Monday, September 15, 2014
My granddaughter thought it would be a good idea to broadcast all youth sports games so moms and dads who can’t attend the matches can still see their children play. She’s 8, and I’m betting before she’s a parent that’s exactly what will happen. Right now, we have any number of ways to watch games virtually, such as iScore and Gametracker, which create a play by play of a game that can be sent via a link to family and friends. Likewise, there is invariably a team parent who tapes the games and posts them on sites like YouTube. It shouldn’t be too long before technicians figure out how to video and broadcast youth games live. However, when they develop the means to transmit games we begin to cross that threshold into the “professionalism” of youth sports with issues of licensing, costs of delivery, private transmission services, and the possibility of charging for things that are now free. What will technology mean for youth sports?
We don’t have to look far to see the impact of monetary and legal factors on amateur sports. For example, we have a baseball team in my town that plays in one of the summer college leagues. These leagues provide an opportunity for college players to keep up their skills while playing with and against top players in the sport. This particular team is owned by a former Brewer, Robin Yount, and is run like a professional team. There is a mascot, a wide-ranging concessions stand, promotions, corporate sponsors, season ticket holders, team wear, souvenirs, and VIP seating for food and beverage. The money from sales and sponsorships goes into the pockets of the investors. None goes to the players because NCAA eligibility rules state that players can’t profit in any way from their sport. In fact the team must actively recruit host families for team members and these families are responsible for housing and feeding the players. Soccer has the same summer leagues for college players with the USL Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League (which pays players willing to forgo their amateur status) allowing NCAA soccer players to keep up their competitive edge during the summer. The United States Adult Soccer Association sponsors some regional and state amateur teams, which participating soccer clubs usually call their Majors team. These can be a mix of college and former pro players, but are completely unpaid. The level of investors in team franchise in these soccer leagues hasn’t reached that of Yount, but I’m positive we’re not far from seeing that happen.
Developing the ability for individual youth teams and clubs to stream their games opens a Pandora’s Box of concerns. While it seems as naively wonderful as my granddaughter’s point of view that loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends could see every child’s game, the tough truth is someone will see the opportunity for a profit. Once that happens, companies will attempt to get government regulations, broadcast licenses, software dominance and blocking programs in their portfolio to enforce us all to pay them a fee just to watch our 6-year-old cavort on a soccer pitch. Just consider the professionalizing of high school and college games that has grown in the last two decades into multi-million dollar businesses. My graduate school was University of Oregon, home of the Ducks. I get daily emails from the bookstore touting all the new products that have been released for Duck fans. Every item is licensed by the NCAA, which gets a cut of the sale price. On the flip side, consider EA Sports NCAA Football, which will not have a 2015 edition after a class action suit by Ed O’Bannon and others against EA and the NCAA over the use of their uncompensated likenesses. The NCAA declined to renew their licensing agreement with EA when it expired in June this year in attempt to diminish the effects of the lawsuit. In the meantime, EA Sports settled for $40 million with NCAA football, basketball and baseball players, whose likenesses appeared in video games from 2003 to the present. The lawsuit against the NCAA will add millions to that number should the plaintiffs win that as well. Just Friday, the NCAA board of governors cleared the way for colleges to pay their players by allowing the top five conferences to submit possible rule changes that would include a pay option. I haven’t even touched on the threatened lawsuits over TV licensing profits. How would these affect the convoluted profit formulas for the type of broadcast my granddaughter suggests? Would there be residuals for any replay of a game? Will players all have to sign contracts before they join any youth team, school band, drama club, or any number of opportunities for streaming an event? Will a network control youth sport broadcasts requiring fees for every game we watch? Before you scoff at the ridiculousness of this situation, think about how unbelievable it seemed just a decade ago that any college player would be compensated for their college “career.” Would Rudy have refused to enter the field for that last game at Notre Dame without a media contract? Not then, but maybe now.
While we have this ongoing debate as to whether or not the NCAA should unionize their sports teams and pay them, we are ignoring other aspects of youth sports that provide an uncontested and substantial return to corporations who depend on youth sports for a significant portion of their revenue. Uniform manufacturers purposely retire designs after two or three years on the market in planned obsolescence. Players must purchase new uniform packages frequently, having nothing to do with growth spurts or wear and tear. Even socks get redesigns! Puma, adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Athletico are insuring a steady market. Manufacturers spend millions to develop and market “trends” to youth players that bring in exponential profits. In baseball, it’s the “power” neck chains. In soccer, it’s wristbands for the boys and hair bands for the girls. Don’t get me started on cleats that sprout a new look every six months. Add in the World Cup with flashy footwear rushing around the field, and you have the equation for tens of thousands of new shoe purchases. Youth sports is big business.
We saw the evolution of the term “amateur” in the Olympics over the last two decades. The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team pulled all its players from the top college hockey squads. Now, 34 years later you’ll find only NHL players. Basketball’s “Dream Team” is culled from the NBA. Even sports that don’t have professional leagues produce athletes with huge endorsement contracts, a major taboo just a few Olympics ago. Therefore, it’s not such a stretch to see professionalism trickle down through the amateur ranks. With all the talk of paying NCAA athletes, the money that can be made off of many sports events even at the youth level, and the possibility for expanding the markets where profits can be made, I don’t think it will be too long before “amateur” will have to require an entirely different definition or not be attached to sports at all. I’d love to be able to see all my kids’, grand kids’, nieces’ and nephews’ games. My niece just won gold at the U.S. Rowing Association Club National Races in Knoxville, Tenn., for a pair boat (two-person). My brother sent me a link with her winning race. The camera didn’t focus on her and her partner until near the end of the race, but it was still a thrill to watch her compete and win. I didn’t need a professional production to share in the celebration. I’m hoping the next time I get sent a link, I won’t have to use my credit card before I can open it.