Commentary: Super Sunday, Nomadic Owners, And Karl Marx

Gaze into your mug of brew this Super Bowl Sunday and contemplate how much things have changed. Game XXXIV means that if you're 40, you can remember them all--from Max McGee to Joe Namath to missed Buffalo Bills field goals to the poetic justice of John Elway's late-career triumphs. And talk about change--whoever imagined a contest between the one-year-old Tennessee Titans and five-year-old St. Louis Rams? You might also recall that 30-second TV commercials used to cost $42,000. Today, that pays for about a half-second of hype.

Has the big game become just an orgy of corporate grandstanding, now featuring crapshoot advertising by a dozen-odd dot.coms? Or is the Super Bowl a reflection of the fundamental business development of the National Football League since Vince Lombardi's Packers won that first AFL-NFL title in 1967.

On one hand, this year's game between a relocated team from Nashville and a relocated team from St. Louis might be better dubbed the Subsidy Bowl. The matchup represents the worst that the NFL has to offer: franchise free-agency--rootless teams with mixed-up surnames. When did Nashville become a big-league city, anyway? Weren't the Titans once in New York? And how many times have you said "St. Louis Cardinals" this week?

Super Bowl XXXIV is the epitome of pro sports reneging on their once-proud social compact for community-building. Just like that, Houston and Los Angeles lost teams because Nashville and St. Louis were willing to sell their civic souls. With each city paying more than $200 million in subsidies, we have nomadic owners such as Tennessee's Bud Adams and St. Louis' Georgia Frontiere succeeding on the strength of extravagant public spending.

On the other hand, the national chips-and-dip holiday highlights a relationship that many might wish for all our workplaces. Since settling their labor differences in court and in bargaining in 1993, the NFL owners and NFL players have shared their collective wealth more equitably: Players are guaranteed nearly 60% of the gross revenues that flow into league coffers. Meanwhile, owners' equity in franchises has been soaring like the Nasdaq on steroids.

Indeed, owners and players--the bosses and workers--are sharing their pot of gold so agreeably that even David Meggyesy, Western director of the NFL Players' Assn and the most radical theorist in the union, believes that the ideal of players owning teams and controlling a league is no longer relevant. "For years, we've discussed the question, `What is the goal of the players association?"' says Meggyesy, a former player on the St. Louis (football) Cardinals. "The goal of the players association is to run pro football."

JOCK HEAVEN. All things considered, the players have reached that nirvana. With their so-called soft salary cap, which means signing bonuses are not counted on payrolls, the NFL players have been pocketing nearly 70% of most revenues. The right to free agency lets star players call the shots in a hot market for talent. The NFLPA even gets a look at financial records, so the employees know where all the employers' money goes. "What we've accomplished is a model for other workers in this post-industrial age," says Meggyesy.

Certainly players don't control TV negotiations or the hiring and firing of coaches. And, of course, they don't snag equity when franchises are sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. "Maybe in our next contract, we'll get a piece of that franchise value increase," muses Meggyesy. Still, who needs to be an owner when helmets on, paychecks secured, workers--er, players--control the means of production?