The National Catholic Review
Dave Anderson
Where big money is taking sports
Image

For anybody who wonders where sports in the United States is going in the next decade or two, one answer has been obvious: it’s going to the highest bidder. Another answer should be just as obvious: it’s going to the Internet.

Hour by hour, sports in the United States is more and more about more and more money. It is not about the games or the athletes, and certainly not about the fans, except when they have to come up with more and more money to go to the ballpark or pay their cable bill.

It has always been about the money, of course, but it has never been about this much money. Once it was only about thousands of dollars: Joe DiMaggio was the first $100,000 baseball player, Joe Namath the first $400,000 football player. Then it was about millions, especially Michael Jordan’s basketball millions that he made and Mike Tyson’s pay-per-view boxing millions that he blew. But now it’s about billions.

The pro football Giants and Jets are building a $1.6 billion co-op playground. The price tag on baseball’s new Yankee Stadium will be more than $1 billion. Tiger Woods is only a putt or two from being the first billionaire athlete.

Do not be surprised when, sooner or later, the worldwide Olympic television contracts rise to, yes, trillions of dollars after sports television contracts will be connected to the Internet. You will still be able to watch the Super Bowl or the World Series at home (on a flat-screen TV the size of the far wall in your family room, if you can afford it), although those premier events might cost you a pay-per-view fee. You also will be able to click your laptop and watch almost any game in any sport wherever you happen to be, as long as you pay for the privilege.

All that prompts the real questions: What will sports be like then? More athletic? Or more performance-enhanced by drugs? More artistic? Or more violent? With the shameful price of tickets in some new stadiums, will attendance at games only be for a privileged few? Here is what one longtime observer of sports saw when he peeked into his crystal ball:

As baseball evolves into more of a world game, a real World Series could be created. The influx of successful Japanese and other Asian players into Major League Baseball’s two leagues, notably the Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and the Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, should convince Japanese club owners to pay to keep their best players instead of selling them to big-league clubs, thereby strengthening Japanese baseball instead of weakening it. If a United States-Japan World Series were to happen, think what its television rights would be worth.

Considering the increasing number of Latin American hitters and pitchers in the big leagues, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Mexico (and a free Cuba) have enough homegrown talent to form a major Caribbean League someday. To do that, those nations need a much better economy to afford the salaries necessary to keep all that talent, build bigger modern stadiums, charge higher ticket prices and, more important, demand millions for television rights. It probably will not happen, but imagine a three-way World Series with Japan and the Caribbean.

Looking beyond the steroid clouds hovering over Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, quiet chemists in quiet laboratories are developing new drugs, new masking agents (and new tests) that will create new performance-enhancing scandals and disclosures. Of equal importance to baseball’s future in the United States will be the supply of quality American talent. Instead of playing baseball, too many kids today are playing video baseball games or fantasy baseball. That’s not baseball. That’s not how kids learn to play baseball, not even how kids dream of making the big leagues.

Football and Soccer

For football, basketball, ice hockey, golf, tennis, soccer, track and field, boxing, automobile racing (which is really licensed road rage), horse racing, cycling (where the Tour de France has been riddled by drugs) and most other sports, the future will mostly involve how to make more millions, how to avert more unsanctioned drugs, how to create more sanctioned violence.

For all the National Football League’s popularity, its worldwide future appears to be minimal. It tried what it called N.F.L. Europe, but its developmental league folded. Instead, there was a well-attended Giants-Dolphins game in London last year, and a Saints-Chargers game there this season. But unlike baseball in Japan, a serious pro football league does not exist in England or anywhere else. College football has a rowdy regional appeal that resembles that of N.F.L. franchises, but with all the television and bowl-game money, a championship playoff system is inevitable. Also inevitable are academic and criminal scandals involving the so-called student athletes, too many of whom are hardly students.

Football is expensive: all those helmets and all those shoulder pads for at least 11 youngsters, if not 22 or 33, and the constant threat of a serious knee or shoulder injury. Not much of the rest of the world can afford football.

Around the world, of course, football means what Americans call soccer, truly a world game. To play it, all you need is a ball that you can kick or steer with your head and healthy legs that let you run. And it is cheap. You don’t even need soccer shoes. Kids in impoverished nations play barefoot. It’s the world’s most popular team sport, especially in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. The World Cup is the world’s most popular sports tournament. Despite the occasional stadium riots or gambling scandals, soccer will continue its worldwide reign. But until the United States team wins the World Cup, or at least gets to the final or a semifinal, soccer will not inspire enough American youngsters to play soccer rather than baseball, football or basketball.

Basketball and Track and Field

Another truly world game is basketball. Like soccer, it’s cheap. All you need is a ball and a pair of sneakers. Like soccer, you can play it by yourself if you have a ball and a basket on a backboard in a playground, a backyard or a driveway. Of all our games, basketball is the only one invented in the United States, by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 when he nailed a peach basket to the wall at each end of a Young Men’s Christian Association gymnasium in Springfield, Mass. For decades, many American coaches have been off-season missionaries spreading Dr. Naismith’s gospel to aspiring coaches in countries all over the world, especially Europe, Africa and South America.

Some players from those continents, notably the Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon, polished their skills at American colleges and with N.B.A. teams, while other youngsters developed into world-class players in the Olympics and their home nations before they were eventually scouted, drafted and signed by N.B.A. teams. Now, with pro basketball leagues flourishing in Europe, the talent tide has started to turn. The exchange rate for euros recently convinced Josh Childress, from Stanford University, to join an Athens, Greece, team for $32.5 million over three years rather than re-sign with the Atlanta Hawks. With that much money available, more Americans are sure to follow. So, eventually, is an N.B.A.-Europe playoff series for the world title.

Track and field is another world sport, but as with swimming, gymnastics, skiing, speedskating and figure skating, many people do not pay much attention to it except during an Olympics. Sadly, track and field’s integrity has been undermined by the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the damage done to the sport’s image by highly publicized bans imposed as punishment, notably the one on sprinter Marion Jones. Restoring that integrity will require the eventual emergence of a male or female, but not necessarily an American, who breaks world records, is a multi-gold-medal winner and not only tests clean but continues to live clean. Ever since the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids and was stripped of his gold medal after winning the 100-meter sprint in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, failed drug tests in several sports have tarnished, if not shattered, the five Olympic rings in the minds of Olympic devotees who remember when the Games were about citius altius fortius (faster higher stronger) instead of steroids and syringes.

Intercontinental Hockey

Of all the team sports, ice hockey might be the closest to an intercontinental playoff: the National Hockey League champion against a European Hockey League champion in what could honestly be billed as the World Hockey Series. For more than two decades the N.H.L. teams in the United States and Canada have imported many of Europe’s best players, at first from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland and later from Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now some of that European talent is beginning to return home. Jaromir Jagr, the Czech winger who scored a total of 646 regular-season goals in his 17 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers, recently joined Avangard Omsk of the Russian League, a team he played for during the N.H.L.’s lockout season of 2004-5. And the Rangers opened their N.H.L. season in October with two league games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague.

The N.H.L. once was stocked by Canadians who as youngsters grew up mostly on frozen ponds or backyard rinks; an American was a rarity. But after the U.S. Olympic team upset the mighty Soviets and then defeated Finland for the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., several members of the U.S. team went on to respectable N.H.L. careers. More important, they inspired young American hockey players to dream of an N.H.L. career. Many made that dream come true, notably Brian Leetch, the New York Rangers defenseman who was voted the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs when the Rangers won in 1994. If more and more European players return to their roots, more Americans (and more Canadians) figure to be on N.H.L. teams—all of which would only add to the fun, if not the ferocity, of an intercontinental playoff showdown for world supremacy against the best European team, stocked by European players.

Golf, Tennis and Boxing

Golf and tennis are world sports too, but in many nations the cost and the absence of courses or courts prevent young and old from playing, although both sports continue to outgrow their country-club images. Golf’s best player now, if not golf’s best player ever, Tiger Woods, grew up on public and military courses in California under his father’s tutelage, developed into a teenage sensation as an amateur and has dominated professional golf for more than a decade. With 14 major titles as a pro, he is on his way to surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 pro majors, a total once thought to be unapproachable.

But as in tennis, where the reign of Switzerland’s Roger Federer is threatened by Spain’s Rafael Nadal, golf is now a truly international game; many of the best men’s players are from Australia, South Africa, Ireland and Spain. On the women’s tour, Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam is retiring, while Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa tries to hold off the approach of several young South Korean and Japanese golfers.

Of all the sports, boxing faces the most uncertain future. Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali once was arguably the world’s most recognizable person. But only the most fervent boxing buffs can name the three current no-name heavyweight champions, as proclaimed by the various governing bodies. Several boxers in the other weight classes honor their trade, like Floyd Meriweather Jr., Bernard Hopkins and Oscar de la Hoya; but during the heavyweight confusion, the no-holds-barred violence of mixed martial arts has attracted a pay-per-view audience. Maybe this is what some people want, just as a gladiator against a lion was what Nero wanted in Rome’s coliseum. But for all its vicious knockouts and controlled violence, boxing at its best has always been an art too. There is no art in mixed martial arts, only thuggery. It’s not something that responsible parents would want any of their kids to aspire to.

Sadly, mixed martial arts was there in my crystal ball along with all the other trends in a sports world that, dollar for dollar, keeps changing almost daily—not always for the better.

Listen to an interview with Dave Anderson.

Dave Anderson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the New York Times.

Comments

Adam Jozsa | 10/12/2008 - 11:36am
I feel your characterization of mixed martial arts is wrong. I am sure many people who agree that it is unmitigated violence have not been explained what they are looking at. I have a good demonstration of this concept. When a Fighter A is on top of fighter B, Fighter A keeps his arms in the air or the chest/face of Fighter B. To the untrained ete it looks sloppy and people might think it would look better if they placed their arms on the mat. However, if Fighter A places his hands on the mat, Fighter B can wrap his arm above fighter A's elbow. Now, fighter B can adjust his hips and perform a shoulder lock. Fighter A then taps. It is a very technical sport.
Walt Webb | 10/11/2008 - 11:02am
Yes I would have to agree, the money in sports today is just mind boggling and seems to be going up exponentially even with salary caps and the like in place. I think TV and sports on the web are two major factors in the evolution. Walt AKA All Sports on the Web All Sports on the Web