Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quit Hating and Start Watching

There’s a tendency for us to rain on each other’s parades when a major sporting event captures the attention of many casual fans. This is no more evident when we are discussing significant events in professional hockey, soccer/football and basketball.

Much has been made about the outstanding viewership numbers for yesterday’s Olympic Men’s Hockey Gold Medal Final between Canada and the United States. And why not? If someone said that this thrilling game would have garnered ratings akin to a regular season game in the NFL, most would have laughed, sneered, snickered and belittled the sport, its fans and its elite league, the NHL.

The very fact that the game captured almost 28 million viewers* should bode well for the sport overall. That people in the know are pondering what can the NHL and its broadcasting partners do to carry this momentum into league action speaks to how compelling of a product the sport presents.

Yet, there are equally as many people who have started their “who cares?” rants, “when’s the next big event to pretend to care about” comments and my favorite quips of nonchalance; “when does football/baseball season start?”

Photo Credit to the Vancouver Sun
I just wonder why we take this route for some sports and not others. Why must we dissect its potential or lack thereof? Why must we ask those sports to fix themselves in order to appeal to non-fans and passersby? Why must we demand more of those leagues than we do the staples that take their fans for granted more often than not?

It’s funny because Super Bowl XLIV – a fantastic game, without a doubt – wiped off the bad taste the 2009 NFL season left in many mouths. This past season in the league was one of the least entertaining campaigns in years and the postseason initially carried some of that poor play in the first two rounds. If not for the Jets’ very game performance in Indianapolis (they did blow the lead, though) and the fumbling follies of the Vikings in New Orleans, this past season could have easily gone down as the worst since the late 90s.

This is a league with a fair share of problems on its own; a potential labor strike looms large, a steady stream of player arrests, the back-and-forth on overtime, Brett Favre fatigue, the overlooked story of PED/steroid use, an ongoing battle with Time Warner Cable over the NFL Network, etc.

Yet, few dare to ask what’s wrong with the almighty, omnipotent National Football League.

Beyond the Yankees winning the World Series last October, this past baseball season wasn’t exactly one for the ages. Once again, the controversies loomed larger than the games themselves. PEDs for Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Josh Hamilton’s relapse. Milton Bradley’s arrival and dismissal from the Cubs. Allegations of Jim Bowden skimming bonus money from Latin American prospects. Mixed (some scathing) reviews for the new Yankee Stadium. The Mets (via Fred Wilpon) and Bernie Madoff. Mark McGwire, over a decade later.

There had been tremendous action in spurts; great pitching from the game’s young guns like Zack Grienke, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, the underrated Matt Cain and Jair Jurrjens. The usual great play from players you expect like Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols. The strong supporting casts that pushed the Yankees and Phillies into the Fall Classic. The birth of MLB Network (and ratings punch to the gut onto ESPN). All of this is forgotten among casual baseball fans.

Yet, few dare to ask how Major League Baseball can regain its footing on the national stage.

Apparently, the North Carolina Tar Heels’ men’s basketball program is going to need help to get into the NCAA Tournament this year. They’ve lost four starters of last year’s title squad to the NBA – Ty Lawson has been outstanding, by the way – and find themselves clawing to keep pace in the ACC. I say apparently because from friends, family & colleagues, last year’s edition of March Madness was one of the least exciting, most anti-climatic and phenomenally unmemorable in recent memory.

The scandals in the NCAA have been mind-numbing within the last decade. Before, it was about point-shaving and a player having ‘extra’ cash in his pocket. This past decade alone gave us testing scandals, coaches exacting physical punishment on players during practice, more testing scandals, even more money passed under the table, an absurd coaching carousel spun by the coaches themselves. And of course, there’s the worst of them all; Patrick Dennehy.

Yet, few dare to ask what can the NCAA do to capture fan interest before March Madness takes over.

Look, I didn’t write this to hate on those sports. In fact, if you read the Blogger profile, you’d see that baseball and football have been near and dear to my heart much of my life. As a once passionate, now bitter observer of college basketball, I pray for the day that the NCAA rights the ship and does right by ALL student-athletes, regardless of gender or sport. Yet, to see the errors in those sports is to almost be a leper of sorts; people want to move on, overlook these issues and pretend that these issues aren't as big, if not bigger than those in the NBA, NHL or soccer/football in the United States.

I wrote this because when we throw shade on each other’s preferences, we tend to forget how imperfect our own favorites are. We tend to think that being a ratings behemoth exonerates these sports from their issues or that being underwhelming according to Nielsen is an indictment.

You don’t have to become a hockey fan after the great play at the Winter Olympics (though you’d be happy if you did). You don’t have to subscribe to NBA League Pass for the remainder of the season to get your stripes (there are only 6 weeks left anyway). You don’t have to call your cable provider to look into FOX Soccer Plus, which just launched today (just try to master FOX Soccer Channel first). What we do need to do, however, is to be fair in how we observe these games. If we’re going to be as scrutinizing of the sports we dislike, give the same treatment to the ones we love.

Otherwise, quit hating and start watching.

Say What?!?!: By the way, with all due respect to Sidney Crosby and his fantastic goal, can someone else in the world give Jarome Igilna (the guy above Crosby in the photo) love for his assist? It was a fantastic set-up by a player who should get far more attention than he gets in the sports world. Maybe it’s gutsy to say it, but if he played for the New York Rangers instead of the Calgary Flames, he’s not only get more attention, but he could be akin to Mark Messier in terms of being a steady, proven veteran leader that could walk the streets of Manhattan with head nod respect from even the most uninterested of puck fans.

*A note about Nielsen ratings; they don’t include out-of-home viewing, which includes sports bars and other public establishments. Since measurement in this space has been modified over the years, these viewers may or may not be counted into the equation, but hockey is as much of a sports bar kind of game as any in North America. This, my friends, is good.


Anonymous said...

Another great article Jason. I must disagree on one point: Iginla is good, real good, but not Messier good.

Jason Clinkscales said...

Point taken as Messier is in a class by himself. I spoke more to how revered of a peronality Igilna could be in NYC if he played here (character and such, not exactly game play), hence 'head nod' respect.

I remember seeing Messier walking around the MSG area two years back and how people just noticed him of all ilks. I was rather impressed by it.