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Sports' Bank Shots

By Brian P. Dunleavy
Apr. 30, 2012

The banner at Glasgow’s Celtic Park read: “It’s not the beginning. It’s just the end.”

I’ll explain the joke later.

For now, just know that the sign signified what had heretofore been unthinkable: the potential end of the Old Firm, one of the oldest and perhaps most notorious rivalries in professional soccer. After more than 130 years in existence, Celtic’s bitter adversary, Glasgow Rangers, is on the verge of extinction. In February, the club entered “administration,” the U.K.’s fancy word for bankruptcy; at season’s end, it could be liquidated and forced to start anew in one of the lower division’s of Scotland’s professional soccer association.

So what, you say? You don’t care about American soccer much less Scottish soccer? Well, fair point. But I bring up the story not to bore you with the intricacies of “foreign” sport, but to highlight the fact that if it could happen there it could happen anywhere, even to your hometown team. Yes, the financial crisis has hit professional sports, and will likely continue to do so.

Think I’m kidding? Glasgow Rangers is one of the most well known “brands” in world soccer, albeit for perhaps all the wrong reasons. The club had an “unofficial” policy against signing Catholic players until the late 1980s, and this “sectarian divide” has been the underpinning of the famous Celtic/Rangers rivalry. Still, it has supporters worldwide and sells out most of its games, home and away.

Stateside, far lesser lights in the professional sports world have struggled, many in spite of strict rules designed to protect their owners from themselves, from a business perspective. For example, despite operating within stringent controls limiting expenditures on player salaries, one NHL team—the Phoenix Coyotes—and one NBA team—the New Orleans Hornets—have had to be taken over by their respective leagues because they were bleeding money. In other words, they were too big to fail. Apparently, both leagues desperately wanted to avoid being the first North American professional sports league since the 1970s to have a club fold and/or cease operations.

In addition, there have been bailouts. At least two other NHL teams (the New Jersey Devils are one of them) have received “loans” from the league in order to meet operating expenses; another, the Atlanta Thrashers, moved to Winnipeg. Similarly, albeit under extenuating circumstances, Major League Baseball has had to loan millions to at least two teams—the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets (two of its top teams, from a marketing perspective)—in order for each of them to pay the bills. And, Major League Soccer (yes, we’re back to soccer again), had one of its clubs relocate to another city as recently as 2005 with at least one more rumored to be on the move.

Only the NFL, with its enormous television revenues, seems immune from the crisis, although at least two of its teams—Buffalo and Jacksonville—have had financial challenges in recent years.

Given all of this, don’t be surprised if a big-league team in one of the four “major” North American sports—football, baseball, basketball or hockey—goes belly-up or moves in the not-too-distant future, before the economy fully recovers (if it ever does).

Back in Glasgow, the Celtic fans holding the banner were paraphrasing the rallying cry of the team’s manager, Neil Lennon, who last year, at the conclusion of his first year in charge of team, said, “It’s not the end. It’s just the beginning.”

He meant in terms of the good fortunes for his team, but it seems he could just as easily been referring to the bad fortunes of a whole bunch of others.

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About the author: Brian P. Dunleavy is a writer who lives in New York.

Email: bpdunleavy@yahoo.com



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