Thursday, March 25, 2004

Baseball's Not Popular?

I normally enjoy reading Colby Cosh. He's a great writer and usually brings an original analysis to many different topics including sports. But this post he wrote a few weeks is rather simplistic in its reasoning of which sports are popular in the U.S.. He wrote:

"Just look at the record with open eyes (I'm indebted to Steve Sailer for persuading me to think seriously about this). Baseball was the most popular sport in the United States until it started attracting large numbers of Latino competitors in the 1960's and 1970's--when football, still mostly a pure American game, surpassed it. By some coincidence. (It continues to lose ground, and, if I'm right, will continue to lose ground as more Japanese players cross over, Europeans in countries like the Netherlands learn the game, and Cuban stars are finally allowed to play in the U.S. without having to build rafts.) Basketball is suffering a crisis of public confidence in the U.S., by some coincidence, as the pro game is invaded by skilled foreigners who can play with anybody. Golf, dominated by Tiger Woods, remains strong with spectators, as men's tennis, which has failed to supply a successor to Pete Sampras, suffers badly. Americans do, however, seem to enjoy women's tennis--which the Williams sisters dominate--and women's soccer--in which Americans are ranked #1 or close to it. Which auto-racing circuit emerged from the last twenty years as America's best-loved by far? By some coincidence it's the one with a gentlemen's agreement to exclude foreign competitors. By some coincidence boxing suffered a sharp decline in fan interest when Americans stopped dominating most of the weight classes.

It's no failing of Americans that they love their own, but it's a distinct failing if that practically excludes the enjoyment of any game that is thoroughly internationalized. Still, in the very long run I do think this is a good dynamic for hockey, in its Darwinian struggle with other sports--partly because the game's international scope is unlikely to grow too much further, and partly because, from the standpoint of fan interest, Canadians may be the next-best thing to Americans. (At least Hollywood and American TV newsrooms seem to think so.) In the year 2060 the great hockey powers will probably be the same countries as now, with perhaps a couple more tacked on. The United States is undeniably one of those powers and, barring catastrophe, will remain one--which puts a pretty firm floor on American presence in and dominance of hockey. I don't see any similar theoretical floor protecting American dominance of basketball and baseball, which are already being challenged."

First, his basic premise is on shaky ground.. Baseball popularity is not waning as Colby would have you think. Attendance at Major League Baseball just happens to be higher than attendance of the other three major sports combined. But sure, he's probably referring to television ratings. But the television ratings for these sports is not the best way to judge their popularity, for many reasons. The main reason is the difference in the number of games.

I'm a football fan and I've watched almost every Bears game since 1985. But of the 320 games the Cubs and Sox play this year, I'll be lucky to watch a third of them. I would love to watch more, but I have no doubt that I would be single man if I tried.

Again, assuming Colby is basing his theory entirely on television ratings, I'm sure he would point to the decline in the World Series audience over the years. I would just add that ratings for all types of network shows have declined because of the increase of audience choices and competition from entertainment other than TV. The Super Bowl has generally been able to avoid this fate by becoming a quasi-national holiday.

I would also note that the Cubs have quite a few foreign players such as Sosa, Alou, Aramis and Carlos Zambrano, and dare I say they have never been as popular. In fact Sosa is treated like a god in this town, while good ol' American boy Frank Thomas, who arguably has better career numbers, is treated with contempt by many fans and writers.

As for other sports it's not clear to me that the main factor in their popularity is the presence of Americans. Certainly, in individual sports like boxing and tennis, the game's popularity will be increased by charismatic stars and it doesn't hurt if those stars are American. Without a doubt, two black sisters from Compton dominating a sport is going to garner a lot of interest from folks who would not normally have an interest in tennis. But there was also a lot of interest when the likes of Navratilova, Seles and Hingis were in their prime.

As for boxing, the sport has been on a downward spiral for a long time. And while the lack of American dominance may be a factor, it is rather simplistic to suggest it is the cause of it's problems.

I won't even touch women's soccer. I guess Colby's think's its popular because of the Women's World Cup played here 5 years ago. So it must be news to him that the fledgling pro womem's soccer league shut down because no went to the games or watched them on TV.

Colby's main point is that hockey should have no problem remaining in the US sports landscape since US hockey players should continue to be a strong presence in the sport for the forseeable future. This may be true, but I would suggest a bigger factor in hockey's future may have more to do with the fact that hockey is a sport that a majority of Americans have never played. I would think this will have a greater effect on the popularity of hockey and will continue to make hockey the ugly stepchild in the U.S. sporting landscape.