David Stern part 3: basketball as a business

One of the best things ever written about sports, business and fandom was this essay by Bill James in his 1987 Baseball Abstract. I’ve never seen it reprinted online and no doubt this is a fair use violation but I need to quote it in its entirety. If you have never read a Bill James book let me recommend two:

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract – The yearly abstracts were always great in that they let him go off on so many focused tangents, but this is the one book to read of all his baseball writings.

The Man From The Train – The greatest crime book ever, a terrifying read, it will make you rethink everything you know about the early 20th century. The crimes themselves are horrifying but the echoing injustices, misinformation and follow-on institutional homicides are what really make it haunting. Fascinating payoff and an act-three stinger in the final pages.

On to the extended quotation, on “Is baseball basically a business?”

Probably the stupidest thing that people say regularly about baseball is that of course baseball is not basically a sport. Baseball is basically a business.

Of course baseball is not basically a business; if it were it would have gone out of existence in the 1890s. Let us suppose that the economic structure of baseball were to collapse, that the “business” of baseball were to become untenable and go the way of all dinosaurs, while the public interest in the sport of baseball remained alive. Would baseball then cease to exist? Of course not. New economic structures would sprout from the ground like mushrooms. New businessmen would appear, anxious to make a buck by catering to the interest in the sport. There would be new contracts, new agreements, new logos, and perhaps a few new players along with the new “businessmen” — but there would be baseball just as before, as pervasive as ever, suffering no more than the jolt of an unexpected speed bump.

Suppose, however, that the sporting interest in baseball, the omnipresent public interest in who is winning and who is losing and why, were somehow to vanish. Would the business of baseball then carry on as before? Why of course it could not; lacking the public dollars that follow the public interest, the business would immediately cease to exist. The businessmen, and even the athletes, are the mere servants of the craving for the sport.

So obviously, the game is essentially a sport. It must be a sport to survive. The business will survive precisely as long as it remains a sport.

What is so curious is that otherwise intelligent men can be tricked into failing to see this, and will say with earnest faces that of course baseball is basically a business. Why do they think this? Because Peter O’Malley [ed: Dodgers owner at that time] sees it basically as a business? Because Reggie Jackson sees it basically as a way to make a living?

But this is merely a fault of perception, a disorientation in their habits of thought that results from their peculiar relationship to the enterprise. Consider the same argument as it might apply to anything else– let us say a can of O’Malley’s Beef and Beans. Obviously, to Albert O’Malley who owns the business, it is basically a business. To Roger Jackson, who drives a truck for O’Malley, Beef and Beans is basically a way to make a living.

But to the man who buys Beef and Beans and takes it on his picnic, what is it? It is essentially a food, of course. No one but a jackass would argue that because Beef and Beans is basically a business to Albert O’Malley, because it is basically a business to Roger Jackson, it therefore is basically a business.

The unique thing about sports fans is that they have so much trouble understanding this. It would be stupid for Bill James to believe that because baseball is a business to Peter O’Malley and Reggie Jackson that therefore it must be basically a business to him, too. It would be stupid for Bill James to forget that it is not he who must accommodate the businessman, but the businessman who must accommodate him. In the Beef and Bean business, even Albert O’Malley and Roger Jackson would certainly recognize this. They would remind themselves daily that what there were dealing with here was essentially a food. They would regard such daily reminders as being essential to their being able to serve the public. They would never allow themselves to lapse into thinking that what was essential to the business was their getting their dollar.

The unique arrogance of the baseball businessman is that, seeing themselves quoted in the paper every day, seeing their own distorted perspective on the undertaking reflected in the daily press, they have allowed themselves the luxury of forgetting this.

But what is far more remarkable is that baseball fans go along with it. Baseball fans have the ultimate victim mentality: they are actually willing to treat their own perceptions as merely an illusion. Baseball fans will swear up and down that what baseball really is is not what they see baseball as being, but what Reggie Jackson and Peter O’Malley see it as being.

Anybody who tells you that baseball is basically a business is either badly confused or a jackass. And you can tell her I said so.

It’s interesting that James was writing this in the winter of 1986, right in the middle of these changing tides post-1984 when Stern took over and so much of sports business went into its rocket stage where it remains today.

Stern’s greatest accomplishment was in creating the perception that all the “unique arrogance” of the sports businessman was centrally important to the fan and the media. Bill James naively saw a troublesome trend. Stern rightly recognized that if he tripled down on the trend and on what we used to call “commercialization” he could rewrite the narrative and make the fans forget that the commissioner might have any duties to them, and their actual fandom.

He didn’t have to rub our faces in the dirt, but of course he did. The narrative is the ultimate product. Once you control that the actual failings don’t matter. The media is on your side because you created an entire “sports business” beat, told the fans to lap it up and they pre-wrote your hagiography.

As we have discussed in parts 1 and 2, the fact that Stern presided over record value and revenue growth was a product of the media environment of the last 50 years and not really driven by anything he did. The myth that the NBA was unpopular before him is not supported by the facts. He wasn’t only bad, he was also not good.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” This line from Joyce is more evocative than ever in the current moment, with so much pop fiction centered on “the multiverse” and “the bad timeline.” I always liked the rephrasing on the jacket blurb of P.K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle: “a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.” Like Dick’s characters (or just Dick himself?) we are living in an empire that never ended. Misinformation and narrative control was and is so complete it seems impossible to even consider a world any different.

I’m ready to get into the litany of crimes that Stern presided over. The episodes themselves are fun of course, some are more forgotten than others and Stern’s hands are so so dirty. But it’s the overall alienation of fans from their experience that’s really most important. The bigger idea I need to follow is James’ notion that “the sporting interest” in basketball is what’s crucial to the business at all existing. Stern’s tenure was an assault on “who is winning and who is losing and why.” That’s the thread that runs through the last 50 years. If we can’t wake up we can at least try to see it.