The first PGA Tour event of the season ended yesterday. Steve Stricker won. No one cared. One of the stories coming out of Hawaii was about the pace of play. They had 27 golfers on the course. Playing in twosomes (1 guy playing alone), again these are all professionals taking no more than 75 shots and it was taking them all day to play. What does that mean for the days when 144 rounds need to get played in threesomes? A couple of media types and even some players took to Twitter and other outlets to voice their complaints, going as far to say as pace of play is killing golf. I agree to a certain extent. Pace of play kills a lot of interest in recreational golf. I don’t think it has much impact on the PGA Tour, but when people see pros take all day to hit a 2-footer–they take all day to hit a 2-footer.
It got me thinking, what is golf’s biggest problem? Is it pace of play? It’s up there, but really that can’t be the reason for golf’s waning popularity. Then I thought about all the other sports. Was there one thing that is holding back a sport from reaching its true potential? Does the length of the season kill baseball? Is the lack of American champions hurting tennis? I started to think about everything in terms of football. It is by far the most popular sport. What were these sports missing that football had in spades? The obvious answer is fantasy football and gambling.
So, the question is: Is football the most popular sport because of its perfect fit for fantasy and the ease of which you can gamble on it? Or, is it the most popular to gamble on and the most common for fantasy players because it is the true American pastime? What I’m trying to say is, if other leagues want to boost their popularity should they look to making themselves more conducive to fantasy sports and gambling?
Now, fantasy sports originated with baseball. Perhaps you’ve seen the documentary. Rotisserie chicken restaurant–Rotisserie baseball. Created by nerds, for nerds. One of the guys who started it actually invented “WHIP.” That’s not a joke. He did. So the idea of fantasy sports was created to cater to people’s interest in baseball. At the time it was invented, perhaps baseball still had its grasp on the public in terms of true American pastime. What changed since then?
Well, I’d argue that fantasy sports may have been invented for baseball purposes, but it was perfected in its NFL variation. It’s like some people would say Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but they perfected the thing. I’ll give everyone a second to go caress their iPhone and whisper sweet nothings to Siri. Football has probably always been the best sport for gambling, but when fantasy came along it created a much more mainstream form of football gambling. It took the term, “rooting interest” and injected it with steroids. How can we expect baseball to compete, or any sport for that matter?
They can’t compete. That’s the bottom line and it’s always going to be the bottom line. Football’s length of season, it’s schedule, it’s established roots. None of that will ever be touched. The American sports landscape is a pretty tough one to crack. I think soccer is working on about 35-40 years of trying now, and it’s gotten to the point where selling out 18-thousand seat stadiums is a big deal. Great, but raise your hand if you know anyone that likes to occasionally throw down an MLS bet, or plays in a fantasy soccer league. That’s got to be a tiny population.
All this comes back to the point that you can debate what is wrong with sports for as long as you want and you can make tiny improvements here and there, maybe golf can at least keep the fans it has now, but unless there is a drastic shift in how we consume sports, how we get that rooting interest, our priorities are locked in. The ships have sailed. And, football is so far out in front it doesn’t really matter what the other sports do.