Among the stories dominating sports’ summer landscape , there are some you may have missed. Liam Day discusses the subtle, but important shifts taking place.
August is rarely a traditional sports enthusiast’s favorite time of the year. The baseball season drags itself through summer’s dog days, the pennant races won’t heat up until September, the NFL has yet to kick off, and the NBA and NHL are barely blips on the radar screen.
No, nothing very big typically happens in sports this time of year, and the past few weeks were no different. Except, maybe they were. Not in the sense that so and so made a great play or broke a longstanding record or that his team came from behind to win the biggest game of the year, but in the sense of subtle shifts that may wind up dictating what sports we watch in this country and how we watch them and who gets paid for the revenue that our sports-watching habits generate.
The first shift was the announcement by the NCAA that it would no longer sell replica uniforms on its website. As Travis Waldron pointed out at Think Progress, the move was, despite protests to the contrary, not one of conscience, but of liability. Two suits are currently winding their way through the courts, the more prominent of which, brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, claims that he is entitled to a share of the revenue the NCAA has earned from its contract with EA Sports, which produced a popular video game that used his name and image. The NCAA’s announcement that it would no longer sell game jerseys came less than a month after it announced it would not extend its contract with the video game maker.
Despite these moves, the NCAA’s monopoly of the revenue generated by its supposedly amateur workforce, and that of its member institutions, which themselves regularly sell replica uniforms with their players’ names and numbers on them, seems to be growing more tenuous by the day.
Speaking of monopolies, the second story with the potential to change the sports landscape in this country was the launch of the Fox Sports 1 network, possibly the first real challenge to ESPN’s chokehold on 24/7 coverage of all things sports. Wisely, Fox is looking to disrupt the worldwide leader by seeking out burgeoning markets, most prominently MMA-UFC.
Saturday’s Fight Night 26 from TD Garden in Boston was the first televised by Fox 1 under the new arrangement, whose implementation has not wholly been without tension. Joe Rogan, longtime UFC announcer and commentator, complained on his podcast last week about Fox executives asking him to tone down his act, which has ruffled feathers in the past. This was introduction to the mainstream the hard way.
Finally, the English Premier League kicked off this weekend, perennial contenders Liverpool and Manchester United prevailing in their opening matches, results not really all that shocking. What is significant, though, was that these were the first matches broadcast under NBC’s new three-year, $250 million contract and the ratings, up 67% over last year, when the opening matches ran on ESPN and Fox Soccer, seem to have borne out the decision to plunk down that kind of dough for the exclusive rights.
60 or 70 years ago, America’s sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. I suspect that’s partly due to their seemingly natural fit with the then primary means of broadcast: radio. Whatever the reason, in the intervening decades boxing’s and horse racing’s popularity waned, while that of other sports—basketball, football and hockey—waxed.
We may be going through another shift. I’ve written before about baseball’s declining ratings, and I suspect much of the hand wringing in official circles over the recent steroid suspensions is due, ultimately, to the growing anxiety over the game’s long-term fate. The structure of its new television deal will allow owners to weather the decline in ratings in the short-term, but there is no ignoring the trend. Earlier this month, Joey Spitz, in a piece at Huffington Post pondering whether the national pastime was dying a slow death, noted that football passed baseball as America’s favorite sport all the way back in 1972. The split today, though, is wider than ever, 41% of Americans identifying football as their favorite and only 10% baseball. And as baseball’s popularity continues to decline, other sports—soccer and MMA—will rise to take its place.
Back in April, when reporting on the NFL’s announcement that discouraging discrimination against gay players would henceforth be a point of emphasis during its orientation for rookies and annual Football Operations Meeting, I wrote the following:
If it takes a pond 30 days to freeze over, and if the amount of water that freezes doubles each day, it will appear after the first 20 days that hardly any of the pond is frozen and even on the 29th day only half of it will be. It could appear, then, to someone who wasn’t paying attention, that the pond froze overnight. Of course, that would have been to miss all that came before.
I’m not sure that, because the weather was nice and perhaps we were busy stealing one last weekend at the beach or up at the lake, or getting the kids ready to go back to school, and because the important stories so often don’t come with a highlight reel, we didn’t just miss a little bit of the pond freezing over.