A Fan's Notes

Go Marlins! Go Panthers! Go Heat! Go to hell.

"He got all the numbers?" I asked.
"He got all the numbers, every time," Nelson giggled.
He was obviously in love with Hardaway, so in love that he forgot all about the time and allowed me to grill him far longer than he should have, while his players loped in and out to ask the coach a question or bullshit in the way only paid athletes can. It was the kind of audience a pathological fan kills for. And what separated me from the rabble who wouldn't even be allowed in the arena until game time?

I had a press pass.
Amazing, really, what a press pass will get you these days. A free meal before the game. The best seat in the house. Stats updated on the minute. Shaquille O'Neal in his undies. A free postgame beer to wash it all down. What a deal!

The only payback required is coverage. And if that coverage often seems to reflect a distinct sentiment that we owe our sports teams a great debt...well, you figure the equation. Pro sports do well to spoil the press, and vice versa. Just check out the Herald's sports section, which has grown fat, spawned a never-ending stream of "special reports," and now routinely outclasses the rest of the paper.

The gentlemen's agreement between sports reporters and the teams they cover essentially consists of trading access for the assurance that reporters will stifle certain perfectly obvious questions. For instance: "Mr. MVP, now that you're making a gajillion dollars, do you plan to fund any community centers in the poorer parts of town?" Or: "Mr. Owner, does the economic survival of this franchise really depend on another ticket price hike?"

Fact is, reporters are kept so insulated from the frustrations of the average fan -- or the average neighborhood, for that matter -- that such questions seem utterly irrelevant. Nobody wantsta read about that shit is the standard refrain. A "tough" story, by sports standards, consists of nabbing some player or owner engaged in typically American behavior. Michael Jordan gambling. Marge Schott bigoting. Wow.

The net result is that the megabillion-dollar pro sports industry is being covered as if it were a high school softball game.

Take a guy like Dave LaMont. A few years ago he was working public address at Dania Jai Alai and delivering sports updates on WIOD. Now he's hosting the First Team talk show on all-sports WQAM, calling Heat games on cable, and vying for a network TV gig like the one his radio partner Joe Rose landed. "A guy like me would be crazy to leave this market now," LaMont says. Miami's sports boom has made him.

It's not that LaMont is unaware of the larger issues. He gets it. He is appropriately disdainful of the "frou-frou fans" who occupy the best seats at games, who arrive late and leave early to beat traffic. On the other hand, a lot of those same frou-frous pay for the advertising on his show. They call in on their portable phones. They sponsor the golf tournaments he enters.

They also pay to have dinner with guys like Hank Goldberg, who is about as close as Miami comes to a sports philosopher. A couple of weeks back I went to visit Goldberg in Miami Lakes, where he hosts his afternoon radio show on WQAM. Never having visited Miami Lakes before, I was immediately struck by the volume of Don Shula-related business there. Don Shula Golf Club. Shula's Steakhouse. Don Shula Hotel. Wayne's World may be a few years off. But it already has its perfect suburb in this carefully shorn community, nestled in the crook of the Palmetto Expressway: Shulaville.

I found Goldberg amid the yuppies at Shu's All-Star Cafe and we retired to the restaurant next door, where he drank decaf and mused subversively about Miami's collective sports fetish, all the while stealing looks at the Heat game being broadcast on a TV screen the size of a barn door.

"The idea of paying tax dollars to help build a stadium A it's madness," rumbled Goldberg, whose father worked for 35 years as a sportswriter in New Jersey. "Our cities are broke, and the owners are making a mint off luxury boxes and TV contracts. I blame the politicians who keep rolling over. Everybody gets a little crazy when it comes to sports. My own show's sold out on ads, even without high ratings, because people are so crazy to be involved with sports. I see these CEOs walk into a locker room as part of these promos, and they turn into marshmallows. Because we're basically a nation of starfuckers. The people who go to the games, those aren't fans. No real fan can afford tickets any more. Those are twice-a-week events for a bunch of yuppies. I know. Those are the circles I run in."

Goldberg stabbed at his chicken quesadilla. "The money's changed everything, even the athletes," he lamented. "You got guys like Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith, who save the ball every time they score a touchdown, then sign it and sell it. There's that story about Chris Webber." My ears pricked up at the mention of the Warriors' new marquee name. "He was walking down the street one day when he was still in college and he sees his jersey being sold for $450 in one of these memorabilia stores. And he's thinking, 'Wait a second. Why should they be making all that money off me?' What's he getting as a pro now, $70 million?"

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