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6 Major Reasons You Should Care About the Labor Battles in Professional Sports

Sports labor battles result in some of the only nationwide, well-publicized discussions of union negotiations and union busting.

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4. The owners epitomize the 1 percent. So who are these owners, anyway? They're the billionaires, not just the 1 percent but the .001 percent -- what Timothy Noah calls “stinking rich.” James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has a net worth of $1.5 billion; Jeremy Jacobs, the hardline owner of the Boston Bruins – who's leading the charge for concessions from the players (and a leader in forcing the last lockout, too) -- is worth about $2.7 billion, largely from selling snacks and beer at sporting arenas. And they're making bank on the game, too—the NHL is back to excellent shape after the season-ending 2004-2005 lockout, after which the owners got pretty much everything they wanted. And we've already noted how little the NFL's refs cost the league in relation to its revenues. Could there be an ideological reason these ultra-wealthy businessmen want to break the unions?

Take Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. He's the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, which is partially owned by Comcast—yes, the media conglomerate that pays the NHL's TV contract. Snider was one of the founders of the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985; after a split within the “movement,” he became a supporter of the Atlas Society, the same place where Paul Ryan gave his speech calling for the end of Medicare. He was the executive producer of the Atlas Shrugged film and has publicly stated that “Capitalists build up business so that they can give weaker members of society jobs.”

As Larry Brooks at the New York Post noted in the run-up to the lockout, owners like Snider have been loading up on talented players and signing fat contracts full of bonuses they never intend to pay:

Here is “Mr. Snider” agreeing to pay Weber $52 million in signing bonuses within the next three calendar years while engaged in an effort to prevent players from receiving even a nickel in signing bonuses going forward.

Here is “Mr. Snider” using his financial might to bulk up the Flyers while at the same time pledging to bankroll a lockout in order to stop the competition from ever doing this again.

For you see, Snider’s NBC/Comcast television contract with the NHL calls for the network to pay the league in full for this season — believed between $150 million and $160 million — even if 2012-13 is canceled in full.

These disputes are too often written off as rich guys fighting amongst themselves, but it's simply not fair to compare the average NHL salary of around $2.4 million (the floor is around $525,000) to the money the owners have. These are some of the richest men in the world, and they show the same contempt for their employees whether they be referees or star players.

5. All pretense of necessity is off. Did I mention that the leagues are doing great? Because they are. Like most of the U.S.'s big businesses in the years following economic crisis, professional sports are making money hand over fist. The average NFL team is worth some $1.1 billion, Dave Jamieson at the Huffington Post notes, and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't pretend that paying the refs decently would break them. Instead, the sticking point has become the pension plan the league has long had—like so many other corporations, the NFL wants to switch the refs to a 401(k) plan. "A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there,” Scott Green of the NFL Referees Association told Jamieson.

And the NHL? Well, their biggest problem is actually that the owners won't make nice with one another. James Mirtle at the Globe and Mail explains, “The NHL as a whole, in other words, now makes money – and if revenues were 100 percent shared among owners, they’d all be profitable.”

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