OBSERVATIONS ON CORPORATE SPORTS AND THEIR ALTERNATIVES

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The dictionary defines the word "corporation" as being "a body politic or corporate, formed and authorized by law to act as a single person, and endowed by law with the capacity of succession; a society having the capacity of transacting business as an individual."

Read the definition a couple of times, and think to yourself, "Is this the aim of team sports?"

There is a certain corporate cachet which has taken over professional sports in the past 25 or 30 years. Teams are now called "franchises," the athletes seen as "entertainers."

Large sums of money are paid to the best players, and thousands of well-heeled corporate types are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for club seats and luxury boxes.

The big money coming into sports has done two things to most major professional sports. First, it has created a segment of fandom that takes into account every move made off the field when it comes to salary caps, deferred money, and signing bonuses.

But the second and most important trend is that there is now a more "corporate" style of play in most sports. The "corporate" style, in a nutshell, is one which relies more on discipline, not taking chances, and conservative game plans.

What has this done? In some cases, it has made some sports incredibly boring to watch.

There has been a "corporate" style for many years in that great world sport, soccer. Coaches, in their zest to play not to lose, send only one or two players into the attack end against six or eight opposing defenders, resulting in many 1-0 and 0-0 matches in many international matches.

France, for instance, managed to win the 1998 World Cup without much scoring from its two forwards: the midfielders were the stars, picking the right moment to push up from their defensive responsibilities to score key goals.

But teams without this kind of talent simply played a hit-and-hope sort of game, leading to low scoring at World Cup tournaments in the late 80s and early 90s.

In professional basketball, the corporate style has turned the old "run-and-gun" style of the 70s and 80s into a slowed-down, plodding game of offensive execution. Gone are the games where both teams would exceed 110 points; several times in recent history, NBA teams struggled to score as many as 70 in a game. Basketball fans, despite the presence of numerous good young players, have stayed away.

In professional baseball, the corporate style is seen as the eternal search for good pitching and defense. Oh, sure, there have been more home runs hit in the late 1990s into the early 2000s than ever before. However, the best teams (the Yankees, Braves, and their ilk) have concentrated on getting good starting pitching and good infield defense. Both help tremendously in cutting down the opposing number of runs scored.

It used to be that the primary focus of a baseball team was to score more runs than your opponent; these days, the corporate mentality is to prevent the scoring of runs rather than to go out and "manufacture" runs by bunting, stealing, sacrificing.

The National Hockey League came out of the "Score-O" decade of the 1980s into one which has seen goaltenders and defense dominate. The "left-wing lock" -- the defensive technique which disrupts the opposition's ability to maintain possession of the puck at center ice -- is now part of the vocabulary of the game.

The impressive comeback of Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux has turned "corporate hockey" on its head, however. His offensive flair, combined with good teammates on his attack line, is a throwback to the era when scoring records were being broken regularly.

Despite this, as well as an overtime period in which the teams not only skate four-a-side, but one in which an overtime loss does not cost your team a point in the standings, the number of 0-0 draws is uncomfortably high.

In football, the Baltimore Ravens were able to win a Super Bowl in 2001 by giving up the fewest points in the history of the league for a 16-game season. Despite having an offense that did not score a touchdown for an entire month of the season, the ballclub was able to thwart, interpose, and generally frustrate other teams all season.

The Ravens, as part of the National Football League, has to abide by numerous strict codes. End-zone celebrations are discouraged, shirts and socks must appear a certain way on players, and only certain ballcaps may be worn on the sidelines during games.

The corporate style of sports, as well as large contracts of upwards of $200 million, has turned fans off to many pro sports. Alternatives have found small audiences. Pro soccer, minor league baseball, minor league ice hockey, indoor football, and college sports have done remarkably well in this environment.

New leagues are being founded seemingly every week. The revival of the ABA, a women's football league, an outdoor pro lacrosse league.

The upcoming years will be crucial for many of these non-corporate sporting alternatives. The downturn of the economy may turn some conservative investors away from underwriting teams and leagues.

The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Major League Lacrosse (MLL) began in the summer of 2001, on the heels of the major launch (and subsequent underperformance) of the XFL.

In many cases, the new ventures fostered a number of new ventures which have sought to demystify pro sports. The XFL, for instance, promised locker-room access, microphones and cameras in every part of the game, and players could alter their uniform appearance -- even to put something other than their last name on the backs of their jerseys.

The WUSA and NFL have miked players, the WNBA and NBA allow microphones in the huddle. Motor racing has become a bastion of openness, where pit reporters are asking questions of drivers, mechanics, and crew chiefs at every turn.

Question is, are people willing to come and watch what is in front of the scenes if the behind-the-scenes action is better than the product on the field?

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