Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review: Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps

Brian of MGoBlog recently updated his FAQ on writing a successful blog. Key quote: "This blog's calling card, IMO, is UFR. What's inescapable is that unless you have some wild talent like Johnny, you will have to put in a lot of work." Doing UFR is time-consuming and annoying. That's what it's February 18th and I still haven't finished Week 17 yet, let alone any of the earlier games. UFR may be hard, though, but reading is easy. So, to provide you, loyal reader, with content in the offseason when I'm not doing UFR, I'll be reading football books. Not that I'm doing it for you, mind you, this is all for myself. In fact, I've read many, many more books about baseball than I have about football, even though it's been about 10 years since I enjoyed watching a baseball game I was not attending. I'll be working on correcting that disparity, in my own haphazard and occasionally phlegmatic way, and reporting my results to you.

Mark Yost is best known to me as an occasional columnist on issues related to the business of sports for the Wall Street Journal's back section (Personal Journal, normally). Now, the WSJ has a tendency to make me sound like a slobbering fool in terms of singing its phrases, but its sports coverage is mostly meh (notable recent exception: "So Long to the Suite Life", on the recent decline of corporate suites). Still, given the paltry coverage of the business of sports elsewhere, there was reason to be optimistic when Yost published Taligating, Sacks, and Salary Caps: How the NFL Became the Most Successful Sports League in History. I was already somewhat familiar with the book from this review at The Sports Economist, and was curious to check the book out for myself.

One issue that seems to occur frequently when a journalist like Yost writes a book is that there's a big difference between the feel of a 200+ page book and an 800 word newspaper piece. Sometimes journalists successfully navigate this jump and give the book the necessary amount of extra heft, but more frequently, it seems, they don't give the extra oomph necessary. The key element, I think, is linkage and the developing of an overarching theme. And Yost, I'm sad to say, doesn't successfully make this jump. Most of the chapters are integrated wholes, but some of them feel like they had their origin in a couple different journalistic pieces that were then joined together to form a book chapter. For example, the same anecdote about Bert Bell and the creation of the NFL Draft in 1935 appear for the third time on page 17. The Packers' (successful) effort to expand Lambeau Field beyond football operations is painted twice, the second time in greater (but still not great) detail, and the same quote used twice, without apparent reference to the duplication.

Worse, for the sake of theme, the first through seventh and last two chapters paint a rosy picture of how the NFL became the U.S.'s pre-eminent sports league and how it should stay that way. Yet, the eighth and ninth chapters are about the overstated economic impact of the Super Bowl and the overstated economic impact of building a new stadium, respectively. These are both important issues, and unless you've delved into the sports economist literature (which I have), you may not be familiar with them. But they're just kind of there, rather than tied into the book.

The book as a whole feels a little breezy. It seems like it's trying wonderfully to be accessible to non-football fans by hiding the complexity and avoiding the jargon. Take, for instance, his discussion of last year's negotiations about the salary cap. Two of the key terms were the related TGR, Total Gross Revenues, and DGR, Designated Gross Revenues. Yet, these don't appear in the first discussion of the negotiations. DGR appears in the second discussion of the negotiations, but Yost calls it Gross Designated Revenues, GDR, which doesn't make the slightest bit of sense if you think about it for a second. If you're a football fan interested in learning more about the cap, then Yost's book won't help you very much. Frankly, I think I could do better.

When I read a book like this one where I know something about the subject, I generally go in with a couple questions I'd like to see answered. Yost covers merchandising, touches on the rise of fantasy football, and goes through the history of television. But the first bores me, the second is so commonplace among fans of the game it's almost a cliche, and the third, well, I'll return to it. He barely even mentions NFL Network, which is a radical development of the sort Pete Rozelle declared he wouldn't touch. "Cable and satellite" making it easier for fans to keep up with the league is mentioned, as is DirecTV, but there's no serious examination of Sunday Ticket, which brings in more than either the AFC or NFC contracts individually (!). Internet strategy occurs mostly in the context of looking at what individual teams are doing, viz. Dan Snyder and the Redskins. In the discussion of the 2006 cap negotiations, he doesn't really address the extent to which Gene Upshaw was carrying Tagliabue's water in addressing the divide between the higher revenue owners and the local revenue owners-there's a quote about Upshaw looking for more money, but that more money didn't have to come from where it did. There's more i wanted to learn, but those are the highlights.

Frankly, I'm at a loss at to whom to recommend Yost's book to. I doubt the non-football fan cares enough about the business aspects of football to read a whole book on the subject. Yet, there's not enough good and insightful material, presented well and insightful enough, for me to recommend it to a football fan. As an NFL fan, the book you really should read is Michael MacCambridge's America's Game (my review here). Yost refers to it once, as a "social and cultural history," but it's really a history of the whole game. Yost is stronger on the modern business aspects, and his book is designed to be more timely. But he's not good enough on the recent issues, so more timely = shorter shelf life. MacCambridge's book is the real deal, and I heartily recommend it.

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