamed of it. He hopes that his writing will not only enlighten, but actually shape public policy. For example, he was outspokenly critical of Hartford’s plan to lure the Patriots. The result? Some givebacks by Patriot owner Robert Kraft on luxury seating and cost overruns before the deal went through. “Legislators were sufficiently embarrassed by the giveaway character of the deal, and they made changes to save face,” he explains self-effacingly. “I saved Connecticut’s citizens a few pennies.”
His next target: the hypocrisy that is college athletics; Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big Time College Sports hits the stands this June.
Previous winners of the Voice Sportswriters’ Poll:
Contributor: Allen St. John
Majordomo: Andrew Hsiao
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman