Sports keeps getting bigger, not better
Baseball and basketball could use fewer games; NCAA and NFL should stop while ahead
In "The Way It Is," the late Curt Flood's seminal and searing autobiography, he writes with sharp prescience of fears that are present exponentially today:
To understand baseball at all, and make reasonable demands of it, the fan must bear in mind that baseball is show business. Their protestations notwithstanding, the owners measure the Good of the Game in terms of the profits that remain after expenses are subtracted from receipts. Everything else is subordinated, including the quality of what takes place on the playing field.
The proprietors of baseball have never hesitated to adulterate the game to make an extra dollar. Exhibit A is the profitably extended season of 162 games, plus preseason exhibitions, plus in-season exhibitions, plus intraleague championship playoffs plus a World Series that has become a travesty because the competitors are utterly exhausted before it starts.
Flood wrote his telling paragraphs in 1970, when the league championship series was just a best-of-five and the additional wild-card round was a quarter-century away. It was before a weather-ruined 2008 World Series between the Phillies and Rays that should have been the flash point for baseball to realize it had finally gone too far, stretching the summer game nearly into winter. Instead, baseball followed that disastrous World Series with another between the Phillies and Yankees that concluded Nov. 4.
The dollar is enjoying its ultimate victory, or at least the league commissioners and college presidents who are getting into the act seem to believe so, at the expense of the product, just as Flood predicted.
Despite the success of the Winter Olympics, especially a men's hockey gold-medal game that should have signaled to executives in the sports industry that less can be more, events are trending heavily in the other direction. The notion is that bigger is better when the truth is that sports today, across all leagues, are becoming more bloated, played at a lower quality than perhaps ever before.
National Football League
For as much as it seemed to enjoy inherent advantages -- a short schedule which inflates the importance of each game, the friendliest sport for television -- the NFL is intent on squandering its position and further exposing itself at a time when the sport is at its most vulnerable.
Already, much discussion exists to expand the current 16-game schedule to 18 games, an idea based entirely on greed. Football, already under the real pressure that the sport is dangerously unsafe, barely sees its athletes survive the minimum 20 games (four preseason plus the regular schedule) it now plays. At the end of a season, virtually every team sees at least a dozen or so players undergo surgeries of some variety.
The NFL is attempting to devour itself on another front: In the NFL's zeal to capitalize on its popularity and feed its growing network ambitions, the season has no defined time frame. Adding two games to the schedule without eliminating two preseason games would push the Super Bowl into late February. At one time, the NFL season ended and its offseason was quiet, allowing the spirits to recharge, with regeneration coming late in summer as the calendar flipped forward. Today, there is no calendar. Watching the NFL is a lot like living in San Diego: a perpetual summer with no seasons.
The desire to transform the NFL into a 24/7 sport threatens to cheapen its signature event, the Super Bowl, if not in overall ratings then in the continuity and lasting value of each title game. Once the exclamation point to the football season, it is now just another date on the calendar because the league insists on turning each handful of minutiae -- the combine, offseason workouts, the draft, minicamp, preseason -- into an event.
National Basketball Association
There is no more bloated sport than the NBA, which has 30 teams play 82 games so more than half of them can qualify for a playoff tournament that lasts a full two months. No league watches its games suffer more mood swings, its players going through the motions (up by 20 in the first, down by 15 in the fourth) during a languid, interminably long season -- largely to conserve energy, not because the players don't care -- only to enter a playoff season that is one-third as long as the entire regular season. The quality of play in the NBA is hampered, not enhanced by its season and playoff lengths, and it is no more obvious than by watching a random game in January.
The best NBA season was the shortest: the 1999 post-lockout, tight and efficient 50-game year, during which each game counted toward a playoff berth. The NBA has played an 82-game schedule for more than 50 years, but the expansion of the playoffs without reducing the number of regular-season games has hurt the quality of play.
Major League Baseball
Baseball executives, for all the criticism they receive, are generally the most candid regarding how hemmed in the sport is by money. During the playoffs last year, as Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Phillies and Rockies was snowed out, both MLB and union officials acknowledged the untenable nature of the baseball schedule. The combination of the division series and the 162-game playoff makes it virtually impossible to conclude the World Series before Halloween, which explains why perfectly normal late October weather causes postseason calamity. Union officials say the players would welcome a return to a 154-game schedule, substituting a week of play (and pay) to play the division series in September. League officials say clubs would never agree to lose so many home dates.
Articulating such business concerns represents, of course, a tacit admission that the game on the field is virtually unimportant compared with the balance sheet.
And so nothing will change, at least not anytime soon. The World Series again is expected to be played in November this season.
National Hockey League
Before the past two decades of expansion/franchise shifts to places known more for barbecue (Nashville, Carolina, Atlanta) than for hockey, the 80-game NHL season might have been the most worthless in the history of professional sports. During the later part of the 1970s and '80s, 16 of the NHL's 21 teams (an astounding 76 percent) made the postseason to play four rounds of playoffs. Today, with 29 teams in far-flung locations, the NHL season is long and unruly, too distant from the tight, concentrated, brilliant hockey of the Olympics. There is debate about whether the NHL is receiving a residual boost of interest from the great Olympic finale, but it is worth considering that hockey might have a greater life in the U.S. if it radically altered itself from a league to a tournament sport.
College football once possessed boundaries we understood. The season ended with the biggest games on Jan. 1. Then the national championship game changed to Jan. 2 and the bloating of college football began. The title game this year was played on Jan. 7.
And the one place that actually has gotten it right, the NCAA basketball tournament, flirts with a similar slovenliness, an expansion of the tournament to 96 teams, as if the world really needs 17th and 18th seeds. The NCAA would further expose its hypocrisy as a place for student-athletes by adding teams to the tournament.
At no point has it been proved that these changes or proposed changes have improved the quality of the game, which should be expected because the quality of the game isn't the measure. Larger forces are taking place. Each league has its own broadcast network and Web site and advanced media division. The 24/7 news cycle means having something to broadcast.
None of these concerns, of course, has anything to do with the quality of the game on the field. The athletes are in better shape, the venues are better, the talent pool is greater than ever before, but sports have reached a saturation point where contraction -- of seasons, and in some cases of teams to further sharpen the talent pool -- would be a welcome change. Instead, sports appear to be going in the opposite direction. And the only reason is money.
The end result may be better business in the short term, but less sport, and less excellence. Sports survive because they live in the imagination. Imagination is fueled by rhythm and pacing, from the decompression from a hard year or the savoring a championship season to the anticipation of the next season. Without those pauses, the games lose their shape and context, becoming just another program to put on television, which may be exactly all the leagues and the NCAA really care about in the first place. They're getting what they want.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter @hbryant42 reach him at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
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