Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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And this weak economy has commentator Frank Deford thinking about a new business model for professional sports.

FRANK DEFORD: I always wondered why people would volunteer to work for nothing at sports events like golf and tennis tournaments. I mean, volunteering is a wonderful thing. But if you're nice enough to do that, why wouldn't you volunteer at the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter or a hospital or a school? Why would you volunteer at a business endeavor where your free labor was being donated so that young sports stars could make hundreds of thousands of dollars for that same week's work?

But sports are glamorous, and people feel very proud about the big-time events that adorn their community. Gee, maybe this is the pattern that sports teams are now going to need to turn to in this economic downturn. The Yankees could surely use their devoted fans to volunteer to usher and sell beer and clean up the restrooms so that they'll have enough profit to pay the pitcher they thirst over, C.C. Sabathia, the — holy AIG! — $140 million they've offered him.

More seriously, it may become the case that even if the top stars like Sabathia still get huge pots of money, sports may begin to follow more the model of Hollywood. The movies pay their performers this way. The lion's share of the money allotted to the actors on a film goes to one big box office star. The other actors are not paid proportionally less. That is, if the big star gets $20 million, it doesn't mean his leading lady gets 15 million and the top featured character actor three or four million. Rather, it means that the producers have slots. You want to be a leading lady? Fine. We're paying $800,000 for that. And pretty much take it or leave it.

The sports model I can envision will mean that the merely nice, serviceable players, the character actors of games - say the rebounding power forward who can't shoot, the good-field-no-hit shortstop — will see their multimillion-dollar salaries considerably reduced, even if the celebrity stars may still receive the real big money. Remember, in hard economic times, all entertainments are vulnerable because they're optional expenditures. But sport is the most susceptible. Think about it. If you want to go see the concert or the circus, you have no alternative but to buy tickets.

You want to see Billy Elliott on Broadway? Pony up or miss out. The hot holiday movies? Go down to the cinemaplex and fork over your eight or ten bucks, or wait for months 'til they come out on Netflix. But if you want to see a sports event — hey, they're still all yours for free on television. Maybe it's not quite as good as being there, but it's in HD and in living color, and you're watching the drama in real time. In this difficult period, sustaining attendance at sports events is in greater jeopardy than selling tickets to the other entertainments. Only sport competes directly against itself on TV.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford has no competition. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford