Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Think that pro players are a greedy, selfish, egocentric lot? Well chalk one up for the greedy, selfish, egocentric—but even richer—owners of the teams that those players compete for. In their efforts to keep player costs (read: salaries) to a minimum, the owners of new sports leagues—Major League Soccer (MLS), the WNBA, and the yet-to-be launched women’s soccer leagues—have structured their new endeavors as “single entities”—which means that the league owns all the teams. The upshot? Players can’t pit one team against another to try to get the best deal; the league sets a “fair” price and tells him or her, “Take it or leave it.”

In a much watched revolt against this player-hating structure, several MLS players filed a lawsuit against their league three years ago, saying it violated federal antitrust laws. Last week, two key counts in that lawsuit were thrown out.

While MLS bigshots are celebrating—”This is the first decision that specifically confirms that a league organized this way is lawful,” said league attorney Michael Cardozo—players and their reps are still up for a fight. Jeffrey Kessler, the players’ lawyer, insists the ruling is just a “bump in the road,” noting that one important count—charging that the league is an illegal monopoly (slightly different from the dismissed antitrust accusation)—will go to trial in September. The ruling is also not expected to affect Kessler’s ongoing antitrust suit against the Arena Football League, which operates similarly to MLS, but has independently owned franchises.

Still, Judge George O’Toole Jr.‘s ruling is a blow to players’ organizing efforts in so-called “Tier II” sports leagues. “Well, that’s depressing,” sports economics guru Andrew Zimbalist remarked on hearing of the ruling. (Zimbalist is working as a consultant to the players in the case.) By using a “central hiring hall,” he explains, MLS teams have been able to eliminate competition for players and so artificially depress salaries, which currently average around $80,000. “It’s the only sports league, with the exception of the WNBA now, where teams in the league don’t compete in the marketplace for players; they’re just allocated. It seems fairly impossible to believe that the players are ever going to be fairly remunerated in that circumstance.”

Players in the WNBA, the only other league currently operating as a single entity, have so far elected to take on the league’s salary structure through collective bargaining, not the courts, but have been watching this case quite closely. They may also start turning to the only leverage the soccer players have in the absence of a domestic competitive market: going overseas. Two WNBA players, Orlando Miracle starting forward Andrea Congreaves and Liberty center Elizabeth Cebrian (who last played for the team in 1998), have already announced they’ll “leave it” and head off to Europe this year rather than take salary offers they consider unacceptable.

Cup-Crazed Conventions

Read some of the media’s glowing accounts of the Devils opening-round playoff sweep of Florida and you’ll believe a trip to the Finals lies ahead. Presto, the playoff nightmare is over! Things are scheduled to unfold as follows: they’ll dump the beat-up winner of the Toronto-Ottawa series, then the beat-up Philly-Pittsburgh winner. And after downing the beat-up Western winner from among Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, and St. Louis, Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, and pals can once again wave to the crushing mob of 20,000 from the backseats of convertibles motoring around the Meadowlands parking lot at their second magnificent Stanley Cup parade.

Well, re-cork the champagne for a moment. True, the Devs did win their first series in three years, but their foe made them look good. As Dave Hyde accurately wrote in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, “If you’re the Panthers, the disappointment isn’t just in losing. It’s in not challenging. It’s in the idea that no pressure was put on the Devils.” Florida’s passive forwards, including Pavel Bure, and wayward defensemen (no goals and three assists compared to five goals and six assists from the Devils’ D) could benefit from coaching by Janet Reno and those hard-charging INS agents. The amusing Panthers power play surrendered the series’ pivotal goal with a two-man advantage, and Mike Vernon‘s spotty netminding didn’t help.

This allowed Jersey to survive some lackluster play from key forwards, including Bobby Holik‘s playoff goal drought (none since ’97), mediocrity on faceoffs, a 2-for-16 power play that coach Larry Robinson called “a little bit too cute,” and a few undisciplined penalties. Brodeur allowed two soft goals in Game 1, and, though he made several fine saves in Game 4, looked jittery the few times Florida approached the net.

Still, a flaccid opponent helped restore lost confidence. Now rested and healthy, Jersey must fire on all cylinders to advance beyond the second round. It’d be their first time accomplishing that since winning the Cup in ’95.

Base! How Low Can You Go?

It’s not exactly a news flash that baseball commish Bud Selig is very gung ho about elevating Major League Baseball’s profile as a brand—one of his primary motivations for dismantling the American and National League offices and stripping the umpires of their league affiliations was to consolidate as much of the game’s operations as possible under one brand umbrella. But things are getting a bit out of hand with MLB’s silhouetted-batter logo. Don’t get Jockbeat wrong—it’s a great logo, always has been—but someone should tell Selig and his crew that there’s such a thing as overkill. The logo has appeared on the back of all big-league caps for several years and, as recently reported by Uni Watch, has been added to all jerseys this season. But that’s just the beginning—the logo has also been appended this year to batting helmets, turtleneck collars, warm-up jerseys, umpires’ shirts and jackets, the actual baseballs used in the games, and even the bases.

Isn’t this all a bit much? Not according to MLB spokesman Derrick Johnson. “We have tremendous brand equity in that logo,” he explains. “So this year we’re proactively positioning it, not just as a sports brand but as a lifestyle brand.” OK, but how does printing the MLB logo onto second base advance the game’s, um, lifestyle agenda? “If someone steals a base, and it’s a record-setting base, or if a base gets auctioned off as memorabilia, the logo tells people that the base is authentic and official.” But anyone looking to acquire an authentic home plate should be wary—the MLB logo doesn’t appear there. Not yet, anyway.

Contributors: Neil Demause, Stu Hackel, Paul Lukas

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman