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America needs a sports czar

A 1972 bill proposed regulation as a way to "provide the sports fan with a voice in the system." Mark Matcho for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 2 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!

STOP ME IF you've heard this one before. [Billionaire owner] decides [usable stadium] is no longer usable, then threatens to move to [another city, likely LA] unless [hapless government] gives him hundreds of millions of dollars for a new field. [Hapless bureaucrat] concedes, insisting private welfare will bear public fruit, an argument that's swiftly debunked by [any economist -- seriously, pick one out of a hat].

The latest proper nouns to fill the template are St. Louis and Milwaukee, where officials have said they'll pony up huge subsidies to keep the Rams and Bucks from skipping town. The same stories will get written, with the same experts citing the same research to chide spineless public servants. But no one ever asks: How can the cycle be stopped?

This isn't just a political problem -- it's a structural one, and it cuts to the fundamental supply-demand imbalance between teams and cities. But while there's no simple fix for that, there is one potential solution that's rarely discussed, perhaps because it touches corporate America's third rail: Government could regulate Big Sports.

"Usually, if Congress gives someone a monopoly and hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, you'd expect some ability to monitor how the business is being run," says Nathaniel Grow, a legal studies professor at the University of Georgia, with just a touch of sarcasm.

Grow, who specializes in antitrust law, recently wrote that the sports industry uses its "largely unchecked monopoly power to injure the public in various ways." For decades, the major leagues in the U.S. have operated as cartels, which is why they can black out televised games, lock out players and limit expansion to preserve scarcity. Typically, when a business becomes too powerful, its customers and rivals sue it under the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits collusion and anticompetitive measures. But that law "doesn't really work" against leagues, Grow says. Collusion is an intrinsic part of sports; teams must agree on rules in order to play a game. And anticompetitive behavior rarely occurs because rival leagues don't exist. (MLB has an official antitrust exemption.)

That's why federal oversight makes sense. Because the talent and money in each sport gravitate toward a single league, each is a natural monopoly, like a power company, says Stefan Szymanski, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan. "And with natural monopolies, what we normally do is regulate them."

The concept of regulation, like the life cycle of a cicada or the success of the Oakland A's, re-emerges every few decades. In his 1992 book Baseball and Billions, economist Andrew Zimbalist proposes creating an independent sports agency, suggesting that a representative from SABR sit on the board. In 1972, a Kentucky senator named Marlow W. Cook introduced a bill that would've created a Federal Sports Commission, protecting "the right of the sports fan to a stable professional sports system."

Cook, now 88, says his bill died in Congress for the usual reasons: "Just like everything else -- when you lobby, you lobby," he says. Though Howard Cosell testified in favor of the proposal (the sportscaster called the leagues' veneer of patriotism "almost obscene"), the big three sports commissioners -- Bowie Kuhn, Pete Rozelle and Walter Kennedy -- all trekked to Washington to quash the idea. Today, leagues would no doubt push back even harder, arguing that the government should stay out of their business. But a quick glance at the industry's assets -- cable contracts born of legislative largesse, stadiums built with taxpayer dollars -- reveals a simple truth: Government is already in the business of sports.

So why not make it official? A regulatory agency wouldn't need to be large or expensive; it could be a small bureau inside the Department of Commerce. Grow suggests limiting the commissioners' oversight to a few areas, like franchise relocation, so that teams would have to prove financial hardship before extorting cities for giveaways. Cook also wanted to regulate labor and broadcast rights. In his bill, he wrote that a federal commission would "provide the sports fan with a voice in the operation of the system -- a voice that has hereto been ignored."

Nearly half a century later, it may finally be time to listen.