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The "Beijing Bullets' may be on the way

It's all NAFTA's fault.

I have season tickets to the NBA's Washington Bullets, and last week I heard the giant sucking sound of jobs moving south. Actually, it was only one job, but it was enough to make the front page of the Washington Post. Bullets star forward Juwan Howard, the centerpiece of his team and a role model in this city, headed south after being offered $98-million over seven years by the Miami Heat.

Where is Ross Perot when you need him? I mean, none of this would have happened without NAFTA, GATT, the WTO, APEC, the EU, not to mention the NBA.

It's true. What you see with Howard and other NBA free agents, argues political scientist and disgruntled Bullets ticket-holder Norman Ornstein, is how the integration and deregulation of global markets gives us more freedom of movement and more opportunity to profit from larger and larger markets, "at the same time that it severs the bonds of loyalty workers or employers might feel to any particular place."

It is precisely because basketball (much more than baseball or football) has become a global sport, with a global TV audience and a global pool of loyal consumers for NBA-endorsed products, that it can offer megasalaries that break any player's loyalty to team or community.

I was just in Moscow. The hottest selling matryoshka doll there _ those little wooden dolls with one inside another inside another _ is of the Chicago Bulls. Outside the Kremlin you can buy Scottie Pippen inside Dennis Rodman inside Toni Kukoc inside Michael Jordan. And if you aren't a Bulls fan, Moscow vendors offer matryoshka dolls of every NBA team.

Howard's good fortune is that the improvement in his jump shot coincided with revolutions in global market integration and communications, which enable fans from Moscow to Mexico to help pay his salary _ by buying NBA souvenirs or viewing rights. The NBA already talks of expanding teams to Europe and Latin America. (Coming soon: the "Cali Cartels." The team logo is the poppy. The owners pay everybody in cash.) And just wait until China's workers get hooked on the NBA and can afford to buy the high-tech sneakers they now make for the global market.Howard will make $980-million, and his next contract will be with the "Beijing Bullets."

Just as the hometown player is becoming extinct, so too will the hometown owner. The net worth of Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin was reported to be $100-million, derived originally from local Washington real estate. He was being asked to spend his entire net worth to keep one player. No wonder teams are now owned by ITT or CNN's Ted Turner or Microsoft's Paul Allen. In a global economy only an owner with a global-size income can pay global-like salaries.

USA Today noted that Howard's $98-million contract would pay the average salary of an elementary school teacher ($30,000 a year) for 3,267 years. Michael Jordan's $25-million salary works out to $105 per second of playing time, or $315 for every three-second violation.

Howard and Jordan's fans may not begrudge them their salaries, as long as they win. But the widening gulf between winners and losers in the global economy that these sports salaries reflect will have social repercussions, argues Harvard University political theorist Michael Sandel: Rich and poor will increasingly live separate existences, sending their children to different schools, living in different neighborhoods and shopping in different stores.

And now, also rooting for the home team differently. It used to be that going to the game pulled a community together. But it will be able to do that less and less, because to pay these huge salaries, ticket prices are put out of reach to all but the rich, or stadiums are segmented with high-priced corporate boxes where only the wealthy sit. To pay for Shaquille O'Neal's $121-million salary, the Los Angeles Lakers had to raise their cheapest seats from $9.50 a game to $21, and most expensive from $500 to $600 per game.

"In the past," noted Sandel, "some sat in bleachers and some in box seats, but everyone ate the same hot dogs, drank the same beer and got rained on by the same storm. But now the wealthy can dine on lobsters in air-conditioned corporate boxes while the rest eat peanuts in the grandstands _ if they can afford to go at all. So even the ballpark is no longer the kind of shared public space that brings together people from different walks of life."

New York Times News Service