Peter Bart: As Hollywood Contracts, The Sports Universe Is Rapidly Expanding In Unexpected Directions

Laurence Fishburne is a talented actor who has played a range of characters from Morpheus to Mr. Clean. The new FX series Clipped offers him yet another unexpected role as an NBA coach who employs force and gravitas in guiding players in combat with the racist owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Fishburne has never been an ardent sports fan, nor have I. But recent sports movies have provided a welcome relief from rom-coms, just as the sports pages have been offering a relief from gloomy Hollywood news. While the studios seem caught up in cutbacks, stories about the sports business are uniformly emblazoned with billion-dollar megadeals and lavish paychecks in the hundreds of millions.

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Item: The NBA’s next TV deal is closing in on a precedent-setting price tag of $76 billion over 11 years (details are still being hammered out). Item: Some 775,000 fans actually showed up for the NFL draft, an annual ritual that is expanding into a celebrity spectacle.

Meanwhile, sports ranging from European football to Senagalese basketball keep issuing glowing reports, and the Saudis, having poured billions into golf, will now target $2 billion to control boxing.

Who actually benefits from these paydays?

The range is exotic. A talented if notoriously cranky 25-year-old Slovenian NBA player named Luka Doncic is slated to achieve earnings of $1 billion during the course of his career (his team, the Dallas Mavericks, just underwhelmed in the NBA Finals). LeBron James already has banked $500 million, reminding the Wall Street Journal that that “sports is the only thing on television that people still demand to watch live.“

Consistent with all this, the most impactful future paydays will stem from the $2.80 billion NCAA settlement that’s creating an official class of “student athletes.” According to this deal, college students will no longer have to subsist solely on athletic scholarships as they pursue their “studies.”

The colleges instead will dole out their present sports revenue in the form of student paychecks, hopefully avoiding demands for even more funding representing of past glory. Congress would still have to settle on how to avoid classifying students as employees – a category disdained by students and colleges alike.

The professionalization of college sports has already driven one of its greatest coaches, Nick Saban, into retirement. All they care about, Saban has said, “how much you’re going to pay them.”

The impact on the classroom may be destabilizing. “It’s exciting that the guy sitting next to me in class will have a payday of over $100,000 just to be there,” observed one fellow student who also happens to be my grandson. “Good for him, but he better be buying lunch.”

My grandson, who is a good golfer (not good enough), predicts that some of his classmates will further learn how to become student-agents to capitalize on their student years. “If you look at the potential revenue streams and commissions for paid student influencers as well as athletes, you see an exciting scale of opportunity,” he observes. “YouTube is as important as the NFL as a potential market – so is the U.S. Treasury.”

Given all this, the lure of Hollywood may be fast fading for ambitious young strivers who study the sports pages rather than the Hollywood trades. Employment in the TV and movie industry is down an estimated 20% from peak years as the majors continue to “contract” their spending while the sports universe expands.

Even the new shows about sports seem to carry more energy than the traditional genre. HBO’s Winning Time vividly portrayed the extraordinary rise of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Showtime superstars of the 1980s. And the plot of Clipped is about scandal more than triumph.

Under the stern tutelage of their gifted new coach Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 bravely reversed their underdog status in the NBA. In addition to winning games — not then a Clippers tradition — they also had to cope with the discovery of a leaked tape containing racist slurs from their bombastic billionaire owner, Donald Sterling.

The players were divided about their response to Sterling – should they protest or boycott? Rivers opted for another strategy: He showed his team footage from the 1936 Olympics showing Jesse Owens defeating the Nazis. Victory was the best revenge – that was the lesson the coach felt was most important to deliver.

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