Monday, June 2, 2014

Why do some sports become mainstream successes while others stay on the fringe?

It’s a question I’ve occasionally asked myself: Why do some pro sports like baseball, basketball and football become huge mainstream successes while others don’t?
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion in cash last week for the middling Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team. It was the second largest sum ever paid for a pro sports franchise behind the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which sold two years ago for $2.1 billion. That’s a lot of money.
But what made those teams and their sports so valuable? The obvious answer is fan support and everything that comes along with it (advertising, sponsorships, merchandising, broadcast rights, etc.)
But why did fans choose those sports to watch, follow and give their hard earned cash to support to begin with?
That’s the big question here. It explains why some sports reach mass popularity while others struggle on the fringe.
I think it starts with the sports that kids play growing up. Little League baseball players can appreciate the skill and athleticism needed to play in the majors. The best of the best make it to the MLB ranks. The same can be said for basketball, football and hockey.
Many kids in the U.S. play soccer and lacrosse, but that hasn’t translated to big support for the professional leagues of those sports. Why is that?
My guess is that people find the back and forth of soccer and lacrosse to be monotonous. The variety of plays and action is much greater with baseball, football and even basketball. And while hockey is a lot like soccer in game play it’s a lot faster and fights often break out on the ice. Fans enjoy the blood sport.
With the big four pro sports in the U.S. firmly established, it’s going to be tough for other sports to gain a foothold. The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL have size and tradition on their side.
Rival leagues in those sports have not been successful. Consider the failed United Football League (2009-12) and Continental Basketball Association (1946-2009).
So, the teams in the established major leagues are a scarce resource, hence the big price tags.
They also have rich histories and have become parts of our culture. It’s hard to imagine any of the big four professional sports leagues collapsing and falling greatly out of favor.
So where does that leave other professional sports? At best, they can probably rise to the second tier of popularity with NASCAR and PGA golf. Others will stay on the fringe and enjoy niche popularity such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Major League Soccer.

Related article:

Superstar players, TV coverage and intangibles are the ingredients for a popular pro sport (Dec. 18, 2008)

Photo: Cartoon mocking former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the L.A. Clippers. (See Huffington Post.) 

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