Politics

02.15.13

Why Spectators Sports Thrive or Die

Astute piece from Jonathan Mahler at Bloomberg View today on why football is not likely to go the way of boxing. The latter sport hasn't withered away, he writes, because of public revulsion at the violent nature of it. Rather, it's been simply because of lack of television exposure:

Boxing once relied heavily on prime-time Olympic exposure to introduce its future stars to the U.S. sports-viewing public. We first met Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay -- the slender, charismatic 18-year-old light-heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 in Rome. Boxing was the highest-rated Olympic sport of the 1976 summer games in Montreal, which featured Sugar Ray Leonard as well as Michael and Leon Spinks. Just 16 years later, in Barcelona, Olympic boxing made its final prime-time appearance on U.S. broadcast television.

In the intervening period, the networks basically abandoned the sport. This happened partly because an aggressive Home Box Office executive named Seth Abraham spent a lot of money systematically luring the big fights away from the networks.

Abraham figured out, correctly, that fight fans would pay $40 and $50 to see big-time bouts on HBO, so it became a niche spectator sport. This all started before Abraham came along. I remember well for the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, Dad took me and Steve Szapanos down to the Fairmont Armory to see it on a huge screen in closed-circuirt telecast. I was for Ali, Stevie for Frazier. God the smoke in that place.

Anyway, now, I couldn't name you two boxers. Pacquiao, or however you spell it. Is he still at it? He's the only one I could tell you. It's because they're not on regular television, by which I mean not just the nets but the standard-package (non-premium) cable channels. Although I guess boxing is on ESPN2, I just don't watch it. But the major bouts are all on premium cable or pay-per-view.

More from Mahler:

Other sports were smarter about television. According to the mythology, it was Michael Jordan(with an assist from Commissioner David Stern) who single-handedly saved the National Basketball Association. No less important was a TV strategy that included cutting back on the glut of games available on local cable channels, changing the league’s playoff schedule to accommodate CBS and televising the annual slam-dunk contest and college draft.

Virtually every sport that has flourished in the modern era has TV to thank. The National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament has been around for almost 75 years, but it was “March Madness” -- now a joint production of CBS and Turner Sports -- that engraved it in our national sports calendar.

College football’s popularity can be traced to a 1984 Supreme Court decision, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that freed schools and their conferences to negotiate their own contracts with the networks. (Three times as many college games were televised nationally in 1984 as in 1983; end-of-season bowl games were now available for just about any company looking to sponsor one.)

I didn't even know about that Supreme Court case, but it explains everything. For years there were maybe three games on TV every Saturday, or four. Now there are literally 15. Although Mahler has misphrased the matter, in my view. College football has been popular since the 1920s. I would say that it has endured and flourished, historically, more than any other sport in America, even than baseball probably, which has lost some popularity in recent times.

Anyway, given that the NFL generates eight or nine of the top 10 rated TV shows every year--not sporting events; TV shows period--one doubts that it's going anywhere.

When I lived in New York, I went to the fights once, at Madison Square Garden, at the Felt Forum, just to see what it felt like. It was very retro. This Scottish fighter came in with a full honor guard, bagpipes, kilts, the whole kit. It seemed kind of sad, an attempt to recapture faded glory. And that was 15 years ago or so. Today, who'd care? I bet no Hollywood studio would even make Rocky or Raging Bull today, no great loss as far as I'm concerned (my longer-suffering readers know my view that Raging Bull is absurdly overrated).