Crowded sports landscape caters to nation's attention span, panelists say
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2010 - How is today's sports scene like a steady diet of Ted Drewes frozen custard?
Both can be too much of a good thing.
That's one of the conclusions about the present and future of sports drawn by an expert panel convened by Washington University Monday night that discussed a wide range of topics, from Title IX to the future of boxing to how to speed up baseball to the prospects for lacrosse.
Moderator Michael MacCambridge, who teaches journalism at the university, began the evening at Graham Chapel by reading from a Sports Illustrated article about the current era being a golden age for sports. Then, he noted that the passage came not from a recent issue but from the magazine's debut in 1954.
The point, made by MacCambridge and other panelists, is that in every age, people may believe that their time is the best and will look back on it fondly. Joe Posnanski, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, put it this way:
"Baseball is never better in any era than when you're 10 years old."
But the panelists agreed that though change may be inevitable, today's sports landscape is different because of the nonstop glut of information, with ESPN, online coverage, 24/7 sports talk radio and game highlights that are played and replayed at every possible speed and angle.
NBC's Bob Costas, whose career began in St. Louis in the mid-1970s when he called Spirits of St. Louis basketball, said that the result is that athletes are tabbed as legendary who are anything but, and games that may not even have deserved a first look get broadcast and analyzed again and again.
"By Tuesday," he said, "there's nothing left to say about the Rams-Broncos game.
"The idea that any adults are in high dudgeon over the same dozen sports topics all day long is preposterous."
He compared the saturation diet to a popular St. Louis product.
"If we offered coupons for free Ted Drewes," he told the capacity crowd, "there would be a stampede. But if they forced you to eat Ted Drewes' inventory every single day, even Ted Drewes would lose some of its appeal."
Posnanski added: "If anything happens anywhere any time in sports, you are hammered with it 25 times, 50 times that day. There is so much less room for imagination."
The panelists, who also included baseball historian Bill James, the father of the use of in-depth statistics in the game, and Washington U. professor Gerald Early, went on to discuss the future of several areas of sports.
On Title IX
Despite the added opportunities the law has given for women to compete and excel in sports, panelists differed on whether women's professional sports would ever command the same audiences and reach the same levels of success as men's.
Costas said they would have to break through the crowded landscape, and while some events raise the nation's consciousness about women's sports, the fact remains that the best women athletes are rarely at the level of the worst professional males, and audiences aren't likely to respond.
Posnanski said the difference is how you define success, and James added that leagues like the WNBA have made too many mistakes to click with the public.
For Early, the difference will be whether the right owner surfaces with the right formula.
"The right kind of entrepreneur has not come along to make it work," he said. "I don't know whether there will ever be a Jackie Robinson kind of moment for women like there was for race."
Early compared boxing to jazz, in that its appeal has always been narrow and deep rather than as broad-based as the support for sports like baseball or football. He said the lack of clarity in the sport -- too many divisions, too many sanctioning bodies -- has made it too difficult to follow.
Posnanski noted that people have been talking about the death of boxing for 50 years and it has always rebounded with larger-than-life figures like Mike Tyson. Though such boxers have often had personal problems that may have diminished their appeal, he said that "I think people make a mistake when they start talking about boxing in moral terms."
Recalling the 1962 bout where Benny Paret died of injuries suffered in the ring against Emile Griffith, Early said:
"If boxing can survive something like that, it can survive anything."
On the Slow Pace of Baseball
Saying that "there is no more interest or excitement in a three-and-a-half hour baseball game than in an hour-and-a-half baseball game," James said fewer commercials, tighter rules on changing pitchers in the late innings and making batters fidget less at the plate would speed things along.
Costas added, "I love baseball. Part of its appeal is its leisurely pace. But it should be a leisurely pace, not a lethargic pace."
Early said the speed of modern life has left baseball behind. "We just don't have the attention span we used to have. All of us have the attention spans of 2 year olds."
Asked by a member of the audience whether baseball would benefit from a change to three balls and two strikes, not four balls and three strikes, Costas looked stricken and asked:
"Are you an American, sir?"
On Instant Replay
Posnanski said if instant replay were to be used too much, it would take all of the drama out of games.
"We're going to break these things down to the minutest part, where they will lose all meaning," he said.
James said that baseball doesn't need more instant replay because it could imbed electronics into the ball and other parts of the game so that umpires would know instantly what the right call would be.
Costas replied: "I don't think I want to live in that world."
When questions from the audience began, the first was from someone who appeared to be a student, who asked about the future of lacrosse. The panelists looked a little bit at a loss for words; then Costas, with a bow to the academic atmosphere, said:
"I think it's good whenever you have a sport where Johns Hopkins potentially can win a national championship."