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In pro sports lockouts, the owners win

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
NBA Commissioner David Stern, right, and  Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver announce a lockout June 30 in New York.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, right, and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver announce a lockout June 30 in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says lockouts could mean no pro football or basketball this season
  • He says in lockouts, players say they're needed for games; owners say we won't play
  • Players get too old to play, he says; owners have time on their side, don't need to deal
  • Greene: Owners know that in the end the customers will be back, cash in hand
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    Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

    (CNN) -- In Las Vegas, they say, the house always wins. In professional sports -- at least in the long run -- so do the owners.

    Disputes between athletes and team owners have resulted in lockouts in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Come autumn, Americans may find themselves with no pro football to watch and then, no pro basketball to watch.

    A lockout is different from a strike in this regard: When athletes and owners engage in bitter negotiations, the athletes sometimes end up saying, in effect, to their employers, "Without the players, you can't play the games." To which the owners, in effect, reply, "You're right. So we're not going to play any games."

    In the weeks and months ahead, many fans will cite the adage that this is a case of billionaires fighting with millionaires over how to split up more billions of dollars. Meanwhile, as long as the lockouts are in place, the stadiums and arenas will be empty.

    But the owners -- always -- have the advantage over the current-day players.

    Every player, regardless of how talented or popular, eventually becomes too old or too injured to play.

    No owner becomes too old or too injured to own.

    Time is on the owners' side. They know that there will always be new players coming along -- swift, strong, ambitious. The owners can wait.

    The players? They have made enormous economic strides in recent decades because of the strength of their unions. Professional athletes were not always millionaires. I've been reading some old newspaper columns by the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, who died in 1973. One particular column -- Cannon wrote it in 1960 -- caught my eye. It was titled: "Defensive Lineman." It begins:

    "The defensive lineman often wonders why he chose professional football as a career. He would quit if he could make a living doing anything else. At thirty-two, he is considered a man past his prime in the game. His pay is $9,500 a season. He doesn't think of himself as an athlete, but as a manual laborer toiling in obscurity."

    In the half-century since Cannon wrote that column, life has changed for NFL players. Sports Illustrated, before the 2008 season, did a position-by-position salary survey. The average salary for a defensive tackle, the magazine reported, was $1.22 million. Last year the magazine computed the average salaries of the top five players at each position; an elite defensive tackle was paid, on average, $6.06 million.

    But back to Jimmy Cannon. In his 1960 column he wrote:

    "In the off-season, the defensive lineman has had many jobs. But they never last. People like him. He has an appealing shyness. ... He now works with a construction gang. He tells people he does it to keep in shape. It is really the only job he can hold."

    Many readers today might be wondering what Cannon was referring to. Off-season jobs? Before professional athletes became routinely wealthy, that was standard: A ballplayer had to work a second job in the off-season to support himself and his family. Selling insurance was a popular line of work; a baseball player or basketball player could trade on his famous name to get his foot in the door to sell people policies. Elementary-school boys, in the 1950s, when asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, might say: "I'm going to play for the Cardinals, and sell insurance in the off-season." That's what they had heard that athletes did.

    It wasn't inflation that accounted for the lineman's raise from $9,500 a season to $1.22 million and beyond; it was tough negotiating positions taken by the players with the owners, and tough negotiating positions taken by the owners with the television networks.

    In the end, though, who pays for all this? You know the answer.

    The fans do. The national addiction to professional sports has become so ingrained that the most preposterous things are now accepted as a matter of course. I've watched some New York Yankees games on television this baseball season, and there frequently appeared to be empty seats in the prime positions behind home plate and the dugouts. I wondered, as long as those seats weren't filled, if they were available for the public to purchase.

    They are. For a game later this month against the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees, on their official website, had such seats available. The price for one that I found: $1,358.90.

    For a nine-inning, regular season baseball game.

    (Of course, there are ways to do better than this. When I told a friend in New York about the thousand-dollar-plus single seats, he told me that he'd been able to buy a pretty good seat along the right-field line for a game at Yankee Stadium last year on StubHub, for $95. This indeed sounds much more reasonable than the $1,358.90 price. Until you stop to contemplate that we now are willing to accept a $95 baseball ticket as not being particularly outrageous.)

    And now the NFL and the NBA are indicating that there may be no seasons. The owners and players can't figure out how to divide all that money. For any other business, this might be disastrous; we are in fearful economic times, people's homes are being foreclosed upon, parents are out of work, jobs are disappearing. You might think -- were this any other business -- that the customers, angry and insulted, would walk away and never come back. If the product stopped being produced, then the customers would find someplace else to permanently spend their time and their money.

    But this isn't any other business. This is professional sports. And the proprietors know that, in the end -- whenever the owners and players decide the end will be -- the customers will be back, cash in hand. Sitting in the stands wearing officially licensed team jerseys.

    The house always wins.

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.