Thursday, July 26, 2007

Are Our Three Major Sports Invincible?

There have been a number of recent articles and reports on how all three of the major sports in the US are facing a significant challenge: the NFL has the Vick fiasco, the NBA has the Donaghy stuff, and baseball has steroids. Speculation about which story is going to do the most damage to its respective sport has been rampant. The Big Lead makes the argument that none of the events are going to have a significant negative impact on the fan base of any of the sports.

We agree with them and would go as far as to say that the NFL, MLB, and even the NBA, have arrived at a state of invincibility. We are hard pressed to think of a single story that would turn fans away from any of these three leagues in droves.


The NFL has been littered with player arrests this summer (see profootballtalk), they have been repeatedly accused of not taking care of their retired players, and most recently there has been the Vick indictment. But, it does not matter. The NFL will still grow in popularity this season. But Why? Why don't we care that many of the players in the league are thugs and possibly taking steroids? Two words: Fantasy Football. The NFL has always had its hard core fans and always will, but fantasy football has turned the casual fan into a serious fan who watches games, reads articles, discusses outcomes, and even buys merchandise. The effect of fantasy football on the popularity of the NFL may be unquantifiable. It also appears to be nearly irreversible: we could find out that ten players were suspended for taking steroids, 30% of ex-NFL players die prematurely due to injuries sustained during their playing careers, or even that multiple referees were involved in gambling. We would still tune in every Sunday and Monday.


Baseball has been plagued by the steroids problem for some time now. It also went through its own nasty gambling crises with the whole Joe Jackson and Pete Rose things. But none of these have been able to derail the game's popularity. In fact, according to the most recent issue of SI the average attendance at last Saturday's games was 39,977 -- the highest single-day average ever. Certainly, fantasy baseball has helped out the popularity of MLB, but we believe that its invincibility stems from its position as the historic national pastime of America. Baseball fans have die-hard allegiances to particular teams. These allegiances tend to be passed on from generation to generation establishing families of baseball fans. Most everyone I know roots for a particular team because that is team that their Dad liked. Turning one's back on baseball, and in particularly your team, is paramount to sacrilege for many. Baseball's position as a rite of passage from father to son has solidified its position in our culture.


The NBA could lose its popularity in the US. In fact, since the end of the Jordan Era its popularity has been declining fairly steadily. Its place in our culture is not permanent like that the NFL or MLB. However, due to its strong international contingent of players and ever increasing popularity in South America, Europe, and Asia the NBA is here to stay. In other countries, homegrown NBA stars are not perceived as thugs, but more along the lines that we perceive players in the MLB. America's fall from dominance on the international stage has only increased the popularity of the NBA in other countries. There is nothing these countries like more than beating us at one of our own games. We are hard pressed to think of any scandal that could seriously effect the popularity of the NBA as it continues to put a stranglehold on the entire globe.

Perhaps the invincibility of these sports should not shock us. Soccer long ago attained a similar position in the rest of the world. It is often rocked by scandals far worse than any of our three major sports have faced, but continues plugging right along. The only difference is that MLB, the NBA, and the NFL have become brand names inextricably associated with their respective sports. As long as the sport continues to have success so will the leagues.



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