MIAMI (AP) – Lower salaries for athletes, delayed construction of new arenas and the possible loss of some struggling companies could be the next phase of the recession’s impact on the sports world, industry experts cautioned Wednesday.

“We’ve got to look at this as a bit of a wake-up call,” Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said.

Executives from several major sports leagues and organizations were among those at the IMG World Congress of Sports, warning that the full impact of the global financial crunch may not be apparent in sports for some time – perhaps another year or more.

Nonetheless, optimism reigned, from plans to expand various sports globally, to the belief many held that strong, well-run franchises and leagues will emerge from this downturn stronger than ever.

“We’re facing the greatest economic challenge of all of our lifetimes,” said Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which oversees arenas including the Staples Center in Los Angeles and owns the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, two MLS franchises and cycling’s Tour of California. “We have never seen anything like this and I pray that we never see anything like this again.”

Much of the day’s talk revolved around the many big-money deals that shape the sports world, like collective bargaining agreements between leagues and their various player unions, were made long before the recession gripped the world’s marketplace.

And since many CBAs will need to be re-negotiated in the next 1-2 years, sports could be on the cusp of some major change.

“We’re going to have inflation, it’s going to be bad and we’re going to have to deal with that at some point or another,” Leiweke said. “We’re going to pay a price for what we’re going through right now and bailing everyone out. So I think long-term, there’s going to need to be adjustments based the amount of money earned compared to the amount of money paid.”

Just about every aspect of sports – including the four major sports, the PGA of America and NASCAR – in the United States have taken at least some sort of hit from the economic downturn in recent months, through layoffs, hiring freezes, the loss of sponsorships.

Some have dealt with all that and more.

“There’s no industry sector immune from what we’re all experiencing,” said Keith Harris, the chairman of Seymour Price and a prominent figure in English Premier League soccer. “But there’s something about sport … that appeals desperately to those that need release from the recession that we’re in.”

Although some hockey teams are struggling, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said his league’s overall picture is promising.

The NHL, Bettman said, will see record revenues and attendance for the fourth straight year since the league resumed play following the lockout – which, he suggested, made the league stronger before the economy soured.

“We were used to operating in adverse times,” Bettman said.

At the same time, not all is bad – not even close, many insisted.

“The sports industry is going to do just fine,” IMG president George Pyne said. “Everybody would love to have sports’ problems.”

Other topics discussed Wednesday at the event, organized by SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily, included:

• Player salaries: Retired NBA player Alonzo Mourning signed the first contract in pro sports known to be guaranteed for more than $100 million when he got a $105 million, seven-year pact from the Miami Heat in 1996.

He’s concerned that the next generation of athletes might not be ready for a dip in income.

“I don’t think enough of them have thought about it, to tell you the truth,” Mourning said. “That is one of the things I’m afraid of, that a lot of these guys are going to be affected tremendously by it because they haven’t prepared for it. But I do know this: It needs to happen. It really does, simply because we need to fill the stands.”

• State of the NHL: Bettman reiterated that there is investor curiosity to help the cash-strapped Phoenix Coyotes.

“There are a number of people who are expressing interest,” Bettman said. “I think you’re going to see some capital adjustments. Financing is more difficult than it’s been, but it’s there.”

• Facility construction: The roadmap is “not good,” Leiweke said, for additional arena construction – which could prove to be particularly jarring news in Miami, where the long-awaited ballpark for the Florida Marlins is closer than ever to reality.

Many stadiums are going up around the country, including the new facility for the Dallas Cowboys, at a cost exceeding $1 billion. But not even America’s Team is immune to the crunch; the Cowboys haven’t sold naming rights for the building.

“A lot of these projects, if you started them today, you wouldn’t have them,” Leiweke said.

• Will it get worse? Leiweke suggested that the full impact of the recession could present itself in the next year.

“There will be a weeding out and the strong will survive and get better,” Leiweke said. “But we also have to understand, I think, in the next 12 months, we haven’t seen the worst yet in sports.”

When moderator Abraham Madkour asked “Who gets weeded out?,” no one rushed to make a prediction.

“People that don’t run their individual businesses as well as they should, and aren’t recognizing getting cost out of their system as fast as possible,” said NASCAR CEO Brian France. “You’ve got to reprice things for the various companies in our industry. Everybody is spending less … or not spending at all. So you’ve got to reprice it and that says something.

“No one’s having a good moment in this economy,” France added. “The question is, how do you come out of the other side?”


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