- “Players” by Matthew Futterman is a captivating journey into the evolving relationship between sports and money, shedding light on the visionaries who have shaped this billion-dollar industry.
- Discover the fascinating world of sports and money by diving into “Players” and gain a comprehensive understanding of the forces that have shaped the games we love. Explore the intricate stories of athletes, entrepreneurs, and advocates who have redefined the sports industry.
Wall Street Journal sportswriter Matthew Futterman presents a history of how sports in the United States – and then worldwide – became the gigantic business it is today. Futterman tells this episodic saga through the experiences of several athletes, teams and sports-oriented cable networks. Futterman is a newspaper writer presenting his first full-length book, and each chapter stands alone as a self-contained history. He includes many details of his research, especially dollar amounts and contract lengths.
While intriguing, these details sometimes break up the flow of his chapters. Don’t let them block your path to his broader but worthwhile societal points. Futterman’s compelling collection of stories will appeal to those fascinated by the rise of professional sports and the various TV and players-union battles each spawned. getAbstract also recommends his well-researched backgrounder to fans interested in sports economics.
- Beginning in the late 1950s, professional sports were on the way to becoming a multibillion-dollar industry.
- Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley reneged on a deal he made with pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who took him to arbitration and created free agency.
- Catfish Hunter’s salary leaped from $100,000 per year to $3.5 million over five years.
- Everyone makes money from free agency: Baseball today is an $8 billion business with its own cable network and Internet company.
- Baseball’s free agency led to players having similar in pro football and basketball.
- Tennis pro Nick Bollettieri opened the first immersion training camps for young athletes.
- Bollettieri’s pupils included Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Serena and Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova.
- Talented young athletes increasingly live with and compete against each other full time.
- In 1984, Nike committed its entire endorsement budget to one player: Michael Jordan.
- Nike, which describes itself as primarily a marketing-oriented company, spends $3.2 billion annually on marketing.
Progress Off the Field
In today’s age of skyrocketing payments to professional athletes, you may find it hard to remember, or even believe, how little money or power athletes had just decades ago. Almost every instance of athletes’ progress – in gaining financial security, more control over their careers, and something resembling parity with the owners or controlling bodies of their sports – features the same story line. First, owners attempt to maintain monopolistic control over the players on their payrolls. Then, in an incident that sparks rebellion, some owner or controller behaves in ways that – even by the standards of 1950s or 1960s – prove to be more egotistical, grasping and shortsighted than a player can bear. The player takes the owner to court. New freedoms bring exploding salaries: Everyone – from embattled players to selfish owners to burgeoning TV networks – makes more money.
“The idea that someone might be able to make a living representing an athlete was a pretty silly notion in the pre-McCormack era.”
The change began in the late 1950s, when Cleveland lawyer Mark McCormack noticed something strange while rubbing elbows with golfers at the US Open: The best golfers in the world were making very little money. McCormack went on to represent Arnold Palmer and to transform the way athletes do business.
How the Salary Wars Unfolded
Jim “Catfish” Hunter was an All-Star pitcher for the Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball’s American League. Hunter insisted on fair treatment. But to abide by Hunter’s contract, Charles O. Finley, owner of the Athletics, had to upend the salary structure of professional baseball and of professional sports. The story began in 1965, when Hunter and other players sought to elevate their power in labor negotiations with baseball team owners. They realized that the Major League Players Association (MLBPA) needed new leadership for the battles ahead. Hunter and some other players offered the position to Marvin Miller, the senior economist at the then-powerful United Steelworkers union. The Players Association had little money, and only 500 players were members. Miller took time to get to know them. While the team owners treated them like ignorant children, Miller spoke to them as if they were businessmen.
“Labor wars were about to become battles between millionaires and billionaires, and, barring some disastrous personal misjudgment or mistake, ultimately everyone was going to make out all right.”
The owners sought to undercut Miller and the MLBPA. When the union’s bank account was down to $6,000, the owners reneged on an agreement to fund the union from All-Star game revenue. Miller made a deal with Coca-Cola to put players’ images inside its bottle caps. This earned enough money to support the union. Miller also changed the players’ deal with Topps baseball cards. At the time, Topps paid players $125 a year for the right to put their pictures on baseball cards. If a player had to go down to the minor leagues, he didn’t get paid. This meant that Topps spent $60,000 a year for images that earned it millions. Miller tried to get Topps to pay players royalties on each pack of cards it sold. The president of Topps told Miller that the MLBPA lacked the “muscle” for such a deal. When the next season began, almost no players signed with Topps. Recognizing Miller’s strength, Topps made a deal, marking one of the first times that athletes united to get better pay. Players gained 8% of Topps’s sales revenue up to $4 million, $250 per player and 10% of sales of more than $4 million.
The Reserve Clause
Baseball’s Reserve Clause bound players to the teams they first signed with for the rest of their careers. Teams drafted players, who could sign only with the team that drafted them. Most players signed one-year contracts. Each year, they had to negotiate new contracts with their team. If a player couldn’t agree on a new contract, the team could sign the player for the same amount as his just-expired old contract. Clubs could also cut a player salary’s 25%. If a player didn’t want to sign, his career was over. No other club would sign him, and he had nowhere else to play. A 1922 US Supreme Court decision held that baseball games were “purely state affairs.” That meant federal antitrust laws did not apply to baseball.
“Gold was “Mark McCormack’s first lesson the value of an obsessive pursuit of excellent in a single field.”
After years of negotiation and hard bargaining, Miller pushed through a new MLBPA contract saying that if a club defaulted on a player’s contract, he’d become a free agent. Clubs had 10 days to fix the default. If they didn’t, any team could hire the player. The owners were arrogant and lazy, but they rarely defaulted on contracts, so none of them thought this would be a big deal.
Charles O. Finley
For his new contract, Catfish Hunter wanted to defer part of his salary from the Oakland Athletics for tax reasons. A’s owner Finley signed off on the deferment. But when it was time to pay, Finley balked and wouldn’t sign a necessary auxiliary document that was part of the contract. Hunter’s attorney insisted that Finley put his refusal in writing; he refused. Hunter’s attorney wrote to Finley stating that he was in breach of contract and had 10 days to rectify the breach or Hunter would exercise his right to become a free agent. That was the owners’ greatest nightmare: having a player spark a bidding war to earn his true market value.
“The legend holds that Mark McCormack and his first star client, Arnold Palmer, shook hands on a deal for representation and everything fell into place from there.”
After 10 days, Hunter’s attorney told Finley and the league that Finley had been in breach. The day the season ended, Hunter would become a free agent. Finley insisted on meeting with Hunter. When Hunter showed up, Finley and the president of the American League were waiting. Finley offered Hunter his deferred money and the president pressured Hunter to accept it. Hunter had the courage to refuse. His attorney filed grievances. As the union contract allowed, Finley and Major League Baseball insisted on hiring an outside arbiter. The arbiter found Finley’s excuses ridiculous and ruled in favor of Hunter on every point.
The decision broke the decades-old wall of unanimity among owners in opposition to players. In 1974, Hunter became baseball’s first free agent. Reps from several clubs descended on his North Carolina home with offers. The Yankees signed him to a five-year, $3.5 million deal. His last A’s contract had been for $100,000. The Yankees were so cheap they didn’t even use photocopiers; they printed their press release about signing Hunter using a hand-cranked mimeograph machine.
“At the heart of McCormack’s ideas was a simple theory: Sports were about the athletes, and especially the stars.”
Today’s system still reflects the subsequent 1976 collective bargaining agreement. Players spend two years on reserve, have four years of “salary arbitration eligibility” and become free agents after six years. In 1976, the average baseball salary was $51,500. By 1981, it was $149,000. Nobody lost money from free agency. Clubs made more as their organizations grew in value. Now baseball is an $8 billion business with a cable network and a web company. The Hunter decision changed pro sports. Football and baseball tried to keep their power over players, but free agency overtook both sports. Pro teams learned that, surprisingly, they could buy greatness – and fans would respond. As players earned more, other big changes hit sports. With fortunes waiting, younger athletes dedicated their lives to a pro career, sacrificing school, family and friends.
In 1961, Nick Bollettieri, a former Marine, got a job as head of tennis at the Dorado Beach hotel in Puerto Rico. Bollettieri believed in hard work, and he had a killer instinct. He saw tennis as a clash between two wills; the more determined player would always win. Bollettieri discovered a nine-year-old whiz named Brian Gottfried at an Ohio tennis center. Bollettieri kept Gottfried on the court, hitting until dark. Gottfried eventually became the world’s number-three player and the number-one doubles player. Reflecting Bollettieri’s ethos, he worked harder than anyone else in pro tennis. With Gottfried, Bollettieri established a new idea: a young player should immerse in tennis, treat school as a secondary pursuit and, from a young age. aim toward turning pro. Prior to Bollettieri, most young athletes, even stars, lived at home, attended school and tried to have a normal life. After Bollettieri, promising kids moved away from their families to live in a specialized facility and just work on their sport. Bollettieri’s radical idea meant gathering great young players in one place so all of them faced strong competition. For many young, small-town prodigies, finding challenging competition was hard. Competitive parents paid heavy tuition to send their children to live and train with a stranger.
Young Jimmy Arias changed tennis. His dad was an engineer who carefully analyzed the classic tennis swing and found it inefficient. He had his son play with a new, open stance, a swing that finished up around the boy’s ear, and a hitting style that meant he left the ground at the point of impact with the ball. No one had ever hit like Arias. Despite his less-than-stellar defense, nonexistent backhand and average serve, he routinely beat older, stronger and better players.
“There’s something about the finish line coming into sight that separates the weak from the strong, or…the quickly weakening from those weakening less quickly.”
Bollettieri cared about hitting the ball with power. He did not care about defending against the classic hitting style. He had Arias hitting and playing all day, every day. Bollettieri’s pupils have included Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Monica Seles. Bollettieri never attempted to change their distinctive styles. He let them be who they were, but he insisted that they hit hard all day and compete even harder. A lesser or less-obsessive coach might have tried to alter their natural styles, to their detriment.
“The more an athlete won on the field of play, the more he could ask for off it.”
As Bollettieri’s reputation grew, he bought a motel and tennis complex, and steadily added more land and courts. Parents worldwide sent their kids to live at his complex and train under his tutelage. The more top players emerged from the camp, the more parents sent young players to live and train there. Students at all levels of success agreed that what made camp special was its competitive environment, which prepared them for the pressure of life on the professional circuit. This proved extremely valuable. Young players could not find this environment anywhere except far from home at a camp that immersed them in their sport.
“In a world of greedy, penurious and abusive owners…Finley managed to distinguish himself as perhaps the greediest and most penurious, and also a bit kooky.”
Today, the parents of talented kids must choose between home life and sports life. Bollettieri’s academy now trains youngsters in tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, basketball, football and other sports. Those who seek to excel must compete against other talented athletes. Scouts and agents come to the live-in camps to find the best players. Parents send their kids there, willing to give up their normal lives in hopes of fame and money.
Sonny Vaccaro and Nike
Small-time businessman Sonny Vaccaro made a living on the fringes of basketball. He had an idea for a basketball shoe and went to Portland, Oregon, to pitch it to Nike. The company’s principals didn’t care for the shoe, but they liked Vaccaro and hired him to market their shoes to kids in high school and college. Vaccaro figured out how to do that. He knew that college athletes do what their coaches tell them. Don’t sell the kids, he told Nike, sell the coaches. By 1981, approximately 80 college basketball teams wore Nike sneakers. That worked well for Nike. What worked less well was that college stars often switched to different sneaker brands when they became professionals. Then came Michael Jordan.
“McCormack was determined to make life better for the athletes, but in doing so he could make it better for everyone – leagues, team owners, athletic federations and fans.”
As Nike puzzled over the upcoming 1984 NBA draft of college players, its executives tried to figure out what proportion of their $500,000 endorsement budget should go to several different, likely high draft picks. Vaccaro had another idea, a radical plan that would shape athletic marketing forever. Vaccaro suggested giving the whole $500,000 to Michael Jordan. This meant that Nike would build every ad campaign and the identity of its company around one player. Every billboard, television commercial and magazine advertisement would follow one theme: Jordan is Nike, and Nike is Jordan. Jordan became the face of the company. The success of that strategy is legendary. In 1987, Jordan signed his second contract with Nike, guaranteeing him $18 million over seven years and a 5% royalty on the sale of all Jordan model shoes. A deal at that level didn’t make Jordan an endorser of Nike products; it made him a partner.
Marketing, Not Shoes
In 1992, Nike CEO and founder Phil Knight made a startling admission. He said that since its inception, Nike had been a production-oriented company. That meant Nike based its brand, profit and survival on making the best, most attractive products it could. Now, however, Knight recognized that Nike had become a marketing-oriented company. The product is a marketing tool. In other words, athletic shoes existed to market Nike, not the other way around.
About the Author
Senior special writer for sports at The Wall Street Journal Matthew Futterman was part of a New Jersey Star-Ledger team than won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.
“Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution” by Matthew Futterman delves deep into the intricate relationship between sports and the business of sports. Futterman explores how the world of athletics has evolved over the years, becoming a massive global industry, and how this transformation has affected both players and the game itself.
The book takes readers on a captivating journey through the history of sports, from its humble beginnings to the multimillion-dollar industry it is today. Futterman examines the pivotal moments and key figures who played instrumental roles in shaping the sports world we know today. He highlights how athletes, agents, and entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of revolutionizing the industry, challenging the status quo, and pushing for greater financial rewards for players.
The narrative is enriched with engaging anecdotes and interviews, providing readers with a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and triumphs of athletes striving to achieve their dreams and secure fair compensation for their talents. Futterman also sheds light on the emergence of players’ associations and unions, which have played crucial roles in advocating for better working conditions and compensation for athletes.
Throughout the book, Futterman addresses various ethical and moral dilemmas that arise in the world of sports and money. He scrutinizes the impact of commercialization on the purity of sports and how the relentless pursuit of profit can sometimes overshadow the essence of the games we love.
“Players” is an exceptional exploration of the intersection between sports and commerce. Futterman’s narrative is thoroughly researched and well-written, offering readers a thought-provoking perspective on the business of sports. The book successfully conveys the passion and determination of athletes, as well as the challenges they face in navigating the complex world of contracts, endorsements, and negotiations.
Futterman does an excellent job of presenting both sides of the coin, acknowledging the positive changes that have come with the growth of the sports industry, while also highlighting the ethical dilemmas and concerns that persist. It’s a book that will resonate with sports enthusiasts, business-minded readers, and anyone interested in the dynamics of modern sports.
In conclusion, “Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution” is a must-read for those seeking a deeper understanding of the financial, cultural, and moral dimensions of sports. Futterman’s storytelling skillfully brings the world of sports to life, making it a compelling and informative read.