Thursday, December 18, 2008

Superstar players, TV coverage and intangibles are the ingredients for a popular pro sport

I’ve often wondered why some professional sports catch on with the public and get embraced by the masses, while others languish or die.
Some sports like boxing and bowling used to be hugely popular and drew big TV audiences decades ago. Now boxing has a smaller, niche following on pay TV, while bowling is an anachronism.
Some pro sports are too engrained in American culture to fade away. Baseball is still our “national pastime,” even though the steroid scandal knocked Major League Baseball down a notch.
The National Football League, since its merger with the American Football League in 1970, is rock solid. It’s become part of American culture, with the Super Bowl considered an unofficial national holiday. Rivals like the World Football League, the United States Football League and the XFL all failed.
Pro basketball used to be small potatoes. Consider that Wilt Chamberlain’s landmark 100-point game in 1962 was not televised and was witnessed by just 4,124 spectators.
The National Basketball Association didn’t become a big deal until the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era of the 1980s.
After the big four of pro sports leagues – MLB, NFL, NBA and the National Hockey League – there is a host of what I call “fringe sports” trying to break through.
Despite a couple of generations of American youth playing soccer, Major League Soccer remains a second-tier pro sport. Other fringe sports include the struggling Arena Football League, which just canceled its 2009 season, and indoor and outdoor professional lacrosse leagues.
To break into the big time, pro sports need superstar players. The NBA needed the Bird-Johnson rivalry, followed by the high-flying athleticism and crossover charisma of Michael Jordon.
The arrival of Tiger Woods helped professional golf significantly. By contrast, tennis has waned because of a lack of marketable stars.
Television exposure is another critical factor behind the success of pro sports. NASCAR got a huge boost from TV coverage of its stock car races. Broadcasts of the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour helped fuel interest in the card game as a sport. Ultimate Fighting Championship has enjoyed a surge in popularity from cable TV broadcasts of the mixed martial arts sport.
But superstar players and TV coverage alone won’t necessarily spell success for fringe pro sports looking for mainstream appeal. There are intangibles – things unique to each sport.
Look at the popularity of beach volleyball. The two-on-two matchups are more exciting than the traditional six-on-six team competitions in indoor court volleyball. Plus, buff men and women in swimsuits working up a sweat and the whole beach milieu are bonuses.
And what about extreme action sports like the X Games? Skateboarding, BMX, Motocross and snowboarding speak to young people who grew up with those kinds of thrill-seeking activities.
Among the sports on the extreme fringe are professional video gaming, juggling, beer pong and competitive eating. And coming in fall 2009, the Lingerie Football League. Stay tuned.

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