Saturday, May 7, 2016

Players by Matthew Futterman - Book Review

Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution by Matthew Futterman (Simon & Schuster, 2016, 336 pages, $17.63, 12.99) tells the story of how the business interests of both athletes, their agents, and sponsors worked to wrest control of sports and athletics from the hands of team owners and rich, socially prominent “guardians” of the pure amateurism of more gentlemanly sports, thus changing both the emphasis and the economics of sports forever. Futterman carefully, yet graphically and interestingly, details the work of sports agents, television networks, equipment manufacturers, and others to broaden the appeal of sport, leading to sharper, more focused competition, and a better deal for the workers (athletes) bearing the brunt of the physical effort, toil, and danger. Written with verve, energy, drama, and careful research, the book tells a story every sports fan should read and understand while they continue to make sports the object of near worship and high drama entertainment in their lives.

The first quarter of this fascinating, well-written book details the rise of Mark McCormack from his privileged by unremarkable childhood in suburban Cleveland, where he played low-handicap golf and loved sports statistics, to become the pre-eminent sports agent who parlayed recruiting and signing Arnold Palmer in the early days of the champion golfer's career into a sports empire that managed the careers of sports stars in many sports. Starting with Palmer, Nicklaus, and Player in golf, he also managed tennis stars Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, and Pete Sampras in tennis, stars in other sports as well as entertainment and politics through his company International Management Group (IMG) and its event subsidiary TWI, Trans World International. Along the way, he invented non-sanctioned events, labeled trash sports, such as World Team Tennis and the Superstars competitions which provided income for athletes competing across disciplines when not playing in their seasons. He helped create a star system which superseded team events associated with local owners. The stories of how McCormack signed many of these outstanding athletes while changing the face of world sport is riveting and instructive, providing understanding of the why and how our loyalty is now focused as much on individual athletes as it is on teams and leagues. Many other sports entrepreneurs were influenced by McCormack's vision.

Donald Dell, a former professional tennis player who became a sports agent and tennis marketing guru, is, along with McCormack, considered to be one of the founders of the modern sports agent business. When he encouraged Nicky Pelec and Stan Smith to boycott the 1973 Wimbledon Championships, he brought professional tennis to the world of the big four national championships (Australia, France, Wimbledon, and the U.S.) creating a vastly lucrative and popularized tennis environment while making it possible for tennis players to earn millions of dollars instead of taking small payments under the table. Nick Bollettieri, piggy backing on this trend, invented the sports academy for tennis players. This small beginning has mushroomed into a hugely successful sports school and camp industry which virtually dominates the development of sports stars in American sports, both individual and team. After 1973 the quality of athletes, equipment, media coverage all improved and earnings exploded.

Futterman then goes on the detail the development of players' unions, the destruction of the idea of “pure” amateurism, the influences of race and class in sports. He particularly emphasizes that the changes show the democratization of sport in supporting goals of equality. He also shows that the emphasis in sport has moved from the team to the individual as the opportunities to achieve personal wealth have improved. The Players overlooks the importance fantasy sports play in supporting the rise of the individual over the team, the event, or the city. The time, interest, and money generated by fantasy sports has helped create wall-to-wall sports and cable packages allowing gamblers and fantasy players to keep up with every game played all night long. The story of the development of ESPN and regional sports networks, often owned by teams, is also detailed, although this material is probably worth another book.

Matthew Futterman

Matthew Futterman is a senior special writer for sports with The Wall Street Journal. He has previously worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, where he was a part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2005. He lives in New York with his wife and children.

Matthew Futterman has turned what might have been a pedestrian story about sports business into an intriguing, fast-paced yet detailed account of the massive changes that have taken place in the world of sports during the past half century through re-organization and increased media. In doing so, he also mirrors changes in the larger society. As such Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2016, 336 pages, $17.63, 12.99) functions as social history as well as sports history, providing insight into how and why sport so dominates our media and our conversation. I read the book as an electronic galley provided to me by the publisher through Edelwiess: Above the Treeline. I read it on my Kindle app.  

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