I don’t purport to know a heck of a lot about sports, but anyone can see that the past two weeks of college basketball have been, simply put, amazing. As sports pundits across the backs of newspapers have been cheering about all week, the men’s National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament has been arguably the most exciting in the last couple of decades, maybe ever. Just last weekend, three of four regional final games went into overtime, and since the first round, the name of the game has been upset, upset, upset. Sports writers are declaring the parity and level of competition as a revolution in modern sports.
Before a revolution can occur, however, there must be a desire for change. And sports fans have Barry Bonds, the National Hockey League, and Ron Artest to blame for that desire.
The National Hockey League, in a fit of ill-placed confidence, has essentially “dared people to see if they can do without it for at least a year,” as David Lassen of the Ventura County Star puts it. As proven by the attendance drops and loss of fan appreciation after Major League Baseball’s labor-related strike in 1994, fans don’t take the disappearance of their game lightly.
Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and the rest of MLB have committed a similar violation of fan trust in regards to the steroid scandal that literally paralyzed professional baseball this off-season. As the legitimacy of records achieved by players who have “admitted” to steroid use becomes justifiably questioned, it almost makes sense to forget the asterisk-denotation system and just define 1987 and onward as “the juiced era.”
This illegitimacy runs rampant in the National Basketball Association as well. In addition to the oft-mentioned welcoming of high school players into the league, which is essentially a long-term and quite voluntarily reduction of intelligent, athletic talent, NBA players simply aren’t admired as they used to be. The Lakers’ untouchable Kobe Bryant faces a civil lawsuit dealing with sexual assault allegations, and Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest literally went into the stands to rough up a fan.
There is distrust and distaste between fans and pro sports, and it has been rightfully earned by the athletes, owners, and league officials. Plus, with labor negotiations just around the corner for the NBA and MLB, yet again, expect things to get worse before they get better.
Alas, thirsty sports fan, for there is salvation just around the bend: college sports. Basketball, to be precise. The yearning for actual athletic competition, uncontaminated by greed, drugs, or selfishness, is already being felt, and it’s still early.
Television ratings for the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 were up 7 percent from last year, and for last week’s round of Elite 8, ratings were up by 27 percent. That’s dramatic, as Super Bowl ratings for this year’s game were themselves down slightly.
ESPN-University, a new digital cable and satellite channel, just recently launched, joining Fox College Sports and College Sports Television, who are already in the market. Even the NCAA Division I Women’s Ice Hockey tournament picked up some reasonably high amounts of attention this month, as did NHL-replacement programming on ESPN, which consisted largely of NCAA women’s basketball tournament coverage.
Even when pro sports athletes try to find the purity that initially drew them to the game, as was the case when a handful of NBA stars joined the United States’ 2004 Olympic “Dream Team” basketball squad, they mainly get laughed at. For whatever reason, professional athletes are not trusted, admired, or even liked, and the new success of college sports has got a lot to do with the fact that people don’t feel that way about student athletes.
College athletics has a huge opportunity here. Writer Steven Ungerleider put it best when he commented that pro sports had “blurred the lines between entertainment and sport” once and for all. If the NCAA plays it right, it could make serious progress in acquiring some of the ratings and attention that the NBA and MLB have gotten back in the years following their respective strikes.
Or maybe it’s that all parties involved like things just the way they are. NBA television ratings have been slowly rising for the past three seasons, and some sports pundits are even saying NHL fans won’t care at all when play resumes later this decade. Even sadder, preseason baseball buzz has been quite strong, despite the presumed post-Steroidgate stigma. Maybe cheating, marginalized record books, and Artest-led fistfights are really what fans are after, as it’s definitely more entertaining.
But if that’s the case, though, what does that say about sports, and for that matter, entertainment?