Thursday, April 28, 2016

Players, by Matthew Futterman

In my living memory, whenever I have thought "professional athlete," I have thought "gazillionaire." OK, maybe just millionaire.  The money in professional sports today is simply outrageous.  Have you ever seen a picture of Tom Brady's house?  But that has not always been the case.  In Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution, Matthew Futterman tells the story, or rather stories, of how we got here.  (I guess I shouldn't say we.  I'm just a fan with no money, not a gazillionaire athlete.)

In the not-so-distant past, professional athletes were either nonexistent or were very poorly paid.  An occasional superstar or media darling might get some endorsements or command a higher salary due to his fame, but it wasn't until a lawyer named Mark McCormack signed up Arnold Palmer as the first client of his fledgling company International Management Group (IMG) that the keys to the treasure chests began to be found.  With IMG's sponsorship and promotional assistance, Palmer went from being one of the world's best golfers to being a very rich golfer.  McCormack changed the game and his company still represents some of the world's best (and richest) athletes.

McCormack also pioneered the televising of events like Wimbledon.  He converted this little tennis event, viewed by a few elite tennis aficionados, into a major television event, viewed by millions.  As a result of the increased exposure, the popularity of tennis soared, as did the prize money for players.

Futterman describes the rise of free agency in sports, starting with Catfish Hunter.  As free agents, players "could prove to everyone in baseball--and every team-sport athlete on the planet--the value of the open market."  Free agency "was an opportunity to allow the market to determine a player's value instead of some crony general manager trying to line his owner's pockets."

Futterman would agree that the professionalization of sports has raised the quality of play and the level of competition.  However, he isn't necessarily a fan of the increased players' salaries.  "Too many athletes forgot that performance was supposed to serve as the foundation for their success on and off the field, and that the object of sport is to win, not to become famous."  Television, and, later, cable television, added to the revenues sports could generate, so "the purpose of a sports team had morphed from an entity that could provide joy and a sense of community to a city or a region to a commodity that could be used to create vast wealth. . . ."  Futterman concludes, "Money in sports isn't, on its own, a bad thing.  But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing."

I enjoyed the way Futterman personalized each step in the process of monetization of sports, focusing on individuals and events that proved to be the turning points.  His writing is colorful and descriptive, and his research and interviews bring these stories together nicely.   Watching the NFL draft this weekend, watching the various commercials that feature athletes, watching my hometown team, the Cowboys, play mediocre football while raking in untold millions, I will think of Futterman's historical perspective.  Every year I think that sports salaries have gotten too high to sustain, but, as he said regarding the first forays into free agency, the players will earn what the market will bear.  Do I think anyone should be a multimillionaire because they are great football or baseball players?  In the grand scheme of things, no.  But people pay to watch them play.  Team owners and management pay their salaries.  More power to them.  Futterman explains why it all works and how it got that way.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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