Menu

Commentary: Building a cycling union, straight from Miller’s mouth

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Aug. 31, 2012
  • Updated Dec. 25, 2012 at 4:53 PM EDT
Marvin Miller was largely responsible for building the baseball players' union and his efforts provide guidelines for cycling's professionals. AP Photo

Topps turning point

Miller cites the contract that Topps, a baseball card manufacturer, had players sign while they were still in the minor leagues: five dollars for five years of rights to their images.

“Five bucks!” Miller exclaims, his voice still shaking with astonishment at the rawness of the deal. He used this crummy contract, which all the players signed, as an educational tool.

He recalls telling the players that the thrill of appearing on the same bubble gum cards they cherished as kids blinded them to being taken advantage of. When Miller explained that their sense of awe was “part of the exploitation, and how much money Topps and other companies were making off their willingness to sign up and give these companies the right to their picture, they understood.”

The analog here is not a reach: every pro dreams of racing the Tour de France. Once that opportunity is there, it would seem madness to strike at that honor, even if today’s riders, like yesterday’s baseball players, are getting a raw deal.

“We started a boycott of Topps,” Miller recalls. And in short order the company was forced to improve the terms of its licensing contract. “It was a great experience” for the players, Miller notes. “They saw what solidarity could do.”

When Miller first approached Topps to discuss “a realistic contract that would pay the players an appropriate amount,” he was dismissed in much the same way Jonathan Vaughters was when he proposed television revenue sharing with Tour de France owner Amaury Sport Organisation.

Chuckling, Miller recalls that Topps’ company president “came to my office and he heard me out.” The novelty card executive then laid out the facts for Miller: “Look I understand what you are saying, but I don’t see your muscle.”

Miller reported the conversation back to the players and they initiated a policy of no players signing any new contracts with Topps.

Suddenly bereft of rookie playing cards and stars that would not renew their expiring agreements, Miller says the Topps president phoned him for another meeting. He came in, Miller recalls with a laugh, and “the first thing he said was, ‘I see your muscle.’”

Topps negotiated a new contract that “in a very short time was netting the players roughly $50,000 a year. It was a great experiment and a great lesson in what solidarity and organization could do.”

Miller calls the Topps agreement “a monument” that marked the beginning of an era when the athletes finally understood how their collective force, when focused on a specific goal, could yield returns that were unimaginable over the previous century.

Miller also says his role was that of a teacher and listener — a catalyst for change that equipped athletes with knowledge. Miller notes that it was the players’ collective sense of drive that was key to their progress, not Miller himself. “I tried to be careful,” he says. “I didn’t want a cult of people thinking that I was doing all this.”

« PreviousNext »

FILED UNDER: Analysis TAGS:

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

Stay Up to Date on Everything Cycling

Subscribe to the FREE VeloNews weekly newsletter