Commentary

The Sucker Within thirsts for more

Sports fans have always played the role of willing rube, but never to this degree

Updated: March 14, 2011, 5:14 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Other than St. John's march to the NCAA tournament, the past seven days have been a lousy week to be a sports fan in New York. Either James Dolan's Knicks and Rangers want to go riffling through your wallet again with a 49 percent ticket price increase across the board, or Mets fans were finding out that, in addition to the team's worrisome financial concerns, they shouldn't expect to see Johan Santana -- the team's best pitcher when healthy -- any time soon. And the lockout in the NFL, the $9.3 billion business that a Washington Post columnist recently said is behaving like "the Marie Antoinette of the sports world"-- where do we start?

[+] EnlargeDolan
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJames Dolan will get New York sports fans' money one way or another.

Is the head slap still outlawed? Because I'd like to land a few.

There's a theme here, you know. The little guy has never looked littler or more impotent to the people running professional sports teams than we have in the past week.

Giants owner John Mara and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were among the NFL executives whose schoolboy punishment for Friday's lockout seemed to be sitting at a desk and firing off individual letters that were meant to soften fans' bad feelings about this impasse that both sides saw coming for two years. But mostly, the letters only succeeded in irritating fans instead.

Mara's statement was at least plausible and could be summed up in a few words -- "Sorry, so sorry, I really, really am" -- but Goodell's letter to fans was galling. It actually contained the silly assertion that when the current labor negotiations are finally done, "Everybody will prosper."

Everybody? Why, how terrific! So ... uh ... how soon can the rest of us expect our paychecks once the NFL gets back to work? I'd like to paint the living room.

Being a sports fan always has required coexisting with the Sucker Within us that sports leagues count on. You know what I mean.

Despite all history and evidence to the contrary, a true sports fan will still hold out hope in his or her heart of hearts that the Mets really are going to contend this season, or Carmelo Anthony will blossom a defensive conscience now that he's here with the Knicks, or Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist won't be worn down by April this time. A true sports fan yelps, Why can't Jeter hit .340 again just because he's 36? Who says Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy has hands of stone?

It's adorable. It really is.

But the Sucker Within also allows all the rest of this stuff to happen. I'd love to see the outrage that fans vent on team message boards or comment threads beneath articles materialize more often into some real-life aftershock when owners or leagues behave this badly. The Yankees got the message when all their high-priced seats stayed empty. The NHL is still recovering from its shutdown.

When MSG president Scott O'Neil said, "I hope there won't be sticker shock" the day the Rangers' and Knicks' price increases were announced, it was a sodium pentothal moment, an interesting Freudian slip. But then he went too far. We're also supposed to be grateful that the magnificent, benevolent, all-seeing Dolan also decreed in the same announcement that the little people of this fair city will not be subjected to the sort of deplorable personal seat licenses that have been so slow moving over at New Meadowlands Stadium?

Sorry. I'm not feeling the love.

Let's check back to see whether PSLs remain off the table when the Garden renovations are complete, and the Rangers and Knicks phase in ticket increases for the upper bowl of the arena, too, not just the lower-bowl fans and courtside high rollers who are feeling most of the brunt right now.

Dolan is the same man, after all, who helped kill any chance of the Olympics coming to New York, keeps threatening to bring back Isiah Thomas though fans shriek "NO!" and was willing to let his Cablevision customers miss a couple of World Series games during the company's staredown over higher rate fees with Fox. Why? Because he can. Between all his TV networks and the teams he owns, Dolan gets you coming and going -- it doesn't matter much to him if you come to the arena or stay home, parked in front of your TV.

The news that the Wilpons intend to fight to retain their majority ownership stake in the Mets to the bitter end should create a certain feeling of bleakness too. What kind of future does that ensure if you're a Mets fan? The Wilpons are already in trouble to the tune of $1 billion of the money they still had after Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme collapsed. How much worse will the team's budget problems get -- and how constrained will they be from adding even a midlevel infielder to the payroll -- if the team is so bad that Citi Field remains empty night after night this season?

This much is clear: You can't believe what the Mets say. They've already borrowed from Major League Baseball and lied to fans about how financially handcuffed they are.

But at least the Wilpons' troubles are real. The NFL owners' gripes are imagined.

In 1997, the average NFL team was worth $205 million. By 2007, it increased to $898 million. According to Forbes, the NFL's revenue has increased 43 percent since 2006 to $9.3 billion. Yet 18 of the league's owners raised ticket prices on fans in 2010 anyway, even though we're locked in the worst recession in history. The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished to create more luxury boxes, at a cost of $6.4 billion. The public paid for $4.4 billion of that.

Closer to home, the Giants and Jets paid $20 million in tax revenues before moving into their new $1.6 billion stadium; now their tax hit is just $6 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. And New Jersey is still paying off $110 million on the old stadium.

After reading that, I'm just guessing here that even the Sucker Within doesn't want our hand patted by some NFL commissioner promising that "everyone will prosper" when the lockout is done, or some MSG execs who expect us to be happy there'll be no PSLs. For now.

Even after all that happened in the past week, it doesn't seem that sports fans have reached the tipping point in New York -- yet. But here's hoping the little guy's willingness to start venting outrage could be just one more $8 hot dog or $12 flat beer or $300 box seat away.

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