Maybe it’s over. Or maybe it’s just starting. Either way, you can feel the shift in sports. One age is ending and perhaps it will be considered a golden age of sport.
The retirements of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Marino, John Elway in the last two years mark a clear end to a dominant time in sports. A time dominated by players possessed with talent, and incredible will. An argument can be made that Jordan, Gretzky, Marino and Elway are the best of all time in their sports.
Looking back over the history of professional sports, there is an ebb and flow of interest, but a continuous growth of leagues, money and exposure.
Baseball has fought players’ strikes and scandal throughout its history, yet has survived intact. The game is so intertwined with the American story, President Roosevelt advised Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner of the game, to continue playing through World War II despite most of the players being called off to duty. Despite setbacks, the game has grown. Even the Black Sox scandal and cancellation of the 1994 World Series couldn’t keep the game from plowing forward. As baseball fans followed the game from radio, to television, to cable and to satellite, more information flowed into homes about the players’ on, and off-field exploits. The game has always had a collection of “eccentrics” but never were they all exposed at the same time. There was some mystery to it.
Overall, the quality of baseball has gotten better. Weight training, fitness, off-season workouts, coaching have elevated the talent to levels never reached before. They’ve all gotten better. Pitchers, hitters, fielders alike. But the game lacks a national promotional vehicle. Only Ken Griffey, Jr. is a recognized ‘national’ star, doing commercials and promoting the game. Fans are a bit disconnected because they’re better informed. They know the lack of revenue sharing has upset the balance of competition.
Basketball flourished when the focus of the game was on the stars. Wilt, and Russell, then Dr. J, followed by Magic, Bird and Michael all continued to push the game deeper into the minds of sports fans. The game still has stars, but all seem hollow imitations of something more real. Despite David Stern’s assurance that the game is better than ever, the game is in real trouble. Television ratings are off by a half, not because Michael retired, but because people are fed up with the macho, chest-thumping.
Football’s unprecedented growth in the last 30-years is directly in line with its ties to television. Yet the exposure of the game has reached a saturation point, and the league knows it. When players are oblivious of their role in society as a whole, it’s the league’s responsibility to make that part of the package. The NFL is taking steps to enlighten players about their part in the future of the game.
I think we’ll see a split soon. A serious chasm between what we now call the hard-core and the casual fan. More casual fans will be put off by the games, the players and the message both send. Those same games, players and messages will be the thing the hard-care fan is attracted to. Hard-core fans are looking for production and championships. Casual fans are looking for heroes, and most think they won’t find them in the sports pages anymore.
With the retirement of the aforementioned stars, there’s a new generation of athletes taking over the limelight. All born in the late 70’s and early ’80’s, all products of the information age. No mythology left about any of them. Sports mercenaries by trade, not in a negative sense, but by training. That’s all they’ve ever seen, all they’ve ever known. Big money and stardom has been at their fingertips their whole lives. It’s all there, right on television, 24 hours a day. Cable TV and satellite broadcasts enable a viewer in Portland to be an Oriole fan and a fan in Baltimore to follow the TrailBlazers.
It will work it self out. Why? Because the leagues have survived by fixing things to appeal to the fans. Despite their statements to the contrary, every league subtly adjusts their product to stay alive. Some will need more than a tweaking, but they’re not going away.