Thursday, August 11, 2011

PRIZE FIGHT: This week on Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast, one of the questions posed was a historical/predictive one. If baseball, horse racing, and boxing were the "big three" of American sports 50-60 years ago, which of today's "big three" (baseball, football, basketball) was least likely to still be a major sport for our grandchildren?

And I think the answer is obviously football, primarily because of the injury factor. If they can't reduce the risk of chronic brain trauma yielding permanent damage, parents will stop encouraging their kids to play and fans may gradually walk away. One big incident can start pushing away faster than you can say Duk Koo Kim.  (Soccer's the obvious replacement sport, though it too has issues with sub-concussive brain trauma, but we've now been waiting 30+ years for it to reach major league status in America.)


  1. Joseph J. Finn9:02 AM

    Totally agreed, though I'd quibble with Slate as to whether boxing was one of the big three in 1941-1951 or so.  How big was college football at the time? (Granted, it's a hard era with so many men being in the armed forces at the time.)

  2. If the NBA has to cancel much or all of a season, and depending on the terms of the deal, I think there are potential issues there with a lack of parity in the league (which the NFL has done exceedingly well with) and the perception of players as spoiled/entitled (LeBron's heel turn leading the way).  The likeliest replacement?  Honestly, it's probably mixed martial arts.

  3. Robin9:12 AM

    I like that you are framing this in terms of supply of athletes rather than demand of fans. 

  4. I think that's a fair question. While boxing suggests that there will always be a supply of athletes, boxing's a global sport and one need not grow up in the US to figure out how to do it successfully.  Supply of football players is much more limited.

    And I do think, ultimately, it is the demand side that will suffer.  Fans are cognizant of the concussion issue -- there's been a sea change in stadium reactions over the past two years -- and understand what the stakes are for athletes.

  5. isaac_spaceman10:35 AM

    This is a silly question, given that professional basketball ceased to exist on July 2, 2008, when it was dynamited into oblivion by a bunch of douchebag gay-baiting liars and their friend, the guy in New York who enjoys fucking over local governments. 

  6. Jordan10:40 AM

    The Super Bowl, on average, will draw more than half of television households in the country.  A World Series matchup involving one marquee (and thus high drawing) team will get double the ratings of a top rated NBA finals.  The NBA looks very unlikely to have a season right now.  As for other options, the NBA, to the best of my knowledge, is the only sport to get consistently outdrawn by it's college counterpart.  Professional basketball is in trouble.

  7. What you say of the Super Bowl today, you could have said about boxing through the mid-1970s, at least, no?

  8. Jordan11:13 AM

    Fair enough.  But when's the last time you saw a title fight on network television?  I can't imagine the NFL going to HBO for the NFC playoffs, Showtime for the AFC, and PPV for the Super Bowl (well, I can imagine it, I just don't think it's going to happen).

    Boxing has had other problems that I don't think could happen to the NFL, like lack of an American champion (and really presence) in the heavyweight division for more than a decade and the major loss of viewers and coverage to a similar sport.

    I agree that football stands on dangerous ground.  But it did (when less popular) a century ago, with worse head injuries (like a dozen deaths a year), forcing a Presidential intervention in the rules to keep it going, injuries went down, popularity grew, it's still here.

  9. Nigel from Cameroon11:14 AM

    Disagree. I think the obvious answer is baseball, which already attracts the lesser athlete.

    Still hard for me to imagine the USA getting behind soccer in a major way. MMA is definite candidate.

  10. Nigel from Cameroon11:15 AM

    Also, I wish I understood Isaac's fascinating comment.

  11. Jordan11:30 AM

    When has baseball every attracted atheletes (of any kind)?  Oh, hey John Kruk, didn't see you sitting there.  What was I talking about?  Oh, nothing, why do you ask?

  12. Watchman11:37 AM

    That was the date when the deal was finalized that allowed the Seattle Supersonics to become the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Given that this was the third franchise relocation in recent history (last ten years or so) I'm not sure if he means his comment to indicate that was the straw that broke the camel's back, or if it was that losing his team detonated his interest in the entire league.

  13. isaac_spaceman11:56 AM

    Boxing also went into serious decline at about the time that it switched from a network/cable model to a pay-per-view model for the marquee events. 

    But both horse racing and boxing also suffered from the fact that their popularity declined the more they became primarily bettors' sports. 

  14. Charles Carmicheal12:00 PM

    Quidditch, Rollerball and the annual Running Man event hosted by Zombie Richard Dawson....

    also NCAA sanctioned 43-man Squamish.

    Olympics replaced by the Hunger Games....

  15. isaac_spaceman12:00 PM

    No, you misunderstand.  That is the day on which the NBA ceased to exist

  16. Charles Carmicheal12:00 PM

    Jonathon E,  Jonathon E,  Jonathon E!

  17. I think we've got some chicken-egg issues here.  Did horse racing's decline start with our becoming an urban and non-agrarian nation, which in turn left only bettors interested?  Did boxing shift to a PPV model because it was already losing mass popularity?  The big Ali fights, IIRC, were already on a closed-circuit model, not network tv, so what else changed?

  18. Meghan12:16 PM

    I see the NBA being the one to fade.  Maybe that's just wishful thinking.

  19. Anonymous12:31 PM

    Baseball - 2042. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has already covered this:

    Real answer: The NBA. It will be replaced by some version of Streetball, X-games-with-an-urban-twist style, that will be played in smaller venues in the cities, not in the 'burbs.

    And yes, racism (or cultural incongruity, if you want to go with a milder term) will be a factor, similar to the death of boxing. Would MMA have caught on as quickly if 90% of the fighters were urban blacks, as opposed to the multicultural [with a sufficient number of white guys] mix that they do have?

    Soccer will continue to grow and will catch on in about 2026, after the USMNT makes it to the World Cup final. Eventually the MLS all-teams-owned-by-the-league model will have to give way to actual clubs with at least two leagues for relegation and promotion. The Cosmos are trying to do this right now, by growing a club organically.


  20. Did Pat Croce debut Slamball too soon?

  21. Anonymous12:38 PM

  22. Jordan1:42 PM

    ESPN had an interesting study a little while ago pointing out that the number of NBA players from urban areas is at an all time low

  23. isaac_spaceman2:15 PM

    I don't think I subscribe to the view that racism killed boxing or that MMA wouldn't have caught on if there were more urban black guys doing it, and I certainly don't subscribe to the view that racism would have killed the NBA if it didn't hand't already died on July 2, 2008.  I don't want to write anything hyperpretentious like "the NBA transcended race," but for a long time it relied upon a number of hugely popular (among all audiences, regardless of race) black guys.  I don't know what happened to the NBA, but by the time it disappeared, it was easy to hate the players, the owners, and the commissioner in equal parts. 

    Also, I know he was just a street fighter and not MMA until the very end, but white guys LOVED Kimbo Slice. 

  24. Squid2:35 PM

    I think racism is a real issue.  Undeniably.  Just look at how much the PGA suffered when that black guy started winning all the tournaments.

  25. Benner6:23 PM

    i no longer remember that far back in time as far as golf goes. 

    The most recent NBA playoffs showed very attractive play.  Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant are players middle america can enthusiastically watch.  LeBron and Kobe were always unlikeable, but the "thuggish" vibe of the Pat Riley Knicks or the Jail Blazers just seems like a thing of the past. 

    Basketball will always be played because it's a game that doesn't cost much in terms of resources.  Yes, it has labor problems, but so has every other sport in recent memory, and it'll work it out. So, extrapolating on current trends alone, the answer is none of them.  In my lifetime, we've seen hockey drop out of the top 3 (there was a time it was beating the NBA), to fall behind Nascar, certainly, and maybe soccer in a few years. 

  26. heathalouise7:49 PM

    I don't know if I would say the Cosmos are an "organic" club. League commissioner Don Garber has said that he wants a second MLS team in the New York area, and the Cosmos are part of that. Yes, they're trying to rebuild the brand that was practically synonymous with U.S. soccer in the '70s, but there's a lot of snake oil being sold along with the nostalgia for Pele's foray into the USA.

    Why yes, I am a bitter Red Bulls (ugh -- still hate the name) fan who's annoyed that there aren't enough people in the seats in Harrison, so why start up another team?

    That being said, I think soccer is finally going to start its ascent in the next decade. Look at the deal MLS just struck with NBC. The "soccer kids" of the '80s are growing up, having kids of their own, and they'll (hopefully) go to games. The problem now is reconciling soccer as a "family" sport with traditional European supporter culture. I think the Portland Timbers are doing an excellent job in that regard, but the New England Revolution has had problems with it -- and their management -- recently.

    Long story short: put me in the "soccer" camp, especially if the USMNT makes it to a WC final, like bd said upthread.

  27. isaac_spaceman9:20 PM

    You know, Seattle and Portland are nuts for pro soccer.  The Sounders have "sold out" each of their five home matches this season and are averaging 36,000+ fans per match (I put "sold out" in quotes because I the stadium is sold out as configured but could be configured to hold significantly more than 36,000 fans).  That's over half the average attendance for the Seahawks.  The Timbers have also sold out all their games, but their stadium only seats 18,000 people.  The two teams play three hours apart and have a natural geographic rivalry, something that no other Seattle or Portland professional team has.  They also have an emotional rivalry, the way that, say, Stanford and Cal have.  (I would say like Yankees-Red Sox, but people from that stretch of the I-95 corridor act like you just insulted their grandmothers if you so much as suggest that those two teams' anything is similar to any other teams' anything).  I don't know if soccer is going to catch on nationwide or if it's going to stay caught on in the Northwest, but at least for now, it's a real thing that a non-trivial number of people get excited about. 

  28. Anonymous11:00 AM

    By organic, I mean that they  are starting a club and an acadamy like real football clubs as opposed to just starting a league-owned franchise using that name. I just hope that it busts the MLS salary cap and ownership model. Once you have that, some owners will be willing to splurge to put a world class team together that will be able to draw on the road and gather some attention. Yes, it will be a league of two or three Haves and the rest Have-nots, but that's how soccer works.

    BTW, Red Bulls, congratulations on the Emirates Cup. Typical American fashion, scoring only one goal in two games, yet somehow winning by a late own goal by Arsenal.

  29. Guest2:05 PM

    Which of today's "big three" (baseball, football, basketball) was least likely to still be a major sport for our grandchildren?

    Football is at least addressing some of the injury issues that have cast a shadow on the sport over the years. The NHL should take note! Also, the NFL has probably the best schedule you could ever hope for as a fan. Will that matter in the coming years as more and more kids are used to 'on demand' viewing or downloading what they want to watch? Maybe not as much, but right now it's setting the basis for "I used to watch Monday night football with my dad, it's a tradition I hope to carry on."

    Basketball will be around, but perhaps not in the way we know it now. I like the idea posed earlier about reverting to a more street level game, perhaps with smaller but more numerous teams player in smaller urban centers more often.

    I'm going with Baseball. For reasons that some have touched on already... less, how shall I say, domestic athletes. It's such big news when a home grown guy makes it to the bigs (see: Lawrie) that I think we'll see less and less of over time. I hope it's not true, but I can't see that trend of the Cuban/Dominican/Venezuelan players changing fast enough to maintain or increase the current fanbase. It doesnt hurt that I'm not a fan of the sport (I'll admit though that baseball has the best highlights) but if baseball is "america's favorite past time" beacuse it's so accessable to everyone (bat, ball, gloves as opposed to the equipment required for football/hockey) that Soccer will eventually replace this.

    Soccer has it's own issues that I hope they can also sort out in the years to come...