As someone who was born in the 90’s, I have always known pro sports as a lucrative business. Star players make more than $20,000,000 per year, several teams are valued north of a billion dollars, and the NFL’s 30 teams shared 7.8 billion in TV revenue in 2016. It’s a good time to be in the sports business. If you ever wondered how the path of a pro athlete became such a gilded road to riches, Matthew Futterman’s Players: How Sports Became a Business is an excellent resource.
The guiding question behind the book is “How did we get here?” Where did the inflated salaries, endorsements, sports academies, tv money, agents, scandal, corruption, and greed come from? How did those things find a way to infiltrate the games we played as kids?
The short answer is superstars and sacrifice. People have historically shown a willingness to pay a premium to watch superstars perform. Owners recognized this and lined their pockets through a number of exploitative tactics. Because of this, players, agents and players associations had to fight for many of the things players take for granted today, including as free agency. Sometimes players toiled for rights they would never get the chance to use. Their struggles transformed the sports world as we know it, and benefitted generations of athletes to come.
Key Characters (The Superstars of the book)
Mark McCormack: Cleveland-based lawyer and founder of the famed talent management company IMG. Known in the book as “the man who invented sports”, McCormack signed a young Arnold Palmer and freed him from an exploitative contract with Wilson Sporting Goods. Together, they built an empire off of a brand that continues to hold relevance after they both passed away.
Arnold Palmer: One of the most decorated golfers of all-time and arguably the first modern superstar. Yes, stars like Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe came before him, but Palmer’s partnership with McCormack vaulted him into an entirely different class. The “broad-backed boy” from Latrobe, PA died worth nearly a billion dollars, paving the way for future stars to capitalize on their true value and build empires of their own.
Catfish Hunter: The first MLB free agent. Prior to free agency, the MLB had a reserve clause that allowed teams to renew any player’s contract as many times as they wanted. After years of negotiation, Marvin Miller and the MLBPA were able to include an exception in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that let players out of their contracts and become free agents if their team breached the contract. The Oakland A’s failed to execute Hunter’s contract properly, and ended up creating a bidding war for baseball’s most coveted pitcher of the day. Who won the bidding war, you ask? George Steinbrenner and the Yankees. Of course.
Michael Jordan: The greatest basketball player to ever live. The only black owner in the big 4 American sports leagues. Nike’s biggest cash cow. Looking to expand it’s basketball portfolio before the 1984 draft, Nike considered using $500,000 to sign several players to endorsement deals. Instead, they gave it all to Jordan and focused on building his brand. It turned out to be one of the best investments ever made.
Edwin Moses: An HBCU (Morehouse) grad who brought scientific precision to Olympic hurdling. In his day, Olympic athletes had to be “amateurs,” which meant that athletes couldn’t be paid for their athletic endeavors. So naturally, they started taking money under the table and many had real jobs to cover their expenses. For a while, Moses worked as an engineer while training for his Olympic events. Could you imagine an Olympic Gold Medalist having to keep a day job to support himself? Moses eventually pushed for the creation of the Athlete’s Trust fund that would provide stipends for Olympians.
- Stars set the market. The highest paid guy determines what the average and lower paid guys make, because their value is in relation to him.
- TV did wonders for sports. Not only did the deals secure financial viability for the leagues, they also made pro sports more accessible to the average joe who could turn on the tv instead of buying a ticket.
- Sports is always evolving. The sports world looks very different than it did in 1950, or even as recently as 1990’s. Changes will come, and those who can stay ahead of the curve and innovate will win.
I thought Players was a great read. It took me a little under 2 weeks to finish. It was quick, interesting, and I learned a lot. Futterman included his source notes with the book and I look forward to reading some of the stuff he read. Overall, I’d recommend this book to any sports fan or professional. To know where something is heading, you have to know where it came from. This is a worthy intro to where the cash in pro sports came from.