SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Opinion

If a team flops, let’s fire the owner

The recent firing of Michael Jordan by the Washington Wizards ends yet another chapter in the dysfunctional history of the National Basketball Association franchise. Under the stewardship of owner Abe Pollin, the Wizards have managed only two winning seasons over the last two decades.

In any other industry, Pollin would have been forced out of business if he had offered such a terrible product for so long. But the NBA, like the other pro sports leagues, is a monopoly. Washington-area fans have no recourse. Pollin isn't going anywhere.

That needs to change. Incompetent sports owners should be forced to sell their franchises.

There are hapless teams like this in every league. The Cincinnati Bengals are the Wizards of the National Football League. Last season's 2-14 record was the worst in franchise history. And that's saying something, because the Bengals have not had a winning season since 1990. Cincinnati fans have tried to force owner Mike Brown to sell the team. They even organized a recall petition. But that effort seemed as hopeless as the Bengals themselves. League officials have never considered the idea of owner expulsion.

It may sound preposterous to force someone to relinquish private property for any conduct short of criminal activity. However, the team sports industry is unique. It is a monopoly public good that is provided special government subsidies and legal exemptions. There is no normal free market competition. Inept CEOs can remain in place forever without any oversight, ruining the sports experience of the entire community.

Each league commissioner has the power to discipline owners who act against the best interests of the game. And, what is more detrimental to those interests than the continued inability to field a good team? Yet no owner is ever threatened with removal for incompetence.

Ironically, the Milwaukee Brewers, the baseball franchise with one of the worst on-field performances, are actually owned by league Commissioner Bud Selig. The Brewers have not been in the playoffs since 1982. This season, it's still early June and already they have settled comfortably into last place. The owners of the hapless Detroit Tigers, who have had one winning season in the past decade, and Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, would also be nominees for replacement.

Inept CEOs can remain in place forever, ruining the sports experience for all fans. That needs to change.

If the leagues themselves aren't willing to replace incompetent owners, maybe the government should consider stepping in. Regulation of the cable television industry, another monopoly, may provide a model. Why not require sports team owners to be relicensed every decade as cable operators are?

In practice, cities almost never take a franchise away from a cable company unless there is gross malfeasance. But the credible threat would at least act as a check and make it less likely that teams would be allowed to languish in mediocrity.

There are only 121 sports franchises in the four major sports leagues. So, it is difficult to believe that there would not be enough bidders to step in and replace any of these non-performing owners, particularly in major markets.

Fans know that in sports you can't win 'em all. But they should be able to expect that their team's owner can win at least some of 'em.

John D. Solomon, a New York journalist, writes frequently about sports policy.

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