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Don't hate the game Players'

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Book explores the economic evolution of pro sports

Sports fans have long become accustomed to the massive amounts of money that are inherently part of professional sports. Whether we're talking about the huge salaries paid to athletes or the immense television deals or the exponentially growing sums required to purchase teams, money is simply everywhere in pro sports.

However, it wasn't always that way.

Veteran sportswriter Matthew Futterman offers a look at the evolution of the sporting economy in 'Players' (Simon & Schuster, $26.95). It's an examination of just how much the landscape has changed over the past 50 years.

Futterman's journey starts in 1960, when a young lawyer named Mark McCormack had an idea that would utterly alter the accepted career trajectory of the professional athlete. When McCormack partnered up with golfer Arnold Palmer, whose star was just beginning to truly ascend, what followed would redefine the very nature of the relationship between players and owners.

McCormack was essentially the proto-agent, the first to devote himself to serving the best interest of the athlete against that of the league in which the athlete played. That first relationship led to more, and still more, ultimately resulting in the sports/entertainment empire known as International Management Group, or IMG.

From there, Futterman takes us on a journey across the decades, looking in on every significant shift in advantage away from the old-guard powers that be. He talks about the tennis world's transition as it entered the Open era and the rancorous relationship between the new breed of professional players and the erstwhile gatekeepers of the game's traditions. He discusses the advent of free agency in Major League Baseball and the parts played by union chief Marvin Miller and star pitcher Catfish Hunter.

The chapter discussing famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri and the impact his methodology has had on the nature of youth athletics is a fascinating one. So too is the chapter about legendary hurdler Edwin Moses and the ultimate redefinition of the Olympic ideal. The changing paradigm of play in the NFL spearheaded by Bill Walsh is also given close examination.

All of this, plus some wonderfully in-depth and insightful material on the financial ramifications that impacted the sports world regarding the massive success of Nike and the ubiquitous proliferation of sportscentric cable and satellite networks.

If one hopes to follow the money in sports over the past half-century, there's only one direction to go up.

It's easy to argue that professional athletes make too much money; we see those numbers and can't help but be taken aback. However, the truth is that they are only getting their fair share of the mind-boggling money being brought in by pro sports teams and leagues. For too long, they were being denied their piece of the pie. Today, they're getting that piece and the pie is much, MUCH bigger.

Futterman spends the most time on the Palmer/McCormack relationship, and with good reason the partnership between those two men largely laid the foundation for the financial wellbeing of the modern athlete. McCormack's vision which ultimately changed not only the lives of athletes, but the manner in which the very games they played were conducted and conveyed. Much of how the current sporting world works for better or worse can be traced to the path followed by McCormack and IMG.

There's a lot of sports history to unpack in these pages. It's a wonderful walk through different eras of professional athletics, offering the opportunity to remember some very different times. While there will certainly be a ton of new information for casual fans, even the most hardcore will likely find themselves surprised on numerous occasions. That accessibility springs from Futterman's narrative touch he handles this potentially dry subject matter with ease, creating a story that entertains and engages even as it educates.

'Players' is a must-read for any sports fan who seeks a better understanding of the foundation on which the object of his or her admiration rests.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 April 2016 13:23

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