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BTI’s Rants and Ramblings: Searching for a 4th major sport


Can anybody join these major sports?

There was a time in this country where there were so-called “four major sports leagues”: basketball, baseball, football, and hockey.  Hockey was always 4th on that list, but it had a major TV contract and the major players (Gretzky, Jagr, Hull, etc.) were well know nationally.  But then the NHL went on strike in 2004 and lost their major ESPN deal, lost an entire season, and really has never recovered.  The question I have is whether there is any sport or sports league that has the potential of taking that 4th spot, or if this country is now and will forever be a 3 major sports country.  You gotta keep in my that we are probably the only nation in the world with 3 major sports leagues.  In fact, you don’t have to use the word may there, because we ARE the only country in the world with 3 major sports leagues, and used to have 4.  But anyhow, here are the choices for who could take over:

1) HOCKEY

-Let’s start where we finished in 2004.  The NHL had to make the worst decision in the history of pro sports leagues in 2004 when it went on strike.  When the game came back, it had no TV exposure and fans had completely lost interest in the game.  Not to mention that the game itself had serious problems, with a lack of scoring and an influx of players from Europe that American fans couldn’t recognize.  It has taken hockey many years to make a comeback, but it the past 2 years, the game has started to make strides.  First of all, rules changes have opened to game up more now, as there are 7 goals scored on average each NHL game.  They also included shootouts to eliminate ties, which was a fan-friendly inclusion.  And the emergence of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovetchkin have given the league two marketable players. 

But, they still lack a major network TV deal, with most games being broadcast on SpikeTV and occassional weekend games and playoff games on NBC.  But one number did strike me about this year’s league:  The Game 6 Stanley Cup clincher game by Chicago drew a 4.7 TV rating, which was the highest rated NHL game in 36 years.  It at least gives the league some hope that its popularity is increasing back to the levels of 2003, if not getting better.  But, the league will never regain “major sport” status without a major TV deal with ESPN or another network.  It just won’t happen.

2) SOCCER/MLS

-Some people would argue that Premier League soccer would be an option, but there has NEVER been a popular league in America that was centered in another country.  Hockey and baseball have Canadian teams, but the majority of play is in the states.  Americans can’t associate with teams like Manchester United or Everton, so it gives that league no chance of success here, no matter how often ESPN wants to show games at 7AM on Sundays. 

Now, the MLS is another story.  The league is actually expanding, and attendance is very good to these games.  But the TV viewership is abysmal, which means an average sports fan has no interest in the league.  The reason for this is twofold: the best players from America go to Europe to play, meaning we have second tier players in the MLS.  Secondly, the game is difficult to watch on television.  It is just not an appealing sport visually on television.  Lack of offense is often the excuse, but I would argue it’s more a lack of OFFENSIVE OPPORTUNITIES.  Meaning their are not enough good shots on goal.  Sure, there are many shots taken at the goal, but most fly 20 feet over the goal, where the goalie doesn’t even have to attempt a save.

Soccer fans will hate this, but the only way the soccer (especially the MLS) becomes a major sport in America is with some rule changes.  I am not saying go to the extreme level like Arena Football, but rule changes have to be made to increase offense.  Maybe shortening the field or tinkering with the offsides rule.  I truly don’t know, but as the sport is played now, with the level of player the MLS has, it is a difficult sell to America.

3) MMA/UFC

-MMA does very well with the coveted 18-34 demographic on television, which is all advertisers care about, but it does very mediocre overall.  It is probably the fastest growing sport in America as far as viewership, but it still doesn’t approach the NHL playoffs, for instance.  The UFC 109 ratings, for the cable TV portion, drew a respectable 1.9 rating, while the Game 6 ratings for the Stanley Cup drew a 4.7 rating.  Those two events are fairly equal comparisons, both major events for that sport. 

The problem with MMA is that some people have a problem with the brutality of the sport.  So many parents don’t want their kids to watch it, and condemn it as brutal.  It eliminates a ton of people from EVER watching the sport.  Right now, there is ceiling of how many people will watch the sport, while in the two sports above, their is room to improve.  What MMA has going for it is that the main competitors are, in general, marketable people.  They have a wrestling type personality to them, while also not being fake.  But, the majority of TV appearances are either pay-per-view or SpikeTV, and frankly without some type of regular network or ESPN appearances, it will be difficult to make any serious ground.

4) NASCAR

-Some people already call NASCAR this country’s 4th major sport.  But, it is still a very geographically driven sport, with huge popularity in the south.  The sport has expanded throughout the country though, with races in California, Arizona, and Kansas.  The drivers have some personalities to them, and the experience of viewing the races live is fantastic.  But, TV viewership has declined 25-percent over the past 2 years.  And that is the main problem with the sport: if you are not a HUGE fan, it is very difficult the watch.  Cars making left turns for 3 hours with an occasional accident and pit stops every 30 minutes does not interest many people.

The real problem is that unlike soccer and hockey, where rule changes have and can be made to improve the watching quality of the game, there is not many rules that NASCAR can make.  It will always be cars moving fast in an oval shape.  There are a couple races a year on road courses, where right turns are made, but overall the sport is run on oval tracks.  It’s difficult to recognize just how fast those cars are moving on television, another downside to watching a race.  And much like soccer, it seems long stretches of time happen without any real action. 

Despite this, NASCAR probably has the best shot at becoming the 4th major sport.  People know the drivers and they have a very good TV deal.  If NASCAR can continue to expand nationwide and grab fans all over the country, it has the POTENTIAL to become a major sport. 

(NOTE: I should say that I don’t see any of these sports becoming what I would call “major” any time in the near future.  The other 3 sports have such a monopoly on TV and overall media coverage, that these sports will always fall into the backseat.)

Article written by Bryan the Intern