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Are sports dying?


Alarmist TV news anchors constantly sucker me into watching newscasts with their ridiculous, five-second primetime teasers: "Can pineapples kill cancer? Watch at 11." But they work, so I figured I'd use the technique too.

Sports have pandered to television since the '50s. TV has made every major pro sport and the NCAA unbelievably wealthy. Prior to that, nationally syndicated sports writers such as Grantland Rice, Red Smith, and Jimmy Cannon helped promote interest in athletics and build this country's sports infrastructure, but no one cares to remember that now.

Only television matters. Its lucrative broadcast contracts buy the national and local TV networks exclusive access to teams and players. Forgotten print journalists just sit on the sidelines as if their forefathers' efforts amounted to nothing.

The other day, I mentioned this to Tim Kehoe, the Bills' director of merchandise. I wondered why NFL teams seem to limit media access to their top people, and he admitted that, in most cases, they deliver access exclusively to the media that have paid for access. Sports will always pander to television's deep pockets.

So when TV ratings are down, despite the cooperation between the leagues and paying network partners, despite the sexy sideline vixens asking coaches and players to "talk about stuff" before halftime, my question is, are sports dying?

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game on July 12 drew its lowest ratings since Nielsen Media Research began most accurately tracking the data in 1983. Last month's NBA Final between Detroit and San Antonio drew its lowest ratings since 1987. The All-Star Game featured 22 first-timers few people could recognize because they weren't Bonds or Sosa. The NBA Final was a defensive struggle, and no one ever pays attention to anyone playing defense. So general sports fans tune out.

The reality is that if a nationally televised sports competition doesn't involve the best-known stars or teams, most people would rather not watch. A final round without Tiger, a World Series without the Yankees or Red Sox, a Super Bowl featuring two surprising clubs such as the Ravens and Giants in '01 means ratings will sag like Eastman Kodak.

This is a major problem that needs correcting. Four years ago, the XFL attempted to increase interest in its no-name product by having a cameraman go inside the cheerleaders' locker room. But Vince McMahon's televised pep talk to the cameraman backfired. The poor guy got so excited by all the treasures McMahon suggested were inside that he ran right into the locker-room door and passed out.

No sports league has attempted this feat ever again, obviously fearing for the lives of network cameramen.

Still, I dream of what could have been.

When television shows totally tank, they get canceled in midseason. But the networks can't do that with sports competitions. So in keeping with the tradition of sports pandering to television's needs, I suggest the leagues allow the American public to exclusively hold the power to vote on matchups, players, coaches, uniforms, venues, etc. It'll be better than American Idol and it will ensure that the people always get what they want.

This idea is way better than Survivor. With today's telecom and Internet technology, sports leagues can assess the will of the people even faster than it took Tim Redding to flame out with the Yankees. Let's face it, Americans are a busy lot. They're not going to wait around for the sports leagues to get with the democratic process.

And if you're wondering about pineapples, some Australian researchers say they can kill cancer. Now you don't have to watch at 11, and I have to get some pineapples.