Sports woes provide insight for showbiz

Leagues, players echo Hollywood trends

SETTING ASIDE the Screen Actors Guild negotiations, those wanting to preview the near future that awaits Hollywood talent should probably begin reading the sports section.

Analogies between the sports leagues and showbiz aren’t always precise, but the parallels are significant enough to be enlightening. Both rely on a limited, highly competitive talent pool; fabulously reward their franchise players; and are controlled by a small group of deep-pocketed owners. Beyond that, there’s what I call “the currency of fame,” where movie stars ring the court at Lakers games and athletes dream of becoming actors once their knees give out.

So what’s happening in sports? A serious contraction and slow-building panic regarding the economy. And usually, what’s bad news for journeymen power forwards or linebackers tends to augur poorly for journeymen writers and actors as well.

After a number of fat years, the National Basketball Assn. has established a $200 million credit line to aid struggling teams, which sort of makes the Sacramento Kings the equivalent of MGM. Despite billions in TV-rights revenue, the National Football League is feeling the recession too, with Indianapolis Colts president Bill Pollan telling the New York Times that there “may not be a desire to part with a lot of cash, especially for mid-level free agents.”

Indeed, NBA teams have engineered trades designed not to improve their rosters but rather reduce payroll costs — a move not unlike TV series shedding cast members, as some already have, to slash budgets. And while marquee baseball players still command staggering deals, even the Dodgers — whose ticket sales have survived extended bouts of mediocrity — are publicly balking at slugger Manny Ramirez’s demands.

DAVID FALK, the influential sports agent whose famous clients have included Michael Jordan, sees key differences between the NBA and Hollywood, starting with how relatively brief a player’s career-span is (although few actors enjoy serious longevity).

Still, Falk — whose new book “The Bald Truth” addresses his career and business philosophy — discusses pro basketball in a manner that uncannily resembles the discord dividing Hollywood, warning players that while owners are genuinely concerned about severe economic conditions, they’re also better equipped to weather the storm.

“Long term, the players and the owners can’t live without each other … but the owners can live without the players longer,” Falk told me. “That’s just reality.”

Falk has publicly cautioned players that NBA owners’ pleas of poverty aren’t mere posturing, and that the parties must take a long-term approach that insures each side’s continuing viability.

“When you get done negotiating, you want to have some goodwill between the partners, because they have to work with each other,” he said — a goal seemingly long lost amid SAG’s protracted talks. As for the many NBA owners who are losing money, he added, “You can’t have a system where the people you’re working for are unable to employ you. That’s a defeat.”

THE PARALLELS to Hollywood are that regardless of the deals that the guilds sign, there’s going to be plenty of short-term pain to go around. And while the studios will still ante up for big-name stars and proven winners, everyone else will encounter what amounts to a Bond villain named Dr. No.

If you’re Charlie Sheen, in other words, the money truck still makes house calls. But if you say things like “I’ll get this to the lab right away, boss” on a crime procedural, this isn’t the year to try renegotiating that contract.

Prospects, in fact, are perhaps slightly worse for showbiz talent, if only because of reality TV, which allows programmers to bypass them altogether. There’s no precise equivalent in baseball of owners grabbing eager amateurs off the street and letting them try to hit a major-league curve ball.

Conspiracy theorists will surely dismiss these observations as another corporate-driven attempt to weaken talent’s resolve, which is silly; rather, it’s merely an effort to view the world through a wider lens. Because the truth is in the heat of battle it’s easy to forget that everyone’s been thrown an economic curve, and until those indices begin rebounding, the forecast for improving the lot of mid-range talent looks to be low and outside.

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