Biggest Scams in Sports
Sports are a lot of things to a lot of people.
To fans, sports are a passion—an opportunity for bonding with family and friends. They are a link that binds past and present, and a most welcome distraction from the harsh realities of life.
To owners and athletes, however, sports is a business. While some part of their involvement may be rooted in a love of the game, fundamentally every decision made and action taken comes down to money.
Not that there’s anything wrong with making money—we all want to do it. Problems arise when an individual person or entity’s desire to turn a profit supersedes doing what’s right.
There are billions upon billions to be made in sports—more than enough to go around for all the major stakeholders. Which is why there’s no reason to get greedy and abandon one’s moral compass.
When cash is king, nothing is off the table.
Here are a few of the biggest scams in sports.
The NFL preseason is, quite simply, a scam. Because of the physical toll football takes on athletes, regular season starters play very little in the preseason.
The first three games are used by coaches to help trim down their rosters, while the fourth is basically a glorified scrimmage. Starters get a fair amount of playing time, but ultimately play with all the urgency of a 3-12 team in late December.
Yet the NFL continues to charge full price for preseason games, mostly because they can. Parking costs the same. Food and drink cost the same. Everything in the gift store costs the same. Pretty much everything costs the exact same as a regular season game, the only difference is that it’s a preseason game with absolutely no meaning.
The worst part about the scam is that it only impacts season ticket holders, which, given the NFL’s growing attendance problems, one would think they would be eager to take care of. Preseason tickets cost the same when sold as part of a package, but can be purchased for as little as $5 in secondary markets like StubHub.
There are all sorts of ridiculous bracelets out there making equally-ridiculous claims about various health and wellness benefits that come from wearing them. Take ENDEVR™ wristbands, for example, which says this on their website:
“ENDEVR™ doesn’t make balance bracelets. What we make are personal IonTech™ generators that can be worn wherever you go.”
And then they go on to quote Dr. Oz and WebMD extensively on what, exactly, ions are and what they do. No matter that none of their exhaustive Googling provides any actual scientific proof that their product works.
Another company that makes these things, which run $20-$50 on average, is Power Balance. In 2011, Power Balance issued the following statement in Australia, a country that has less tolerance for its people being swindled:
“In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improve your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.”
In short, if you own one of these things—which many athletes are paid to shill—you've been had.
NBA Referee Ticket Scam
Back in 1995, there were 35 NBA referees investigated by the IRS for a scam that pocketed some of them over $100,000 over a five-year span. It was an elaborate scheme involving millions of dollars in phony travel expenses.
Referees would reportedly book their flights, most of which were first class, and submit photocopies of the tickets to the league for reimbursement. They would then swap out the first-class tickets for economy seats and pocket the difference.
Apparently, referees had—and may still have—“the right” to fly first class and sell their seats for money, per NBA rules. They didn’t—and definitely still don’t—have the right to collect all that money tax free, per our evil overlords at the IRS.
Nice try, fellas.
The Spanish national basketball team cruised to an easy gold at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. In fact, Spain did pretty well overall that year. Although, as it turned out, there was a reason they had so much success in the competition.
The scandal broke a few months after the games, when a member of the gold medal-winning intellectually-handicapped basketball team spilled the beans. Carlos Ribagorda revealed that he and a number of other athletes were not mentally deficient.
In fact, “of the 200 Spanish athletes at Sydney, at least 15 had no type of physical or mental handicap,” that per a Daily Mail report from October 2013. The final team did consist of two players with IQs below 70, but the other 10 posed as disabled with fake medical records provided to them.
Fernando Martin Vicente, the former head of the Spanish Federation for the Mentally Handicapped Sports, was found guilty of fraud last fall, 13 years after the scandal rocked the sports world.
Earlier this year, Lacy T.—a Raiderette during the 2013 season—filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders to provide an eye-opening glimpse into the world of professional cheerleading. It’s a world that, apparently, offers women the opportunity to suffer all kinds of indignities while working long hours for below minimum wage.
The suit alleges that Raiderettes work for less than $5 an hour. Fines of $10 or more are supposedly incurred for offenses like forgetting to bring something to practice, wearing the wrong workout gear or wearing boots on game day that are not adequately cleaned an polished.
Not long after the suit made headlines, a former Ravens cheerleader straight up called the whole thing a scam in a tell-all piece for Deadspin. She revealed details of the strict weight rules and the soul-crushing ways in which the rules are enforced. She also noted the countless ridiculous rules outlined in the handbook are only arbitrarily enforced.
More than a few people have disregarded the whole thing, pointing out that nobody is forced to be a cheerleader. An argument that is fundamentally flawed. Obviously cheerleaders don’t deserve to be paid like football players, but they do deserve to be treated like human beings and be paid a fair wage. Teams make money by selling their likenesses in countless different ways, so they should be treated like valuable commodities, rather than indentured servants who are just lucky to be there.
Throwback jerseys have caught on in four of the five major sports leagues in the U.S. The only reason it hasn’t caught on in MLS is because the league hasn't been around long enough. They'll get there eventually.
The whole throwback jersey thing is nothing more than a very clever way to separate you from your money. Teams are always updating their uniforms, which means fans are always updating their gear to stay current.
But why stop at making money by staying current, when you can make money by getting nostalgic? Every time a team updates their uniform, another throwback jersey is born. That’s quite the scam they’ve got going on.
Melky Cabrera's Manufactured Website
I purposefully kept steroid scams—like the East German Olympians, BioGenesis and the maniacal scheming of Lance Armstrong—off this list. While each of them are scams, they just didn’t quite seem to fit here.
The only exception being the curious case of former Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera. In the summer of 2012, Cabrera was facing a 50-game suspension after testing positive for PEDs, which he tried to cover up with a very elaborate scheme.
Cabrera initially blamed the positive test on some crazy, untested product he bought online from the Dominican Republic. Acting on that information, MLB actually sent people to the country to investigate the substance.
They struck out in tracking it down, because it never existed to begin with. Not only did Cabrera lie about what he took, he went so far as to create a phony website to substantiate his claims. Ultimately, his scam sent MLB on a wild-goose chase and he was suspended anyway.
Sneaker enthusiasts get scammed from all different directions. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four ways that the entire market is a total scam.
1. Cost. It costs about $10.75 in materials to make a pair of Air Jordans, that per SneakerMob.com. “Add in labor, overhead, and factory profit” and the total cost is $16.25. They cost $165 per pair, on average.
2. Regional price gouging. The average pair of Jordans may be priced around $165, but that all changes when they’re flying off the shelves. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand—if the demand for a certain shoe swells, so will the price.
3. Athletes marketing them. There’s a reason why companies pay athletes to wear their shoes—it works. If people see their favorite athletes wearing a certain pair of shoes, then they too want to wear a certain pair of shoes. But athletes get hundreds, if not thousands of free sneakers out of the deal, plus a pile of money. All consumers get is a bill.
4. You’re always behind. It doesn’t matter how many pairs of sneakers you own, there will always be exponentially more on the market that you don’t own. Jordans are kind of like iPhones—if new iPhones were released every few days.
According to a 2012 report in Harvard Health Publications, the amount spent on sports drinks in the United States alone annually exceeds $1.5 billion. That’s an awful lot of money spent worrying about a problem—depleted electrolytes—that is largely created by the companies offering its solution.
Companies like Gatorade, Powerade and Vitamin Water commission the studies that are responsible for much of the data that suggests sports drinks are superior to water for hydration. Think that doesn’t sound like a particularly powerful lobby? Well, Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo and Powerade and Vitamin Water by the Coca-Cola Company.
They spend tens of millions trying to figure out the most effective way to get Americans to part with the $60 billion we spend on sugary drinks annually. The truth is, it has nothing to do with health—it is to do with money. If you want to be healthy, drink some water and have a banana after a workout. If you want to shrink your wallet and expand your waistline, guzzle sports drinks.
Between those buying and those selling, sports memorabilia is a billion-dollar business. The only problem? There’s no telling how much of what is bought and sold, particularly online, is authentic and how much is fake.
In 2000, a federal prosecutor said that as much as 90 percent of the sports memorabilia sold in the United States is fake, that according to a report in the New York Post.
There are ways for buyers to cut down on risk, such as buying authenticated items from reputable sellers, but it’s impossible to completely safeguard against fraud—it’s just too widespread.
Idaho Hockey Beer Scam
In March 2014, a group of Idaho hockey fans filed suit against a Boise arena, accusing that they had been scamming people out of one of the things we value most: Beer.
Fans of the Idaho Steelheads allege they were defrauded by the CenturyLink Arena, which charges $7 for a large beer and $4 for a small. The problem being that all their beers were technically small, because the large and small cups both hold 20 ounces.
The “large” cups were taller and thinner and the “small” shorter and wider. Via a message posted on the team's Facebook page, Steelheads president Eric Trapp claimed there was never an intention to mislead customers, noting larger cups had been purchased to rectify the error.
First of all, let me clarify that I’m not saying all publicly-funded sports stadiums in the U.S. are scams. Many sports teams add value and generate revenue for their respective cities. There was a massive battle over funding the construction of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, but ultimately it worked out pretty well. That being said, it doesn’t always work out as well.
Take, for example, Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Taxpayers ponied up $700 million to build the ball park in 2006. The Natties have repaid that generosity with just one postseason appearance since the move and a recent request for another $300 million to add a roof.
Then you’ve got Marlins Park in Miami, which cost Miami-Dade County $500 million—the team shouldered less than 20 percent of the total cost. The Marlins made one fleeting attempt to field a competitive team before promptly dumping most of their payroll. Ultimately, owner Jeff Loria used false promises to scam the county, which took out a loan to cover the cost. The Miami Herald estimates that by the time the last payment is due in 2048, Marlins Park will have cost taxpayers $1.18 billion.
Recently Deadspin published “Six Ways The Florida Panthers Want To Screw Broward County” and “Detroit Scam City: How The Red Wings Took Hockeytown For All It Had,” both of which touch on arena issues and are absolutely worth a read.
Billion Dollar Bracket
This year, March Madness got off to a particularly mad start, with billionaire Warren Buffett supposedly putting up a $1 billion for a perfect bracket. Sounds pretty good in theory, but in reality the whole thing was just a scam.
First of all, if anyone has ever picked a perfect bracket, it was back before everything was done online and we (the public) have no knowledge of it. Incidentally, the odds of someone picking a perfect bracket are somewhere between 7.4 billion-1 and 9.2 quintillion-1.
So, if nobody was ever going to actually win a billion dollars, what was the whole hullabaloo about to begin with? Well, I’m glad you asked! The contest was sponsored by Quicken Loans and co-sponsored by Yahoo.
Basically, the whole thing was a ploy to get you to sign up for a Yahoo account or recover the password of the dormant account you haven’t accessed in years, and then trick the less-detail oriented among us into handing over information to Quicken Loans by screwing up somewhere in the very long registration process.