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Financial Stakes High For Professional Sports


THIS fall, sports fans may need to start a league of their own.

Football is on track, but the three other most-prominent professional spectator sports are mired in financial conflict between owners and players.

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Baseball's season ended prematurely with a players' strike. Hockey's opening has been delayed as team owners stage a lockout. The basketball season may begin the same way unless a breakthrough comes in last-minute talks. ``It seems like it's a harmonic convergence of labor relations in sports,'' says Christopher Cameron, a labor-law expert at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.

The three sports all had collective-bargaining agreements come due for renewal this year. In addition, Professor Cameron says, hockey and basketball athletes are impressed by the tough stance baseball players have taken against the owners. Although baseball players have won victories in recent labor disputes, Cameron says he doubts that hockey and basketball players are on the verge of success.

The stakes in all three sports are high. Among the key issues: How will $3.5 billion (the revenues from all three sports combined) be divided? Can wide disparities in payrolls between poorer and richer teams be bridged? Will the wage total be capped as a fixed percentage of league revenues, or will a free market dictate salaries?

Perhaps most significantly, will fans tune out in disgust if the squabbling becomes protracted? Although players and owners struggle over money, and teams compete with each other for titles, they ultimately depend on each other to lure spectators to stadiums and TV sets.

``These are partners in a joint venture,'' says Gary Roberts, a sports-law expert at Tulane University in New Orleans. ``If the players don't get enough, then they get disgruntled; too much, and teams are unprofitable.''

Similarly, if leagues become stratified between successful, high-paid teams and perennial losers that can't afford high salaries, the whole league becomes a poorer product. On this issue, the key is sharing ticket and TV revenues among the teams. Analysts say many of baseball's problems could be solved if owners could agree to share more of their cash-flow. Baseball pools only about one-fourth of revenues, a much lower amount than other sports.

Whether the issue is dividing money among teams or between owners and players, no side wants to give up hard-won gains, especially since revenue-growth appears to be slowing, Professor Roberts says. ``It'll be a slow track'' toward resolution of all three labor disputes, he predicts.

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Here's how the battle lines are drawn in each sport:

Hockey. Owners want to limit salaries by imposing a tax on teams that have above-average payrolls. Players are calling it a salary-cap in disguise - something their peers in baseball are resisting mightily. Cameron says he sees one sign that owners may have the upper hand: Players offered not to strike in return for a no-lockout pledge by owners. He says unions generally don't give up their right to strike. The league went ahead with a two-week lockout last Friday, as the season was supposed to open. This comes as the National Hockey League is trying to raise its profile in the sports world, aided by its first-ever national TV contract, with the Fox network.

Basketball. The National Basketball Association says it still hopes to reach an agreement with players before the season starts Nov. 4. But players are resisting the existing salary cap, set at 53 percent of league revenues. (Team payrolls can vary between $13 million and $16 million.) The cap, begun when the league was in serious trouble, violates antitrust laws, players allege in a lawsuit that is on appeal. A ruling is expected shortly before the season, and players are unlikely to bargain before the ruling.

Baseball. Owners want a salary cap set at 50 percent of the sport's revenues, saying they would then do more revenue-sharing among teams. Players timed their strike when it would hurt owners the most, at the season climax. The sides still seem far apart.

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