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Review: Players – The Story of Sports and Money and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution by Matthew Futterman

This review first ran in the Oct. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Players: The Story of Sports and Money and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolutionplayers

By Matthew Futterman

Simon and Schuster

$35.95

Edwin Encarnacion is about to get paid.

 

The Toronto Blue Jay’s slugger headlines this winter’s free agent class.

Count on an MLB team to break the bank with a long-term deal that pays Edwin more in a season than you, me and our kids will earn in our lifetimes.

We shouldn’t begrudge Edwin his payday, even if he winds up launching homers over the Green Monster at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox.

It wasn’t that long ago that professional athletes like Edwin were paid a pittance and worked second jobs to make ends meet.

In his first season as starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach was paid $25,000. Instead of training in the off-season, the future Hall of Famer sold commercial real-estate.

“Stauback didn’t begin showing Dallas-area office and warehouse space in the early 1970s because he loved the business or planned eventually to become a property mogul,” says Matthew Futterman,  author of Players: The Story of Sports and Money and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution. “He did it because he had a young family and he needed the money.”

Fast forward to Tony Romo. In 2013, the Cowboys’ QB signed a six-year $108 million contract extension with $55 million in guaranteed money and a $25 million signing bonus.

“In the span of a generation, everything about the sports business changed,” says Futterman.

The senior special writer for sports with the Wall Street Journal argues it’s been a change for the better for both athletes and the fans who cheer them on.

“The story of professional sports for the first eight decades of the twentieth century is largely one of exploitation. It’s a story of one-sided contracts and lopsided deals in which teams, leagues, national and international sports federations, and countless other moneyed interests who had put themselves into positions of power took advantage of athletes who were some combination of too young, too uninformed, or to uneducated to realize just how they were being used, and too unrepresented and unorganized to do anything about it.

“Despite the inevitable pitfalls and crassness money has wrought, money has also made athletes and the sports they play immeasurably better. An upside-down business needed to be turned right-side up, for better or for worse.”

Futterman says the revolution started with golf legend Arnold Palmer and his lawyer-turned-agent Mark McCormack. Palmer had signed a deal with the Wilson Sporting Goods Company weeks after winning the US Amateur Championship. He never had a lawyer review the contract. Wilson made a fortune selling Palmer-branded clubs and balls and paid pocket change to the King.

“The original contract Arnold Palmer signed with Wilson was undoubtedly among the worst deals any athlete of Palmer’s caliber has ever signed,” says Futterman. McCormack eventually won Palmer his freedom and his annual off-the-course income soared from $5,000 to $500,000.

“The extrication of Arnold Palmer from Wilson and Palmer’s ability to take control of his name, his value and everything associated with it would stand as the template for every deal McCormack would try to make for every iconic athlete and property for the rest of his career. This wasn’t simply about money. McCormack was playing a new game. The object was liberation. Freedom would lead to more money – not just for the athletes but for everyone involved.”

Futterman tells the stories of other athletes who revolutionized the business of sports, including tennis player Nikola Pilic, baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter and U.S. Olympian Edwin Moses.

“The powers that be liked things just the way they were, with their athletes scrounging for crumbs at the bottom of the pyramid. The battles the men in charge waged against the athletes, the fallout from those battles, and how that revolution created the behemoth that sports have become is the arc of this story. It’s an attempt to understand how we got to a place where sports is simultaneously a highly produced, often over-commercialized extravaganza but also a thrilling Darwinian narrative filled with surprise and intrigue.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999, lives in Hamilton and will cheer for Edwin Encarnacion regardless of who he plays for next season.

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