NEW YORK—What follows has been covered ad nauseam, but I wonder why people were surprised at the planned football breakaway Super League. Professional sports in Europe now follow the American way, which means money comes before tradition, hometown loyalty, and lastly the fans, the schmucks who live and die for their teams. The bottom line in American sports is what it’s all about, and European football has a lot to learn from the closed shop that has made American sports zillions and zillions. I’ll be brief.
American football, baseball, and basketball teams are privately owned, and no matter how badly they perform, they cannot be relegated to a minor league, à la in Europe. The owners of pro teams vote and decide the rules—or changes to those rules—accept or reject who can join the exclusive circle, and vote to ban for whatever reason any interloper trying to crash the exclusive club. The specter of promotion or relegation does not exist in American sports, and it is viewed as a particular European perversion unwelcome to the billionaires’ club that owns professional sports. Not a bad deal for a certain few.
So it was only a matter of time that a closed-shop deal would perform a come-hither dangle in front of such pure and noble sportsmen as Stan Kroenke, John Henry, and the ghastly Glazers. When I was a boy, professional players such as my hero—and later on friend—Mickey Mantle were bought at a very young age by a major-league team like the New York Yankees, and remained Yankee property for life. It was, in a way, indentured service. Then a player named Vida Blue sued baseball and a new deal was signed giving the opportunity to professional ballplayers to become free agents after a certain amount of time. You know the rest. Players discovered agents, agents discovered lawyers, and suddenly owners discovered judges ready to throw the book at monopolistic practices, unless. So the owners opened up their pocketbooks wide, but managed to keep the closed shop firmly shut.
Sports in America come under entertainment and are subservient to television scheduling, while sponsors make the laws. Profit is what pro sports—like everything else in the country—are all about. The New York Mets are a baseball team that began rather late, back in the early ’60s, and the new franchise was financed by a group that actually invented baseball in the 19th century, the Doubleday family. I was stepping out with a girl whose grandmother, Mrs. Payson, was the principal owner. The Mets were fun and lost more games than any team in history before they became the miracle Mets in 1969 that won the whole kit and caboodle. Before her granddaughter and I broke up, Mrs. Payson explained to me why professional teams like baseball had thrived: They were exempted from antitrust laws by Washington, D.C., at the very start of the 20th century, and owners of professional teams were ready to get down and dirty in order to keep their closed-shop privileges. Payson was a grand old lady and is no longer with us, and she sold her shares to two real estate sharks whose moneyman was someone named Bernie Madoff.