My wife isn’t much of a sports fan. She’ll attend one Bears game a year with me, before the weather turns, a couple of baseball games in the summer, and the occasional trip to Madison to see her alma mater Badgers. But it’s more about the experience for her. She couldn’t tell you the name of the starting quarterback or explain ERA or WHIP, even though she is a mathematician.
This remove, however, allows her to see the absurdities surrounding sports that more obsessive fans (like me) might miss. For instance, I’ll be watching an NBA Finals game in mid-June and she’ll pause while passing through the living room, incredulous, to ask: “They’re still playing basketball?” Or maybe it’ll be a report about a Blackhawks exhibition game in September. “Hockey, already?”
“I know, I know,” I’ll say unenthusiastically. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve played and watched and read and written about sports my entire life. I wouldn’t want to know the time and treasure I’ve dedicated to games over the years. But the wife is right… there are too many games and the seasons stretch on too long.
The Super Bowl is played now in February, the World Series sometimes stretches into November, March Madness culminates in April, and pro hoops and hockey go almost until summer. The net effect, I would argue, is a watered-down product where the games are sometimes barely watchable. Too many times an NBA team mails it in because they got in from the west coast at 4 a.m. or are on the final stop of a brutal road trip. Or an NFL team leaves it all on the field one week and barely shows up the next.
And then there’s the never-ending hype machine telling us why that ESPN Sunday night matchup between the Yankees and Red Sox is must-see TV; never mind that the two teams will play 17 more times this season, not including playoff games.
Like a swimming pool full of ice cream, it’s too much of a good thing.
I’ve made my argument to fellow sports fans over the years. The most common response: The athletes are being paid millions, let them work for it. Anyway, what’s the harm?
But there is harm. I would counter that there are legitimate concerns about player safety, especially as we learn more about the lasting effects of too many hits in football, and even in baseball. But even beyond that, there’s a more fundamental problem. I hate watching bad games. Fans get cheated when they waste an afternoon or evening watching a game the players barely care about, or shell out big bucks for tickets, parking and beer when the visiting team’s main goal is to get the game over with and get out of town. And it happens all the time—not just in Cubs games.
Unfortunately, you see little argument about this in the mainstream press because most of the people covering the games work for companies that are part of the money-making hype machine. Only rarely do voices of reason shout through the fog. Providing analysis following a Patriots blowout of Houston in a much-hyped match-up last fall, Steve Young said, “This is the NBA, where the regular season is kind of all over the place.” Here’s guessing Young and ESPN heard from NFL brass about that.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made his own statement by sending his star players home early from a road-trip this season rather than play the final game in Miami, which was the team’s fourth in five nights. The NBA fined the Spurs $250,000, and a Heat fan sued the team. I think he would have been better off seeking redress from the league for designing that schedule.
Maybe most damning of all: the vastly undermanned Spurs almost beat the reigning world champion Heat, who themselves have been accused by phoning it in this year while waiting for the playoffs to begin. And really, who could blame these coaches? If the goal is to win championships, aren’t they wise to manage their resources conservatively and make a strong push at the finish?
So, I’ve got a suggestion for the league commissioners, team owners, and sports marketers who are endlessly pushing for more games (and more money): Shorten the seasons and tighten up the post-seasons and you’ll bring heightened drama to the games rather than the manufactured type. When an NFL team drops a late-season game, it’ll mean something. NBA and NHL teams won’t be able to afford to mail it in and, more important, won‘t want to because they’ll be well-rested mentally and physically. And perhaps the players we love to watch will enjoy longer, healthier careers.
Here’s my blueprint:
Go back to the 14-game schedule. Last year the Giants lost four straight and five of six and late in the season were sitting at 7-7. No matter. They squeaked into the playoffs at 9-7, got hot, and went on to win the Super Bowl. The two Super Bowl participants this year took their lumps in the regular season, as well. The 49ers lost to the Seahawks 42-13 in their 15th game, while the Ravens lost four of their final five. Before last season, league officials and owners wanted to expand the regular season to 18 games (The players won’t be needing those brain cells after their careers end, right?), but I propose a move in the opposite direction. Make every Sunday count.
Go back to the 154-game schedule. There’s a wonderful rhythm to the baseball season as teams play almost every day. I wouldn’t want to lose that. But with the expanded post-season and teams refusing to schedule double-headers, the season starts too early and goes too late. Baseball wonders why TV ratings for the World Series go down every year; it’s because by the time the Fall Classic comes around we’re well into the football season and, unless your hometown team is in the Series, it’s hard to care. The 154-game season was in place for decades prior to 1961, so bringing it back it would be no great jolt to the record books. It would be like ending Saturday mail delivery; no one would cry about it.
NHL & NBA
Lose 10 regular season games from the bloated 82-game slates. Hell, if you want to inject real drama and interest, make it 20. Ticket prices for both sports have skyrocketed and the fans deserve to see exciting games. And while you’re at it drop a couple of teams from the playoffs. It’s ludicrous that a No. 1 seed has to beat a No. 8 four times to advance. Isn’t that why you have a regular season? Equally ludicrous is having two evenly matched but mediocre middle seeds battle it out for seven games for the right to be eliminated in the next round. Remember that “historic” first-round series a few years back between the Bulls and Celtics that went seven games? Me, too, but barely. And look at how much excitement has been generated by the Blackhawks this season; it’s not only because they’re off to hot start, it’s because the shortened schedule adds meaning to every game.
Go back to an 11-game season. College football several years ago went to 12 games in a cynical money grab and has a ridiculously bloated bowl season (Hooray, another bowl pitting 6-6 teams!). With the upcoming playoff format, we’ll see the finalists playing their 14th or 15th games of the season (Where’d those concussion and injury concerns go for these student-athletes?). This one really gets me because these are amateur student-athletes playing for non-profit institutions of higher learning, right? Yet money rules. And it often means that BCS teams use that 12th game to add another home game against some school you didn’t even know had a football program. So Alabama, the best team in the nation a couple years running, had a non-conference slate of Michigan (ok) but then Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, and Western Carolina. And they charged full price for those games?
Lose five regular season games. Indiana was the last team to go through a season undefeated when they went 32-0 in 1975-76 and captured the national title. But this season Indiana will play almost that many games (31) in the regular season alone, and if they go deep into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, they will wind up playing close to 40 games. Let the kids use the extra time to study.
Stan Van Gundy, always honest and currently unemployed (coincidence?), addressed the trend in a recent interview with USA Today. “The thing that would make the game better never is going to happen: Play one game fewer per week for each team,” he said, proposing a 66-game NBA slate.
Van Gundy’s right: it’s never going to happen. Not as long as there’s so much money to be made by teams, colleges, and TV.
Sometimes I think I should embrace the never-ending expansion of sporting events and tell the wife (gently) not to ask too many questions as she passes through the living room. Just tell her I’m a sports fan, and this is what sports fans do: they watch.
But then I remember the words of the Bears’ Charles Tillman, when asked last year about the prospects of an 18-game season.
“Bullshit, no, hell no,” Tillman said. “Hell no.”