Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution

Image of Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution
Release Date: 
April 25, 2016
Simon & Schuster
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It used to be the best pro athlete made about as much as an early career MBA. Today, the top professional athlete might make 100 times what a top B-school MBA might earn. 

Players chronicles the revolution of sports power and money that led to this sea change compensation difference leading to the rewarding celebrity in sports. Players realizing earnings reflective of their market value parallels the similar phenomenon in the movie industry: once stars were no longer under the control of movie studios seven-year contracts paying meager wages were phased out.

Sports have been long administered by heavy handed, arrogant bureaucrats who promoted their interests, enjoying the perks, prestige, and financial rewards of the sports at the expense of the athletes who played the sports.

But there was a fundamental problem. The athletes were the main show, yet they were denied power, respect, money. As Mathew Futterman writes in Players, “No one was buying tickets to the Italian Open to see the President of the Italian Tennis Federation. They came to see the players, so shouldn’t they get some say as to when the tournament might be held, how the purse should be distributed and what sorts of minimum support the tournament might provide for all of its participants when they made their way to Rome? It didn’t seem like a lot to ask.”

For the longest time, tennis had a relatively low profile, more a sideshow than a main show, until the boycott by the world’s best players who refused to play in the 1972 Wimbledon Tournament led to reforms concerning scheduling and governance that caused tennis to boom.

“Free to play whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted for whatever money they could rustle up, tennis’ best began to put on the kinds of high stakes, high-profile showcases that became the best advertising the game could dream of. Tennis became boxing, as reflected by the U.S. Open prize money growing 10+ times from 1972 to 1983.  Concurrently, U.S. tennis participation surged, nearly doubling in just three years, from 21 million to 41 million in 1975. The enduring power of tennis is indicated by the four highest compensated women in sports in 2013 being tennis players.

It used to be that those who evolved to play sports professionally came up through an informal school-dominated system supplemented by recreation leagues, summer camps, and all-corners track meets. Now the very best young athletes attend sports academies devoting all of their time to training, lifting weights, practice, and sports psychologists sessions focused on being the very best. Now many of the best athletes no longer compete for their school teams but turn professional, not only to monetize their talents, but to access better training.

As players get better, play becomes more entertaining, more valuable, and more rewarded. Starting earlier, players do more intense, scientific training, and play longer duration meant both more time playing at the highest level and more time to get better. Strikingly, Olympic Gold medals winners are now considerably older than in earlier times, reflecting how more time to practice and perfect their craft leads to ever higher levels of excellence.

Better athletes meant better sports. Better sports meant more valuable entertainment. More valuable entertainment was monetized via television advertising and cable subscriptions, sponsorships, endorsements, merchandise, higher ticket prices, and concessions sales.  

As pro-sports economics have evolved, teams are now much more valuable, players are much more highly compensated, media is much more profitable, and those dealmakers who make it happen are richly rewarded. The transformation of sports was driven partly by athletes’ excellence, but more dominantly resulted from initiative, scheming, and innovations of ambitious promoters, managers, and agents.

A most telling metric of the pro sports revolution is that TV rights for the three 1960–1968 Olympics Games went for less than $10 million, whereas NBC recently committed to pay $8 billion for the 2024–2032 Olympic Games, a staggering 800x increase!

Players is flawed by rather sloppy publishing production values: no table of contents, multiple instances of copy editing seeming to be MIA, and some blatant inaccuracies, such as erroneously describing four-times 120-yard high hurdle relay as involving passing a baton, when the exchange is indicated by the finishing runner, tapping the shoulder of the next runner crouched in the sprinter’s starting position.

Notwithstanding these not quite ready for prime time publishing production attributes, Players is an entertaining, illuminating read. Particularly appealing is the author’s emphasis on the backstory, the progress path from what was then to what is now.

Matthew Futterman’s investigative research reveals insights and insider perspectives that even those highly knowledgeable in the sports featured will find informative, even intriguing.