March 01, 2010

What’s the long-term future of spectator sports?

With the conclusion of the Winter Olympics, some new trends have come into focus. The Olympics, for instance, have established a niche as the Exception to the Rules of Sports Fandom: they”€™re the athletic event for people who like watching sports in highly limited doses, a couple of weeks every couple of years.

The audience for the Winter Olympics was 56 percent female. For women viewers, the Olympics in the 20th Century served as a prototype for the 21st Century reality television shows, with their human interest stories about a small group of good-looking rivals vying for a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Figure skating, for example, long let spectators indulge themselves in watching the backstage dramatics that have become a staple on reality shows such as Survivor. But unlike the contestants on Survivor, Olympians are highly disciplined professional athletes, so most aren”€™t as amusingly prone to hissy fits as reality show contestants, who, like Dr. Evil, will do anything for One Million Dollars.

Will audiences continue to demand all the expensive pomp and circumstance of the Olympics if the current trend in popular culture toward shameless gratification of audience urges continues?

Gambling in America has been transformed from part of a tradition-sanctioned pageant of man’s magnificent relationship with horse into a solitary vice.

Back in Baron de Coubertin‘s day, people wanted a high-class pretext for enjoying spectator sports, so the Olympics were ostentatiously rooted in the “€œGlory That Was Greece”€. Similarly, horseracing, which was long the most popular sport in America as measured by attendance, was drenched in classiness. You weren”€™t really supposed to admit what horseracing was all about (gambling). You were supposed to talk about “€œthe sport of kings”€ and ponder pedigrees longer than those of most royal families.

In recent years, however, increased democratization and increased frankness have opened the door for entertainment entrepreneurs to cut corners on these kind of facades. Do we really need thoroughbreds to scratch our itch to wager? Why not just go to a casino?

The reductionist logic spins onward: Do casinos really need all those roulette wheels and other old-fashioned games redolent of secret agents in tuxedoes in Monte Carlo? Do slot machines even need handles? The underlying appeal of gambling is the addictive power of Skinnerian intermittent reinforcement, so why not just push a button?

Today, 70 percent of the average casino’s take comes from electronic devices, and it might be higher if the law allowed. Gambling in America has been transformed from part of a tradition-sanctioned pageant of man’s magnificent relationship with horse into a solitary vice.

Of course, not all viewers found the Winter Olympics interesting. The future of the Winter Games in an increasingly diverse America does not look bright. Nielsen ratings have been more than four times higher among viewers over 55 than among teens. Not surprisingly, the Winter Olympics appeal most to those whom John Derbyshire calls Ice People: 89 percent of the audience was white, with Asian-Americans the next largest segment.

Paradoxically, as male audiences have gotten more diverse, their favorite sports have become more homogenous. Male enthusiasm has become increasingly focused on a handful of team sports and unfamiliar sports are increasingly shunned by male viewers.

In 2010, it seems bizarre that one of the most popular sports shows of a generation ago was ABC’s Wide World of Sports (or as Cheech and Chong called it in the intro to their 1976 parody song Basketball Jones, “€œABC’s White World of Sports”€). This weekly Saturday afternoon anthology program featured a now-baffling array of minor sports: all the Olympic events, Winter and Summer, such as the biathlon and the pentathlon, plus snooker, jai-alai, logrolling, cliff diving, ping-pong, and hurling. As a child of my time, I respectfully watched them all, although I must confess that no matter how many times announcer Jim McKay explained harness racing, I never did figure out the difference between trotting and pacing.

And, in an increasingly indoor world, the concept of a season for each spectator sport seems outdated. Men want to watch their favorite sport right now. If you like soccer, why should you put up with something else just because of the calendar? Thus, soccer season has become like the forever war in Orwell’s 1984: it almost never ends. The world-dominant English Premier League’s regular season runs 38 weekly games from August to May.

Within the U.S., however, soccer has made almost no progress toward becoming a major spectator sport with non-Hispanics. Indeed, hockey, once one of the Big Four team sports, has largely been driven off the American fan’s mental map by the NHL’s folly of trying to compete with the American football season, which now runs into February. If the National Football League play weren”€™t so violently debilitating to its participants that they require an offseason to recuperate, it’s likely that the NFL’s schedule would now be as long as the Premier League’s, and football would be on the verge of driving basketball and baseball to the sidelines.

Hence, spectator sports are likely to become ever more calibrated toward the satisfaction of mass urges at the expense of tradition and idiosyncrasy.


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