Are Any Sports "Free"?

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There’s a really good new book called “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

He argues that businesses like Google (“the Citadel of Free”) can make more by giving things away than by charging for them. Free websites, long distance calls, blogs, stock trades, and newspapers are among the many examples.

Anderson does what a good writer should do. He tells you things you didn’t know, he keeps you reading, and he makes you think. He got me thinking about how we value time, information, and sports.

“Doing things we like without pay often makes us happier than the work we do for a salary,” he writes. “No wonder the Web exploded, driven by volunteer labor — it made people happy to be creative, to contribute, to have an impact, and to be recognized as an expert at something.”

You can look at “free” in the context of sports in two ways. The people I’ve been blogging about for three months now are mostly unrecognized. They play for free. They’re ordinary people who trained themselves to do extraordinary things. They’re not motivated by financial rewards (with the exception of a young tennis player who’s a cinch for a college scholarship and possibly a pro career). But they spend several hours a week on their sports, structure their time around sports, and are as passionate about their sports as they are about their jobs. Payment means camaraderie, competition, getting in shape, helping others, or reaching a higher level of mediocrity.

The other way to look at “free” and sports is how much it costs to play. As any serious athlete knows, you can pay a lot or a little to chase your passion.

Exercising doesn’t have to cost anything. No equipment whatsoever is required. Soldiers and prisoners do thousands of calisthentics in dusty open fields or on the floor of their cells. Football legend Herschel Walker claimed to do only pushups, situps, and sprints as a boy. You can lift cans or jugs of water as easily (or strenuously) as you can shiny silver dumbbells. On the other hand, fitness clubs will charge you $70 to $125 a month for the privilege of breaking a sweat, or twice that with the services of a personal trainer. In my lifetime, we have turned something that was free and simple and even used as punishment into something expensive, technologically complicated, and desirable.

Indoor and outdoor basketball are free, thanks to community centers, parks and churches. Clubs and YMCAs with courts charge monthly fees. Basketball is the defining sport in Memphis, but participation declines with adulthood. Today’s player is tomorrow’s fan. Free play helps generate huge lifetime markets for shoe companies and television.

Soccer is free, but generally only on inferior fields. Leagues charge. Equipment cost is minimal, consisting of shoes and a ball. Or just a ball, as in Third World.

Running is free on streets, sidewalks, trails, and tracks. That’s one reason it’s so popular, although races are not free. Organizers typically charge $15-$30, which hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants happily pay, especially if there is a psychological payback of knowing the money goes to a worthy cause and a “free” t-shirt.

Tennis is free in the suburbs where you can walk on the local high school courts or poach on the courts at apartments. But it’s hard to do that in the city of Memphis, where the public courts are at a handful of tennis centers that charge an hourly or contract fee. Parks director Cindy Buchanan says Memphis has more public indoor courts than most cities including Chicago, which has two. Private tennis clubs offer “free” outdoor court time subsidized by indoor court rental fees, pro shops, monthly dues, and snack bars. I once belonged to a club with “free” tennis and managed to rack up a monthly bill that was higher than my house note.

Swimming is sometimes free at outdoor public pools, but the opportunities are scarce and the season is short. The costs are high because of the liability risks, lifeguards, and operating expenses. Finding a safe and attractive place to swim in Memphis is a challenge, especially if you are poor. We have made swimming an upper-class sport, and we make it harder every year for the inner-city poor to even learn how to swim. Buchanan says Memphis has 13 public outdoor pools and 4 indoor pools, all free.

Indoor court sports like racquetball are not free unless you’re a college student with access to a rec center. A club membership costs $60 to more than $100 a month. The two big private health clubs in Collierville — Life Time and Prairie Life — don’t have court sports.

Golf is almost never free. You usually pay twice, including the cart and greens fees, and the total outlay can be as little as $15 or more than $70. Equipment costs are among the highest for a sport that does not involve gasoline. Capital investment, maintenance, watering the course — somebody has to pay for that. Golf would seem to have a lot to gain by bringing along new players, who would then buy clubs and balls and bags and clothing and memberships. But efforts to introduce city kids to golf like First Tee, after generating a lot of fanfare, have fizzled.

Skateboarding is free on streets, sidewalks and parking lots, but boarders, judged by recent public hearings, prefer skate parks with litter-free surfaces, safe surroundings, challenging obstacles, and fellow skaters. Estimates of the cost of a skate park range from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars. Some parks in other cities charge admission. A park at the tip of Mud Island River Park would present an interesting free-or-not-free problem because the park is closed five months of the year. Proponents are shrewdly touting the ancillary benefits of their sport to the community at large as a talent magnet, which has yet to be tested.

Unorganized baseball is free on the proverbial sandlot, but organized baseball can be very expensive because of uniforms, league fees, and travel. Pickup baseball games, once an American institution, have virtually disappeared. Buchanan says the city is overstocked with fields for the 130 softball and baseball teams that play in organized leagues.

Riding a bicycle is cheap, but biking is expensive, and competitive cycling is really expensive. The difference is the cost of a yard-sale or performance bike and the head-to-toe gear. Several cities are experimenting with free bicycles that can be picked up and dropped off as needed. Like skateboarders, proponents of biking tout the broad benefits of bike trails to the environment and neighborhood revitalization.

The valuation of college and professional sports I will leave to someone else, although the current University of Memphis football team and Allen Iverson and the Grizzlies are tempting. I have a hunch, though, that people who spend a lot of time doing a sport are less likely to spend a lot of time watching other people play a sport. And if they're not careful, the football Tigers, Redbirds, and Grizzlies may find out that they can't move tickets even at a price of "free."

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