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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Sports Fans, It’s Your Turn to Act Like Consumers

“GREED,” screams the lurid headline on the cover of this month’s Sport magazine, “Look What It’s Done To Our Games.”

“It’s consumer fraud,” exclaims an obviously upset sportswriter in recounting a spate of what he considered to be tricky maneuvers in the industry of professional sports. Is it time for the millions of sports fans to join the consumer movement and defend their inter­ests? Judging by conversations with fans, sports­writers and the growth of consumer and taxpayer abuses, the question is not outlandish.

First, there are the more immediate gripes —spiraling ticket prices, high-priced junk food at the concessions, TV blackouts, and season-ticket exclusions for the non-affluent and politically non-connected.

Second, there are abuses of the players, such as artificial turf hazards, because team owners be­lieve Monsanto and disbelieve stars like Gale Sayers who says his career was cut short by the big green mats. In pro hockey, there are so many teams that player dilution is obvious to any casual observer. So team promoters discover that hockey violence can replace hockey skills on the rinks and on the television screen until the spectacle be­comes sickening to all but the sadistically inclined.

THIRD, THERE ARE the excesses of the sports corporations that field these teams. Often recipi­ents of substantial tax subsidies, as in the coliseum rampage of recent years, many of these compa­nies are created because of tax advantages to their millionaire owners instead of a desire to meet a supporting market of sports fans. The sting of market failure for an expansion team for in­stance, is cushioned by the tax writeoff. Such a bailout option contributes to management that is insensitive to the fans’ desire for skilled events at reasonable prices.

Each professional sport fields its own particular injustices to the fans, whether as consumers or taxpayers. Phony winner-take-all tennis contests, hyped media promotions in boxing, tax-sheltered expansions and some special anti-trust exemptions in basketball and baseball, the over-extension and overlap of schedules by different sports, to list a few.

Since they are paying all the bills, shouldn’t the fans exercise some fundamental consumer rights to know and to shape the product or service they are buying? For example, the rules of the sport af­fect the attractiveness of the play. The fans should be represented before the sports leagues during rule change deliberation or expansion policy. They might have some good ideas to suggest along with their commentary on the proposals. The opera­tions of “amateur” athletics and the NCAA rules and regulations also deserve the attention of the fans.

Sportswriter Roy Blount Jr. points to a possible general collapse of the sports economy, due to the high velocity machinations of the fast buck opera­tors, before reason begins to prevail. He quotes Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke, the president of the NHL Players Association, as saying, “All our sal­aries must come down. It’s crazy. The game and its integrity are more important than what one person wants.”

Perhaps, with the seasons shortened and the teams less financially unstable or frenzied, the players will last longer and the fans will recover an identity and familiarity with the local team that made the Celtics, Canadiens and Dodgers memorable beyond their superior exploits.

FANS WHO WATCH ‘play for pay’ are getting turned off when the ‘play for pay’ is for a different team every two or three years. There is a limit to buying championships instead of developing them.

How would the fans reflect their interests? One way is to associate into a sports fans organization with a monthly publication and full time, skilled staff. In this manner the fans can achieve the kind of regular representation of their interests, small and large, that is needed to prevail before owners, leagues, and various government commission and agencies.

All in all, such a development could lead to more solid and exciting sports as well as a little involve­ment for the ever-bystanding fan. With the fans gaining a voice beyond yelling at the games, more sportswriters may replace freebies and flatteries with professional journalistic performance.

Fans need a bill of rights. One fan tried his hand and drafted such a bill of rights. And while not quite ringing with the fervor of a Thomas Paine tract, it should strike a legitimate chord with many fans. You can obtain a copy by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to FANS, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, D.C. 20036. Send your ideas when you write.