Since When Is College Football Not A Business?

Since When Is College Football Not A Business?

Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) — So the National Labor Relations Board hearings on the Northwestern University football team’s proposal to form a union have just gotten under way, and we already have our first howler.

Here it is, from the mouth of Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, Alan K. Cubbage: “We do not regard, and have never regarded, our football program as a commercial enterprise.” OK, Alan, but you may be the only ones who don’t. How, exactly, is an entity that sells tickets to its events — not to mention the national TV rights to broadcast those events — not engaging in commerce?

Not surprisingly, the claim — that big-time college sports do not represent commercial activity — has been consistently rejected by the courts. It also directly contradicts various statements made by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its current and former officials.

Consider, for instance, a strategic report written in 2011 for the University of California at Davis by ex-NCAA president Cedric Dempsey. Davis had recently moved up from Division II to Division I, and the partly related fallout — specifically, the decision to cut some non-revenue-generating sports — had kicked up controversy on campus. Dempsey, who had become a consultant after leaving the NCAA, was hired to explain to everyone how the world of big-time college sports works. As he put it, Division II still uses an “educational model” that relishes “the history of noble amateurism.” Division I, by contrast, is run on more of a “business model,” with schools investing resources in the sports with the greatest potential to generate revenue. Hmmm.

Dempsey’s successor at the NCAA, Myles Brand, put an even finer point on it. In a 2006 speech to NCAA members, Brand explained that “commercial activity” — like selling broadcast rights — is mandated by the “business plan.” The failure to “maximize revenues,” he said, would be “incompetence at best and malfeasance at worst.”

It was just one of many occasions that Brand used to push the NCAA to embrace commerce — or to more enthusiastically embrace its commercial roots, which actually predate the existence of the organization itself. The very first intercollegiate competition, a regatta between Harvard and Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, was the brainchild of the superintendent of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, who figured it would help fill his cars. It did. Before long, the Harvard-Yale regatta was an annual event to which both schools were selling tickets.

From these humble beginnings, big-time college sports were born. Now, a handful of collegiate football players wants a seat at the table where workplace conditions are being discussed. And the school that’s trying to deny them that seat apparently can’t come up with a more compelling argument than the self-evidently stupid claim that a multi-billion-dollar industry is not a commercial enterprise.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmahler.)

Photo: Party_Of_Five via Flickr

Mix A Big Apple With The Super Bowl For A Big Bust

Mix A Big Apple With The Super Bowl For A Big Bust

Eight years ago, or thereabouts, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson had a vision. He shared this vision with John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, and together they made history: A Super Bowl in New York! Or New Jersey. (Close enough.)

“It will be a great experience for our fans and a great experience for the NFL,” Commissioner Roger Goodell promised in 2010, when the site was chosen for this year’s Super Bowl.

It has been neither. In fact, the game may still be a few days away but it’s time to call the NFL’s cold-weather Super Bowl what it is: A big fat failure.

As of Tuesday, there were still 18,000 tickets available to the game. Hotel rates in New York City — and East Rutherford and Secaucus, for that matter — are plummeting. Weird. Who could have predicted that paying $2,000 to stand in the freezing cold and watch a football game might not be everyone’s idea of a great winter getaway?

Like all major sporting events, this one started with plenty of hooey about all of the money that it would generate for its host city (or cities). Random, obviously overstated estimates were thrown around. An economic-benefits study commissioned by the host committee — what major sporting event would be complete without an economic-benefits study? — reportedly put the number at $600 million. I say “reportedly” because the host committee has refused to release the study to the public, which tells you everything you need to know about the oil gusher of cash currently showering heretofore unimaginable prosperity on the New York metropolitan area.

There are surely some football fans who have come to New York for the Big Game. Many of them seem to be gathering at Super Bowl Boulevard, the giant NFL theme park that has taken over Times Square, making midtown Manhattan even more of a nightmare to navigate than usual. Ride the Super Bowl Toboggan! Buy a picture of your face Photoshopped onto the cover of Madden! (Pro tip to tourists who intend to visit the Intrepid on their stay in New York: It’s closed Friday for a Bud Light-sponsored Super Bowl event.) Of course, these amusements seem to have been organized less for the sake of local businesses than for the league and its marketing partners.

It would be inaccurate to say that no New Yorkers are seeing economic benefits from having the Super Bowl in their backyard: Giants quarterback Eli Manning, freed from the obligations of having to play football in the postseason, is hosting a DirectTV party with Jay-Z. Both are surely being well compensated for their labor.

Why did the NFL agree to play the Super Bowl in New York in the first place? Because this is how the league always rewards teams that refurbish or rebuild their stadiums. The new Meadowlands Stadium was completed in 2010, even though taxpayers were — indeed, still are — servicing $110 million in debt on the old one.

You can argue — however unconvincingly — that even if the economics don’t add up, cities enjoy ancillary benefits from hosting big sporting events, such as the opportunity to raise their profiles. But you can’t make that argument when the city is New York. You can’t even say — though I suspect Goodell has at some point — that locating the game in the U.S. media capital would be good for football’s exposure. The Super Bowl is the most hyped sporting event in the world, no matter where it’s played. New York didn’t need it, and it didn’t need New York.

Super Bowl, get back to Tampa or Phoenix, where you belong.

Photo: marsmettn tallahassee via Flickr

Tea Party Aims Its Chop at Braves’ New Stadium

Tea Party Aims Its Chop at Braves’ New Stadium

The Tea Party is coming to the rescue! Seriously. Last month, when the Atlanta Braves announced their intention to abandon Turner Field for a new, publicly subsidized stadium in Cobb County, we were all wondering what America’s favorite “populist movement” would have to say. A local government committing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to a project without a referendum? This was tailor-made for them to go absolutely bananas. And, of course, Cobb County is Tea Party country — the birthplace of Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid and home base of two of its most stalwart members, Republican representatives Tom Price and Phil Gingrey.

On the other hand, when the County Commission passed the plan for the $672 million stadium on a 4-1 vote, the holdout was a lone Democratic commissioner. (Business as usual: When isn’t a highly profitable professional sports team bamboozling a local government into spending millions in tax dollars on a new stadium?)

Liberal talking head Lawrence O’Donnell was confident the Tea Party would cave to the big money. “Here we have the perfect test for the Tea Party,” O’Donnell said on MSNBC after the stadium deal was first announced. “A test the Tea Party will surely fail.”

On the contrary! In the coming days, the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots are expected to file a lawsuit against the Cobb County Board of Commissioners to block construction of the new stadium. The group’s leader, Debbie Dooley, says the deal represents an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money. She also doesn’t like the precedent it could set. “If Cobb County is allowed to get away with this, you can bet other counties will do everything in their power to circumvent a vote by the people for something like this,” she said.

There’s another potential precedent here, too. If the Braves are entitled to subsidies, what about other private corporations? Since the deal was announced, the Weather Channel has already demanded tax breaks for its planned expansion in Cobb County. Who’s next?

There’s something for everyone to hate in the Cobb County deal. Thus, Georgia’s Tea Partiers find themselves making common cause with local environmentalists and transportation activists, who warn that the planned stadium — virtually inaccessible by public transportation — would dramatically increase traffic and pollution in a region already choking on SUVs. Local education advocates oppose the stadium, too; they’d rather see the money go toward closing the county schools’ $80 million deficit and rehiring 182 teachers who’ve been laid off. No wonder the Braves and Cobb County conducted their negotiations in secret.

The man who brokered the deal, Tim Lee, chairman of the county board of commissioners, said the stadium would be an economic boon. He conjured visions of a $400 million development adjacent to the stadium with hotels, retail, restaurants, office space and residences. Yup, it’s the old “ballpark village” con. More often than not, these developments fail to materialize. If this one proves the exception, well, then Cobb County will have just what it doesn’t need: a strip mall on steroids.

For now, however, let’s just thank Dooley and her fellow Patriots and urge them on. Make yourselves useful, Tea Party! Go forth and get angry about publicly financed stadiums! And if the lawsuit falters — we’ll know more about its prospects after it’s filed — the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots can always try to relieve Cobb County’s commissioners of their duties. The Tea Party does love a good recall.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler)

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Gays And Gulags On 2014 Sochi Olympics Agenda

Gays And Gulags On 2014 Sochi Olympics Agenda

Lest you think the International Olympic Committee doesn’t take its ideals seriously, consider its solution to this whole LGBT debacle in Sochi: Protest zones.

Yes, this is how the IOC plans to deal with a 2014 Winter Games host country that treats gay people like drug dealers. If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve seen it before — no, not in the Warsaw Ghetto — at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

In order to protest, you had to obtain a government permit. Guess what? Not one of the dozens of applications filed by Chinese citizens was accepted. Instead, applicants were detained, harassed and jailed. Two elderly women who had hoped to speak out about a land dispute were sent to a forced labor camp for “re-education.” The policy was basically a convenient means for China to identify and persecute dissidents.

We don’t know yet precisely how Russian president Vladimir Putin plans to set up his country’s protest zones, but given the Chinese precedent, the general outlines aren’t much in doubt. Even if protesters don’t wind up in a Siberian gulag, the zones aren’t exactly an invitation to free expression: “Come on out and be heard before we round you up!”

It’s worth keeping in mind, as the 2014 Winter Games approach, that the IOC probably could have stopped Russia from introducing its anti-gay legislation with a single threatening phone call from IOC president Thomas Bach to Putin. Why would the Olympic Committee take such a forthright stand? Maybe because its own charter specifically bars “any sort of discrimination.”

Of course, the IOC chose not to intervene, and has since done a very unconvincing job of convincing the world that athletes and spectators would be exempt from Russia’s law banning “homosexual propaganda.” The committee’s inaction looks all the more pathetic now that two European officials — including the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck — have announced their intention to boycott the games. More boycott announcements will surely follow. The pressure on the IOC will continue to grow, and the IOC will continue to pretend that it doesn’t have a big problem on its hands.

Whenever conversation turns to Sochi, the IOC points out that its charter doesn’t only ban discrimination, it also prohibits political protests. “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” the charter states.

This, presumably, is why Olympic officials think they’ll be able to herd the Sochi protesters into discrete areas that will surely be many miles from the events themselves. What they’re forgetting is that we’ve seen this stunt before. So have the protesters.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

Photo: Andy Miah via Flickr

Braves Leave Atlanta — And Fans — Behind

Braves Leave Atlanta — And Fans — Behind

Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) — Leave it to the Atlanta Braves, who gave America John Rocker and the “Tomahawk Chop,” to become the first baseball team in years to abandon its city.

The announcement earlier this week caught just about everyone by surprise. It’s not uncommon for professional sports franchises to relocate. But they don’t usually do so until they’ve spent years threatening to move if they don’t get X, Y and Z.

Turner Field, the “baseball stadium for the ages” that the Braves are suddenly desperate to flee, isn’t even 20 years old. Meanwhile, Cobb County, which is promising to build them a new one, may be affluent but you’d never know it by the state of county finances: Its schools superintendent has suggested moving a “large portion” of high-school classes online to help close an $84 million budget gap.

The real surprise isn’t that a sports team that doesn’t need a new stadium is getting one, or even that a county that can’t afford to pay teachers is planning to spend $300 million subsidizing a $629 million professional baseball franchise. It’s that a Major League team wants to move to the suburbs, which goes against pretty much everything we have learned since Camden Yards opened in downtown Baltimore in 1992, leading baseball back into the heart of America’s cities.

Baseball is an urban game. It started in the industrial Northeast and gradually migrated to newer cities in the South and West. There’s no great mystery here: You need a large population to fill a stadium 81 times a year. It’s true that Atlanta’s suburbs are unusually dense, and the Braves have even created this handy heat map of ticketholders to demonstrate that most fans are coming from the northwest suburbs. But the only thing this map proves is that it’s already too hard to get to a Braves game if you don’t want to drive. Incredibly, Turner Field is a 25-minute walk from the nearest MARTA station.

Getting to a Braves game will be an even more unpleasant experience for many fans once the team moves. Cobb County is aggressively opposed to mass transit, and if you think the arrival of a 40,000-plus seat ballpark might change that, you’re wrong. The chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, Joe Dendy, has vowed that the county won’t make it any easier for people from Atlanta — yes, those people — to arrive by train.

It’s one thing for 80,000-seat football stadiums, with their sprawling, tailgate-friendly parking lots, to be situated in the suburbs. But baseball is different. Even the New York Yankees had the decency to build their $1.5 billion, luxury- suite-lined ballpark in the city, just steps from several different subway lines.

Baseball stadiums from Fenway and Wrigley to Coors and PNC are welcoming, democratic places, stitched into the fabric of their cities. They’re located near subways, commuter rail, bike lanes, bus lines and within walking distance of neighborhoods where people live and work. The unmistakable message is that these ballparks are for everyone. You can still buy a ticket to a game, and maybe even treat yourself to a beer, for a relatively modest sum — as professional sporting events go, anyway. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend a summer afternoon or evening, and on any given day, there’s an almost 50-50 chance that your team will be in town. Ballparks aren’t quite public space, but they are awfully close.

The Braves’ new stadium, by contrast, will be an inaccessible suburban theme park surrounded not by vibrant signs of city life but by sprawl — subdivisons, strip malls and SUV-choked interstates and access routes. It promises to be more than just a monument to failed urban planning. It’s going to be an affront to baseball.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler.)

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Obama’s NCAA Bracket: Hope But No Change

Obama’s NCAA Bracket: Hope But No Change

Like the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey or baseball’s ceremonial first pitch, the First Bracket is now a Washington institution. So it was inevitable that it would become politicized.

This year the criticism started even before President Barack Obama announced his picks for the men’s college basketball tournament: Congress is still waiting for the president to deliver his budget, Republicans said, yet he has the time not only to handicap 68 National Collegiate Athletic Association teams, but also to tape a segment with ESPN breaking down his selections?

If the act of filling out a bracket is inherently political, it’s nothing compared with the completed bracket itself. Our brackets are ourselves. They are less a quiz of basketball knowledge — no matter how much college hoops you watched this year, you are guaranteed to lose your office pool to someone who thinks a “Diaper Dandy” is a maternity gift — than a fill-in-the-blank Rorschach test.

Are you an idealist, the sort who bets big on your alma mater or your hometown team? Or a nostalgist, doubling down on a resurgent powerhouse from your youth? (I’m looking at you, La Salle.) Or maybe you’re a big-risk, big-reward guy, the type who looks at Southern University (16) versus Gonzaga (1) and thinks, no-brainer. Historically, Obama has done none of these things. He has filled out his bracket a lot like he has governed: dispassionately, and with a clear aversion to risk.

Obama’s first public bracket, released during the 2008 campaign, was a model of caution. (Not unlike his vice-presidential pick a few months later.) It included not a single 12th-seed upset of a fifth seed. His Final Four were UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Pittsburgh: three No. 1s and one No. 4. That was not Change You Can Believe In. It was a statement of support for the status quo.

The trend continued through Obama’s first term. In 2010 — after opting not to offer a second stimulus package, dropping the idea of a government-run health-insurance plan and deciding to keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open after all — the president picked the country’s top two teams, Kansas and Kentucky, to square off in the championship. The following year, his Final Four consisted of all No. 1 seeds.

Obama’s brackets might be so bland in part because he’s really more of a professional sports fan. President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, had his Razorbacks. But Obama — who grew up in Hawaii, attended college in California and New York, and spent most of his adult life in Chicago — doesn’t seem to have any strong college-sports allegiances. (For what it’s worth, the University of Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2002.)

Ultimately, Obama’s NCAA brackets reveal a pragmatist. A couple of years ago, the president’s Elite Eight featured only one surprise — the favorite of Washington’s Elite, Georgetown. In the midst of last year’s re-election campaign, as political pundits never tired of pointing out, three of Obama’s Final Four picks were from swing states.

Obama’s prudence has served him well as a politician. It has been less successful as a bracket strategy: He hasn’t picked a winner since North Carolina in 2009.

So going into this year’s tournament, with his last presidential campaign behind him, there was hope that Obama would free his inner Barack-etologist. Forget those tiresome debates about whether Obama will use his second term to push hard for immigration reform or to strike a “grand bargain” on the federal budget. We might finally get to know the answers to more important questions, such as what the president really thinks about Duke.

Now that Obama has made his bracket public, we know those hopes were misplaced, even misguided. After all, he’s still a politician, and he has the congressional midterms — not to mention his legacy — to worry about. What’s more, he’s still Obama.

“I’m going with Louisville,” he said on ESPN, referring to one of the two teams — both No. 1 seeds — that he picked for the championship game. “I know it’s not a surprise pick.” (NCAA bashers might at least take some pleasure in his tacit endorsement of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.)

One of Obama’s alma maters — 14th-seeded Harvard, where he went to law school — plays the University of New Mexico, a No. 3 seed, in the first round. Here was a chance for him to follow his heart, as well as demonstrate that he’s not afraid to gamble on an underdog. Of course, the downside is that he would risk being seen as an elitist. Obama took New Mexico.

Then there’s the great Duke dilemma. For the prudent politician, no college basketball program is more vexing. It is both America’s team and the team America loves to hate. (If you really want to go deep into the weeds here, two political scientists have gone so far as to equate anti-Dukism with anti-Americanism.) For Obama, Duke has been especially troublesome, from both a basketball and a political perspective. This year Obama played it down the middle, choosing the second-seeded Blue Devils to advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Louisville.

Obama has Indiana as this year’s champion, which makes perfect sense. Nate Silver, as usual, has done the math and says the Hoosiers have a very good shot at winning the tournament. And it certainly doesn’t hurt for a president who has promised to make the U.S. a magnet for manufacturing jobs to throw himself behind a rust-belt state with 8.6 percent unemployment.

All of which is to say: If this year’s First Bracket is an indication of how much risk Obama is prepared to take in his second term, no one should expect peace in the Middle East any time soon.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

Wrestling With The Corruption Of The Olympics

Wrestling With The Corruption Of The Olympics

Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) — It has been scarcely a week since the International Olympic Committee announced its intention to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, and the campaign to “Save Wrestling” is in full swing.

Donald Rumsfeld and John Irving, both former wrestlers, took to the op-ed pages to celebrate the sport’s Olympic legacy (which dates to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC) and its current popularity. Raphael Martinetti, the ineffectual president of wrestling’s international federation, FILA, has been ousted. Millions of dollars have been raised — Wall Street has a lot of former high school and college wrestlers — to underwrite a push for readmission before the IOC makes its final decision in May.

“It’s not in a wrestler’s DNA to hop on a plane and kiss a lot of ass,” says Michael E. Novogratz, a hedge-fund manager in New York who wrestled at Princeton University. “But that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing over the next three months.”

Of course, wrestling’s advocates can be expected to do everything in their power to keep their sport in the Olympics. There’s a larger issue here, though: the body they’re appealing to. The IOC isn’t exactly an honest broker, let alone a global federation committed to “excellence, friendship and respect.” It’s a self-recruited club of tin-pot emperors presiding over the greatest monopoly in all of sports.

Historians may disagree about the origins of the Olympics, but there’s no dispute over the architect of the modern games: the late Juan Antonio Samaranch — he preferred “Your Excellency,” in deference to his noble heritage — who ran the IOC from 1980 to 2001.

It was Samaranch, a fascist youth organizer in General Francisco Franco’s Spain, who unlocked the true potential of the games, at least as far as the IOC’s balance sheet was concerned. Samaranch understood and embraced the commercial power of the Olympic brand. He initiated the mega-bidding wars that now routinely take place between aspiring host cities, while ensuring that the “winners” (the jury is still very much out on whether these events ultimately help or harm local economies) absorbed any financial risk associated with putting on the games. For its part, the IOC filled its Swiss bank accounts with billions of untaxed dollars from sponsorship fees and TV rights.

It was also Samaranch who presided over the increasing corruption of the Olympics, essentially making them a free- enterprise zone for committee members willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder. After years of rumors and denials, the sordid nature of the Olympics’ decision-making process finally became public in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Games, which turned out to have been delivered to Salt Lake City via a series of bribes to IOC members.

The Salt Lake City scandals led to what the IOC likes to call “major reforms.” What sorts of changes have those reforms wrought? Last year, Mexican media mogul Mario Vazquez Rana resigned in protest from the IOC’s executive board, accusing one of his colleagues, the former Kuwaiti oil minister, of buying votes.

Infighting is every bit as endemic to global sports organizations as corruption. (Look no further than the banana- republic antics of Sepp Blatter and soccer’s international federation, FIFA, for a good example of both.) And a seat on the IOC board is a coveted prize among a certain set of international businessmen looking to expand their spheres of influence. In such an environment, resentments are inevitable.

Given what we know about how the IOC does business, it would be beyond naive to think that it was a coincidence that Samaranch’s son, a member of the IOC’s board, is a vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union — and that the pentathlon, the kitchen sink of Olympic sports, survived the recent cuts on its merits.

Or maybe — and this is giving the IOC the benefit of the doubt — supporters of the pentathlon made a more persuasive case for its relevance than did wrestling’s advocates. Which raises the question: How much do we want lobbyists influencing which sports are given Olympic status? (At least Congress is accountable to voters for its decisions. The IOC answers to no one.)

There are basic metrics that can be applied to a sport: Does it enjoy global popularity? Does it produce a diverse group of medal winners? Asking such questions would be far better than relying on the whims of a group of men (and a handful of women) whose reputation for openness and probity doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

The IOC prefers to operate in a murkier realm. And without a competitor to its product — remember when Ted Turner tried with the Goodwill Games? — it can continue to do whatever it wants, in the process bending the world’s most prestigious sporting event to its dubious will.

So this is what wrestling’s advocates are up against — the institutional corruption of the Olympics. You like wrestling? Well, we’re about to witness the match of the century: Donald Rumsfeld, John Irving and the titans of Wall Street versus the ghost of General Franco.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo by simononly/Flickr

Why Football Won’t Go The Way Of Boxing (Yet)

Why Football Won’t Go The Way Of Boxing (Yet)

One of the most exciting American boxers in years will defend his title this weekend. You’ve probably never heard of him.

His name is Adrien Broner, and although he is the world lightweight champion, he is not exactly famous. That boxing is no longer a popular sport in the U.S. is hardly a revelation. The reasons for its demise, however, may surprise you.

As we continue to learn more about the serious long-term health risks of playing football, we keep hearing the question: Is football destined to go the way of boxing? The implication is that people stopped watching boxing because they were turned off by the spectacle of two men doing serious, possibly permanent harm to each other. The only problem with this theory is that it isn’t true.

The force most responsible for boxing’s decline is the same one that causes all sports to live or die: television.

Boxing once relied heavily on primetime Olympic exposure to introduce its future stars to the U.S. sports-viewing public. We first met Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay — the slender, charismatic 18-year-old light-heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 in Rome. Boxing was the highest-rated Olympic sport of the 1976 summer games in Montreal, which featured Sugar Ray Leonard as well as Michael and Leon Spinks. Just 16 years later, in Barcelona, Olympic boxing made its final primetime appearance on U.S. broadcast television.

In the intervening period, the networks basically abandoned the sport. This happened partly because an aggressive Home Box Office executive named Seth Abraham spent a lot of money systematically luring the big fights away from the networks.

Not that the networks put up much resistance. Boxing’s fan base wasn’t necessarily shrinking, but its sponsors were turning against it. The unpredictability of the length of fights posed a problem for advertisers: A heavily promoted 1983 bout between heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and Marvis Frazier, for instance, lasted less than one round.

Advertisers also had issues with boxing’s reputation — not for brutality but for corruption. The sport was dominated by promoters such as Don King, who served time in prison for manslaughter, and Bob Arum, who once tried to reassure the public that he could be trusted by saying, “Yesterday, I was lying, but today I’m telling the truth.”

HBO — and later Showtime — didn’t have to worry about satisfying advertisers; it could underwrite fights by making them pay-per-view events. This may have worked as a business strategy (Mike Tyson, in particular, was a cash cow for HBO), but it helped to turn boxing into a niche sport followed only by those willing to pay $59.95 or more to watch big bouts. It also ensured that football would become America’s socially sanctioned, violent sport of choice — and that Adrien Broner would never become a household name.

Boxing remains plagued by corruption. Not so many years ago, a cable-TV programming manager was discovered to have been giving preferential treatment to a promoter in exchange for “dates” with a porn star. Boxing’s biggest problem, however, is a lack of recognizable stars. Blame that on not being able to watch fights for free during prime sports-viewing hours.

Before boxing’s demise, horse racing followed a similar trajectory, for similar reasons. You might still be able to tick off the names of dozens of thoroughbred horses if track owners hadn’t been so scared that TV would keep people in their living rooms instead of at the betting windows.

Other sports were smarter about television. According to the mythology, it was Michael Jordan (with an assist from Commissioner David Stern) who single-handedly saved the National Basketball Association. No less important was a TV strategy that included cutting back on the glut of games available on local cable channels, changing the league’s playoff schedule to accommodate CBS and televising the annual slam-dunk contest and college draft.

Virtually every sport that has flourished in the modern era has TV to thank. The National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament has been around for almost 75 years, but it was “March Madness” — now a joint production of CBS and Turner Sports — that engraved it on our national sports calendar.

College football’s popularity can be traced to a 1984 Supreme Court decision, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that freed schools and their conferences to negotiate their own contracts with the networks. (Three times as many college games were televised nationally in 1984 as in 1983; end-of-season bowl games were now available for just about any company looking to sponsor one.)

Even in the age of the digital video recorder, we still like to watch our sports live. Television rights are priced accordingly. The TV sports bubble, inflated by increasingly exorbitant national and local deals, just keeps expanding. The Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers have all recently signed multibillion-dollar contracts with Fox Sports affiliates. Such irrational exuberance is driving subscriber fees so high that at least one cable executive has said government intervention may be necessary.

So the next time someone asks you if football is destined to go the way of boxing, feel free to answer: Yes — just as soon as the networks stop televising it.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Gene J. Puskar

Pre-Beyoncé, The Best Super Bowl Halftime Show

Pre-Beyoncé, The Best Super Bowl Halftime Show

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) — We have grown accustomed to seeing the Super Bowl halftime show as a showcase for aging rockers or mainstream pop stars — so accustomed, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it was once a showcase for a singing quasi-cult of closeted gay youths.

Yes, I’m talking about Up With People, the unlikely progenitors of the modern-day Super Bowl halftime show.

Remember Up With People?

The group was born in the 1960s, an ensemble of clean-cut youngsters who sang and danced to upbeat songs written expressly to counter the cynicism of the counterculture. (Sample titles: “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “What Color Is God’s Skin?”)

On stage, they were members of a polymorphous shock troop of cultural ambassadors projecting an image of boundless joy — cast members were required to smile for the duration of their performances — not to mention innocence and purity. Offstage, they were normal teenagers and twenty-somethings, which is to say that they experimented with sex and drugs on their tour bus.

Also — surprise! — the male cast members were disproportionately gay. “What kind of guy wants to prance around in a bodysuit on a stage?” says Eric Roos, a former Uppie who now runs a cosmetics company in San Francisco called Nancy Boy Products. “It was a huge percentage of gay guys with the supposition that no one was gay.”

Roos was part of the human car that rolled across the field of the Pontiac Silverdome near Detroit during halftime of Super Bowl XVI in January 1982 — the third of Up With People’s four halftime pageants.

Before Up With People came along, the Super Bowl halftime show consisted mostly of university marching bands and high school drill teams, which made a certain kind of sense: Professional football was still trying to match the popularity of the college game. The National Football League did offer an occasional flourish of its own, usually as part of the pregame ceremonies. For instance, in 1969 — the year that gave America Woodstock — the NFL gave America Anita Bryant, who sang the national anthem at Super Bowl III.

In the run-up to the 1976 Super Bowl, the NFL decided to undertake a more ambitious halftime show. Don Weiss, the executive in charge of game-day operations for the Super Bowl, was on Up With People’s board; the father of a cast member was friendly with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. During this era of cultural malaise, the combination of the group’s upbeat message and youthful exuberance proved irresistible to pro football.

The Uppies performed at the 1976 Super Bowl in Miami (“200 Years and Just a Baby,” the bicentennial tribute show was called), in 1980 in Pasadena, and, of course, in 1982 at the Silverdome.

Roos had joined Up With People after finishing his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, taking a break from college to travel around the world with his cast. General Motors sponsored the trip to Michigan — Up With People was heavily dependent on its close ties to corporate America — so the group performed at some local GM facilities before their engagement at the Silverdome.

At the Super Bowl, they sang a Motown medley, building up to the grand finale: the human car. Roos was part of the hubcap. “It’s mortifying,” Roos says now. “It felt like we were an act in a high-school talent show.”

Watching the video on YouTube, it’s hard to disagree. Although, in fairness, they weren’t much worse than the rest of the era’s halftime shows. Like, say, the NFL’s awkward stab at multiculturalism in Miami in 1979 — the “Caribbean Carnival,” which featured a boat-shaped float “sailing” over a blue tarp, with musicians playing regional tunes at each port. The Haitian band never showed up, the tarp got snagged on the base of a goal post, ripping the sea, and the float’s motor conked out near Puerto Rico. Or the 1989 show in Miami, which featured an Elvis impersonator and “the world’s largest card trick.” Or the 1992 show in Minneapolis, with Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill skating on sheets of Teflon spread over the field.

Up With People’s last Super Bowl performance was in 1986 in New Orleans. By this point, the group’s cultural moment had passed; it was morning in America. Rozelle had grown sick of them, anyway, reportedly telling his staff years earlier that there were three words he never wanted to hear again: Up, with and people.

Still, the Uppies left their mark on the game. As campy as they may look now, they created the concept of the halftime show as a free-standing cultural event of its own. It took a little while for the NFL to figure out what sort of acts its viewers really wanted, but if not for Roos and his fellow Uppies, we might very well be watching the Southern University marching band on Sunday night instead of Beyoncé.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Te’o Joins Notre Dame’s Long Tradition Of Hooey

Te’o Joins Notre Dame’s Long Tradition Of Hooey

Whatever else Manti Te’o manages to accomplish in his interview with Katie Couric, the humiliated Notre Dame linebacker will at least be proving Karl Marx right: All historical events really do occur twice, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Last year, we watched a mythic college football program — Joe Paterno’s Penn State — unravel in a horrific child-sex-abuse scandal. Now we’re watching another unravel in a screwball comedy that could have been scripted by Mel Brooks.

As singularly ridiculous as the Te’o story may seem — that his incredible season was inspired by the phony death of an imaginary woman — the only real difference between it and the rest of the horsepucky generated in South Bend, Indiana, is that his heartwarming story of triumph over tragedy was exposed more or less in real time, before it had a chance to set as myth.

As lore has it, an obscure Fighting Irish team revolutionized college football in 1913 by using the forward pass to beat Army. In reality, as Murray Sperber details in his book Shake Down the Thunder, Notre Dame was already a well- known football school at that point, and the forward pass didn’t catch on until many years later, not even in South Bend.

Sports myths don’t create themselves. They feed off the bloated copy of rapturous sportswriters, and Notre Dame’s were nourished by the very best of the very worst. Before Pete Thamel, the author of Sports Illustrated’s now-infamous Oct. 1 cover story on Te’o, there was the great, purple-prosed monster of the post-World War I press box, Grantland Rice, who famously compared the Irish’s 1924 backfield — average weight: 158 pounds — to the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” (While we’re deconstructing myths, it’s worth noting that Rice didn’t even dream up this image himself. According to Sperber, he got the idea from a student press assistant.)

The story of Notre Dame football was so good that Hollywood had to tell it. And so it did, in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All American, which, on the eve of the nation’s entry into World War II, turned a good football coach into a Great American. Never mind Rockne’s enduring battle with Notre Dame to lower admission standards for football players, his advice column for college-football gamblers and his fixation on money. The movie is vague about Rockne’s final, fatal plane trip to California. In case you ever wondered, he was on his way to Los Angeles to sign a big deal for the rights to his life story.

Let’s not overlook Rockne’s co-star, George Gipp — played by Ronald Reagan, who as a politician would later present a lot like the charming, insouciant halfback portrayed in the film. The real Gipper was a hard-drinking pool-hall hustler who bet on his own team’s games. His endlessly quoted deathbed speech to Rockne — and Gipp may well have died from pneumonia brought on by a three-day drunk — never happened. Rockne concocted “Win one for the Gipper” himself. He knew from experience that these fictitious last prayers, whether from a dying child or a former Fighting Irish star, almost always helped motivate his team.

Forget Notre Dame’s record of national championships and Heisman Trophies. Far more remarkable is the sheer quantity of manufactured history that this football program has produced — and we haven’t even gotten to Rudy, the saccharine 1993 movie about the diminutive walk-on whose dream was “to play football for the Irish.”

In the film’s most iconic scene, the team’s seniors march one by one into the coach’s office to lay their jerseys on his desk, a collective act of protest intended to force the coach to allow Rudy to suit up for his final game of eligibility. Yes, this, too, was a complete fabrication.

Here’s something that did happen: The real-life Rudy, Daniel Ruettiger, parlayed his fame from the movie into a successful career as a motivational speaker and corporate trainer, offering clients such pearls of wisdom as, “Follow your passion, instead of chasing the dollar.”

Alas, Rudy failed to heed his own advice. He borrowed heavily against his fancy Las Vegas home, and then tried to dig himself out of debt by incorporating a company to market his new sports drink, “Rudy.” Only, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the real purpose of the company, Rudy Nutrition, was to serve as the vehicle for a penny-stock scam that bilked investors out of $11 million.

“Investors were lured into the scheme by Mr. Ruettiger’s well-known feel-good story, but found themselves in a situation that did not have a happy ending,” the SEC said in 2011, charging Rudy with securities fraud. (Ruettiger ultimately settled with the SEC, agreeing to pay a substantial fine.)

Which brings us back to Manti Te’o’s well-known feel-good — and now thoroughly discredited — story. In a way, it’s the myth of the Gipper updated for the social-media age. In place of a dying halfback, we now have a dead fake Internet girlfriend.

However this plays out, it’s safe to say that Te’o has already secured his place in Notre Dame’s grand tradition of hooey.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning; The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Michael Conroy, File