Amateur Athletics vs. Professional Sports
I am a self-admitted sports junkie. The first thing I turn on in the morning is ESPN’s Sportscenter, which also happens to be the last thing I watch before going to bed. Needless to say, I see a lot of sports and have some strong opinions about them. I even dedicate a page on this blog to my thoughts on sports because, odds are, if I don’t have any updates on my present career-hunt, sports is the next best thing I have to write about.
I was watching NBC a fair amount this weekend, and they are clearly in full-force Winter Olympics mode. Promotions for the Games in Vancouver were constant, and the network showed myriad pre-Olympic events such as snowboarding and figure skating. I spent Sunday flipping between the NFL Conference Championship games and the NBC events, and something struck me: these events are different. Every athlete, whether they be a football player or a speed skater, has worked extremely hard to achieve what they have done, and they are all phenomenal athletes, but there’s something different.
Which brings me to my present thought: which is better, amateur or professional sports? For argument’s sake, I’ll define amateur sports as high school/college athletics and Olympic/national team sports. I know that professionals are allowed to compete in the Olympics now, but participants in the Olympics are not drafted by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and they are not free agents who can represent a new country on a whim for a larger payout. I also know that, between scholarships and boosters, there is a LOT of money in college sports, particularly football. But college sports still count as amateur sports in my book. Professional sports are sports in which the players are contracted by the owners to provide a service, i.e. play their sport; examples are the Big 4 (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL). Let’s look at these compartively using a number of different factors:
VENUES: It is not particularly mind-bending to see that athletic venues match the amount of money involved in a given sport. Professional sports, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry, is filled with arenas and stadiums that continually push the edge of grandeur, ameneties, and capacity (enter Jerry Jones’s billion-dollar stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, which has yet to find a company with enough cash to pony up for the naming rights; I personally am fan of the current moniker “Jerry’sWorld”, but don’t be surprised to see “Facebook Field” signs start going up on the walls). College athletics, meanwhile, feature venues that are generally smaller and more intimate. Though these venues are often not as elegant and lush as professional venues, they are filled with nostalgia and lore. Rarely do these venues have corporate names; rather, the names celebrate the history of the school’s culture (“Phog Allen Fieldhouse” at the University of Kansas) or one that’s just plain cool (“The Big House” at the University of Michigan). I prefer substance over style, emotion over tangible.
Winner: TIE: Amateur if you’re like me, Professional if you like the amenities, I can’t really argue with that.
FANS: Which is more likely to raise your pulse: an arena filled with chest-painted, bleacher-banging, stand-up-and-scream-from-tip-off-to-“00.0″ twenty-something year olds, or one filled with beer guzzling corporate-types trying to woo clients or win over their date. Pro-team loyalty is more transient than college loyalty: you are an alumnus for life of your school, not of your pro team. This is an easy one.
ATHLETES: Every athlete starts out as an amateur, at least so long as people aren’t signing the unborn children of athletes to professional contracts (though I can’t say it would surprise me if it were to start happening). For most athletes, they never reach professional status: only a small percentage of high school football players get to play in college, and an even smaller percentage get to play professionally. However, there is a change that occurs if an athlete gets the opportunity to “go pro.” They now have reached the pinnacle of their sport, and they are being compensated for it. Very, very well. And for many pro athletes, that becomes their focus. They have achieved their goal of playing in the NBA, but now that goal of “playing in the NBA” transforms into “getting paid like an NBA player.” Players may have certain performance incentives in their contracts to “motivate” them to achieve a certain degree of excellence, for which they will be lucratively rewarded. Think about the expression “contract year,” which is a term for the last year of a player’s current deal, or the year that will define his next contract. Oftentimes this may be a player’s best year statistically. They will then get paid a few more million dollars, and generally slip back into the rank and file of the rest of the league. True, there are pro athletes who are willing to take less money to be on a team competing for a title, but so long as there is money involved, there will always be a different motivation for athletes once they turn pro. Amateur athletes, on the other hand, don’t perform for contracts. They sign sponsorship and endorsement deals, but those are not employment contracts. There are no player unions in amateur sports, there is no free agency, and there are no contract years. Amateur athletics is still focused on the gold, not on the green. While money can come to those who succeed, it is not the driving force. Which is one reason why I love the Olympics so much. I know most people bag on the Olympics, but I’m still envious of those who get to walk in the opening ceremonies representing their country, and I’m inspired by each time an athlete medals or achieves their dreams. For me, that’s the entire point. The people, often kids (late-teens, early-twenties), whose parents are there beaming with pride, knowing that all of the hard work, sweat, and pain has finally paid off. No brainer.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, I generally enjoy amateur sports more than professional sports. I know stating that one thing is “better” than another is kind of a cop out, because “better” doesn’t say anything specific. But you know what? I’m still a sucker for the Olympics, and I probably always will be.