April 23, 2014

Projecting to 2023 – Can sports remain relevant forever?

I can barely even bring myself to go to NFL.com with the coverage of the Ravens.

I can barely even bring myself to go to NFL.com with the coverage of the Ravens.

When the Ravens step on the field to battle the San Francisco 49ers in a couple of weeks, I’m honestly debating not watching. It’s not that I don’t care about the game. It’s also not about boycotting it for some kind of a fake reason. I’m not sure exactly why it became my reaction to start looking for movies to watch so that I could somehow avoid the game entirely, but that’s where my head instantly went. In the end despite those initial reactions, it appears that I will be watching the game. I will also be defying my own rules that I discussed with TD on the podcast recently and go to a party to “watch” the game with other people. It just goes to show even when the Browns are firmly entrenched in their off-season process that the NFL has achieved something by making me care enough that I would consider not even watching the nation’s signature annual sporting event – the Super Bowl – because I might feel hurt if one of the teams that’s not mine could win.

Interestingly, not watching big games is nothing new for me. When LeBron James and the Miami Heat were facing elimination against the Dallas Mavericks, I was in a rock club in Akron Ohio watching David Bazan. I took some pleasure in seeing on my phone when the Heat lost and the Mavericks and Mark Cuban were able to raise that trophy. Since that time, I haven’t been able to take nearly as much an emotional stake in the NBA and I’ve been very critical of the NBA and its business structure as a result. Andrew and I discussed it in depth recently, and the more I think about it, the more I think that in a strange way because I’m actually still annoyed or angry about it that at least it means I still care.

Is there an expiration date to caring as dissatisfaction starts to pile up?

The Cavaliers are still in a post-LeBron grace period. Kyrie Irving at least projects to give fans a light at the end of the tunnel. The Indians on the other hand have been flirting with irrelevance more and more over the last five years, but even they’ve tried to break the cycle with their off-season getting Terry Francona and Nick Swisher among others. I’ve read more than a few tweets over the last few years about Browns fans taking their Sundays back from the woeful team in the fall when the weather is nice. Some DVR the games, but some don’t even bother doing that.

David Stern obviously has concerns about it. Even as he never seemed particularly bothered by LeBron James’ departure and the movement of other players around the league, he certainly dropped the hammer on the Spurs for calling the meaningfulness of a TNT game against the Heat into question by shipping three players home early. The funniest part of that whole thing to me was listening to fans – not even Spurs fans, but NBA fans in general – defending Greg Popovich and the Spurs and going completely against their own self-interest as viewers of TNT.

But even then, it’s not that easy. Chuck Klosterman wrote masterfully about the entire thing at Grantland that still leaves me without a conclusion, but made me think really hard about the whole thing.

Popovich is a beloved, admired coach who appears actively unconcerned with the entertainment requirements of basketball (which is how most serious fans would insist they want him to behave). He’s exclusively concerned with real competition over the long term, particularly in the month of June; everything else is a distraction. Stern’s essential rebuttal is that pro basketball only exists because pro basketball is fun to watch (and if you ignore its entertainment import, the rest of this will all disappear). He’s concerned with short-term competition on a night-to-night basis, which translates into an entertaining product overall.

And surprisingly enough, I think the NBA is pretty good about caring about keeping things competitive. Even as they struggle with setting up a system that encourages parity and try to temper the ambitions of players to skirt those systems for their own self-interest, I’m left looking squarely at baseball on the heels of Klosterman’s words about the NBA. Where David Stern fights the Spurs for rendering a TNT game useless and operates a game with a meaningful draft and a salary cap.

Meanwhile Bud Selig operates a game where the Los Angeles Angels can sign a 20-year TV deal worth $3 billion with little regard to the fact that the Angels can’t earn that money without a lot of teams like the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s in the opposite dugout. Yet, all Selig can do is hide behind the anomalies like that team not making the playoffs in the first year of their free agent deal with Albert Pujols.

Caring transferred to my generation, but what about the next one?

All of this rambling in and out of the various sports is really shorthand for saying that it all still means a whole lot to me, but I am continually concerned that it will mean less and less going forward. Baseball has its own problems that have been overcome to this point mostly by tradition, culture and habit. When Mark Shapiro said what he said about not coming if your only priority is on winning and losing, it seemed ugly, but it was the truth. Going to baseball games is a lot like going to a public park and taking advantage of a good weather day. With 162 games a season and 81 opportunities at home, it’s never going to be dire until the playoffs or on a stretch run. So in a lot of ways they’re insulated culturally I think, at least for a while. But the other two sports – NBA and NFL – I’m concerned about. (Apologies to hockey fans, of course, but it’s not on my radar.)

As the NBA continues to cater to national fans of its sport with TNT games and super-teams, I think they could eventually lose their appeal. Even as much as some people seem to love those national games and the playoffs as non-affiliated fans, without living and dying with a team as I have done in the past with the Cavs, I think the switching cost to other forms of entertainment is just far too low. If you’re really interested in the NBA as an exhibition as opposed to being closely associated with a team, you’re probably the kind of fan that is susceptible to being poached by something else, whether it’s the continued rise of MMA or even some kind of competitive reality show that has yet to be created on some yet-to-be-created, testosterone-fueled YouTube channel, for example. That camaraderie with a localized fan-base is a powerful thing, and I think the NBA could be threatened in the real long-run if their audience continues to become more nationalized and less localized.

I use Best Buy as an example a lot because I’ve studied their business and issues a lot in the news. I’ll go ahead and use them again because I find the parallels somewhat productive. You had a local electronics store that used to sell TVs and hi fi equipment. They also fixed stuff, you know, when people used to fix electronics. Then Best Buy proliferated, offered you a trillion things, put the smaller places out of business, and thrived for a period just as the NBA can thrive off general NBA fans for a while. Eventually though people have no relationship with anyone who wears a blue shirt and Best Buy becomes dispensable as people shop for a better deal on Amazon. The switching cost away from Best Buy was super low and I think those purely national, TNT NBA watchers are only as loyal as their pure entertainment goes.

There’s a reason the Cavs haven’t been on national TV in years. They don’t cater to those fans because they haven’t been good enough at the expense of a superteam in Miami. In the short run that’s OK for David Stern and company and they think they might even believe they can expand their overall market by getting new fans with bigger matchups on a bigger stage. My fear is that it could come at the cost of local fans in cities where the buy-in is a necessary part of the business model.

The NFL, on the other hand, is still pretty ingrained as a cultural fixture in pretty much every market they operate in. But make no mistake. They’re flirting with nationalized audiences too, only in different ways from the NBA. Between the Red Zone channel and fantasy football, they’ve embraced a marginal kind of fan that was never interested in the game before and they’ve rode it to huge financial success and growth. I question the long-term viability of the NFL for people who are obsessed with the numbers pushed out by NFL games into box scores and subsequent fantasy football leagues. How much are those people buying into football and the NFL vs. the way Browns fans have bought into their local team in the past? Is it sustainable and is there enough of a switching cost that they can’t replace that loose sense of competition that fantasy football gives them in some other way? I’m not so sure. It concerns me as a sports fan. It concerns me as a father of two sons.

Projecting to 2023

I know this got long and I apologize for that, but on the eve of the Super Bowl I got a bit reflective about just how much sports can continue to mean in such a fast-paced world with lots and lots of entertainment options. The United States is an entertainment-driven culture. We listen to Spotify, watch Netflix and largely are moving further and further into an on-demand world. As we’ve done that the profit margins have shrunk in those industries, a lot of middlemen have been oustered and even more stakeholders have been left trying to find their place in the new world. There will be a change to the face of sports and sports do continue to change and adjust with the times, but if I were a betting man, I would bet that at least one sport of the major three in my lifetime will face a crisis that will threaten to end them if not do the job.

Right now, if I had to bet, it would be the NFL too, which is my favorite. Between internal pressure from the concussion situation and the fact that they’ve yet to find a way to internationalize the sport, it’s a risk. It isn’t probably even in the next decade, but looking past that, you just never know. My sons will be about 12 and 10 in 2023 and I just don’t know if they’ll be able to be fans the way I have been in my lifetime.

2023. Think about that for a second.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I hope I’m around in 2023 although I must admit I don’t want to live forever like I did when I was a kid. I guess that happens as you age, see, hear and experience more I don’t know.

    But great article Craig very thought provoking and a much bigger story then just for sports. As it relates to sports however I’ll say they will be relevant but I believe by 2023 that relevancy will have decreased. IF and lets hope it doesn’t happen as your question begs “Is there an expiration date to caring as dissatisfaction starts to pile up?” that if these sports franchises in Cleveland don’t get it together by then well then sports, at least in Cleveland, could be very irrelevant. The good news is though that all it will probably take is the hint of winning and many more people will become interested. Like when it became for everyone to attend Indians games back in the 1990s and every game was sold out. Now less then two decades later it’s back to the old Municipal Stadium days where you could pick your own seat practically.

    Cleveland fandom I believe is a mix of dormancy and irrelevancy. There are those fans who are waiting to explode over a winner just waiting, biding their time and then there are those who frankly have been worn out waiting. Although for me these people have also been harmed or damaged by all of the debacles which have one or two word descriptions. I won’t name them, they still hurt. This is my category. I’ve been worn down by all of the losing, the countless bungles and the debacles to a point where all I do is hope for some kind of relevancy. I’m not talking winning championships just competing. Oy vey!

  • BisonDeleSightings

    2023 is the year Adam Miller finally lives up to his potential. His bionic middle finger will be the key to his new pitch, “the boomerang.”

  • http://brian23.com Brian

    One element I don’t see addressed is you yourself – could it be as simple as aging and having kids changes priorities? I do agree pro sports have many problems, however – the nba in particular seems to actively try to anger portions of the fan base on a regular basis.

  • vespo09

    Have to say I’m surprised not to see MLS discussed in this article. MLS has been the third most attended American sport for a couple years now, even as it still struggles to make any kind of notable improvement on the TV ratings front. It’s almost the exact opposite of the NBA – the majority of its fans exist on a local level and are interested in the success of their home team, without a huge national TV audience.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    I enjoyed this comment. This is one of my favorite topics. A friend of mine was into being an amateur futurist. He set me on that path in the early 2000s and it gets to top of mind every now and again.

  • REEPJP

    I’ve recently found myself caring less and less about sports and I’m not sure I can put a finger on the exact reason. I’m sure getting a little older, having our first kid in November and work/household responsibilities and the time they require have something to do with it, but there’s something else there that is turning me off. Things like the greed, showboating, cheating, workarounds, lawsuits all seem like things that could be contributing, but again I don’t have anything in particular.

  • http://twitter.com/Dennymayo Denny

    I’m trying to figure this all out through my own lens as well (we didn’t delve into it when we talked last, but this topic was very much on my mind when Craig and I podcasted earlier this week), and at least for me I think it’s mostly aging.

    I’m falling away from pro sports especially, and surprisingly I’m not thrown off by it at all. I think a lot of it has to do with wanting to spend more time doing other things, even without kids.

  • mgbode

    a world without sports would be like a nightime sky without stars. empty and without wonder.

  • MrCleaveland

    Regardless of other circumstances such as team success or marriage/kids, interest in sports does diminish with age. I think it’s a natural evolution.

    Where once I could rattle off batting averages, now I don’t always know who’s on the team. Or always care.

    For a good number of years, I used to spend every weekend on the couch gorging on football. Now I watch the Browns, the Bucks, and maybe one other game if it’s a big match-up. That’s it. No weeknight football at all.

    A couple days after The Fumble, my Dad was talking to his Uncle Eddie. Uncle Eddie used to be a rabid Browns fan, but now he was in his 80s or something, and he said to Dad, “So they lost. Oh well.” I couldn’t believe it, as I was still in a serious grief stage.

    Maybe it’s just fatigue or overload.

  • sway

    I have become a little less interested in sports over the years but the big change is how I follow sports. I still like to watch the big game but I’m less and less interested in watching the average game. What’s great about smartphones is that I can follow all the action without having to be glued to the TV. I can watch my Twitter feed while I”m out or glance at the score with one of my sports apps and not have to plan my day around it. Maybe when Cleveland sports are relevant again, I find myself in front of the TV again.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    It could be me, but then again, I am partially bemoaning the potential lost opportunity to hand it down.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I think as you age you look to the future more and more kinda like “how many days do I have left” lol!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Priorities absolutely change no doubt about it.

  • maxfnmloans

    My Father died when I was 21. Sports were no longer “live or die” to me fromthat day forward.

    I think that is part of the reason why ESPN seems to tailor their broadcasts to ‘tweens. They are adopting the old tobacco company method of getting them hooked when they’re young. Because once you get older and go through some real trials, you begin to understand that sports really aren’t anything more than a diversion. If miss a game, that’s ok. There will be another.

  • mgbode

    perhaps we should ask Brandon Weeden?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I thought Weeden was your boy? He was forced upon me but much like with Colt if they waste another high draft pick on a potential replacement I’ll be upset. All that aside I like Weeden more now that Chud and Norv are in town. If Weeden doesn’t improve under them then I’ll feel completely vindicated.

  • mgbode

    ? I was very anti-Weeden pre-draft. Among the most on here actually. I have fought the age-perception thing (though used it as a joke above) mostly because it stopped mattering the moment we drafted him. Until he’s too old to play, the only question is if he is the best option for the next season.

    As far as his actual play this past season, I was happy to see him progress through the first quarter of the season. But, I didn’t see any progression after that point. I’m a bit disappointed by that and hope that the Chud/Norv offense better suits his ability to throw deep and helps him decide when/where to do throw those passes.

    I don’t know who the best QB option is next year. Weeden is one of the options. I’d put EJ Manuel and Philip Rivers as 2 guys I would definitely start above him. Alex Smith is weird to me in that I just don’t know what to think of him at this point. After those 3, there really aren’t any other options to start at QB next year unless our coaching staff falls in love with one of the draft guys (maybe Dysert?). We’ll see.

  • Harv 21

    my sports obsessions pretty much walked out when when my kids walked in. Now it’s a laser-focus on whether ithe sport is or is not providing me with enjoyable and non-aggravatng entertainment in my finite entertainment hours. If it doesn’t do that I’m not interested. No longer interested in bad teams without promise, teams that have packed it in for the season, or anything that comes out of any athlete’s mouth. Watch for the competition and the beauty and the “man I wish I could do what he just did, even once.” I owe nothing to any team. They have to entertain me.
    But if there’s a choice between playing and watching, choice is easy. I’m playing.

  • Harv 21

    hear that

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I don’t keep score on here so I don’t know about the anti-Weeden part. I wasn’t anti-Weeden I was anti-QB in any round labeled 1 or 2 so that was my issue with him. I actually was a Russell Wilson fan but I never dreamt he’d do what he did for the Seahawks in his rookie season. I know he wouldn’t have done that with the Browns because of the coaching I just wanted to remention I liked him.
    I agree Weeden definitely regressed and that regression seem to coincide with the first time he faced the Ravens. Probably a coincidence but ironic.
    I don’t know about other QBs other then Weeden and McCoy. As long as they don’t draft another QB in rounds 1-3 I’ll be okay. I think it’s a reach to ever mention Rivers if not that he played under Turner his name wouldn’t even be mentioned. I’m mixed on Alex Smith. Part of me wouldn’t mind seeing him brought in to put Weeden under pressure but then again how much of an improvement is Smith over Weeden? Not enough for me. So I guess that leaves me at hoping Weeden can improve under what I consider far better coaching with Chud/Turner as opposed to Shurmur/Childress.

  • humboldt

    well said

  • http://twitter.com/danimalCarroll Daniel Carroll

    I think this post (well written BTW) was supposed to inspire some deep/reflective thought. But honestly, all I thought was…

    “For the love of GOD, can’t Clevelanders just have ONE championship so we don’t have to think like this!???”

  • saggy

    I agree. and to a much more global point of view: soccer in general. it is ALWAYS in season; leagues, their cups and tournaments are constantly playing. Plus, there is Champions League, and with the Olympics and World Cup every 4 years, and Euros in the off years, you can’t miss it.

    Oh, and NO COMMERCIALS!

    I can see soccer being relevant by 2023.

  • saggy

    Indeed (spoken like Omar).

  • ClemJax

    I can see soccer being relevant by 2023

    I’m 99% sure that phrase has been uttered about 2013, 2003, 1993, 1983, etc etc.

  • ClemJax

    Kids definitely have an impact, but it certainly varies. For example, with what we know about head injuries, anyone out there with a child under 10 want their kid to play football anymore? I sure as hell don’t…and does that gut reaction impact the importance of the sport?

    On the flip side, sports nostalgia is critical to a sport like baseball…you don’t hear as many stories of “I remember when my dad took me to basketball/football games” as opposed to baseball (although I have some incredibly amazing memories of my dad taking me to Cavs games at the Coliseum). That love of baseball is something that I picked up, and is something that I can’t wait until my son is old enough to enjoy with me. Sure he’s going to be a Tribe fan (no choice in that regard, although with where we live I can at least support the Rays as an alternative), but I hope he loves the game itself. I think this partially plays into Craig’s point about baseball being culturally isolated from these huge shifts.

  • ClemJax

    Here’s another question to bring it closer to home…going away from what happens nationally with these sports in 2023, do our Cleveland teams even exist as such in the next decade? That question is tied even tighter to the one of – what does Cleveland look like in 2023? Will the city even have the population to support 3 major sports teams? Pretty much any market ranking you look at, Cleveland is the smallest market with 3 teams, and there’s not much of anything that points to reversing that trend in the near future – heck, even “we’re not Detroit” isn’t that bad coming in at almost double the market size.

    I know we all want to scream otherwise, but would anybody be seriously shocked if one (or more) of our teams moved/contracted/otherwise ceased to exist in the next 10 years? And if that happens, does anybody think Browns ’99 would ever happen again? Sure, we can all point to other markets with issues, but Cleveland is arguably facing the worst combination of factors to supporting multiple teams.

    And what would permanently losing one of our beloved teams do to our outlook on sports as fans? Would it depend on the sport? I know it would for me…I’m completely in the NBA-free camp at this point, so if the Cavs folded up shop tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. On the flip side, if the Tribe no longer existed (a scenario in which I could make the terrifying argument is the most likely over the next decade), I would be incredibly heartbroken.

    Sorry, just adding some rambling thoughts to the topic, and not trying to be a total downer…this is just one of those topics I chew on from time to time. I tend to think that even more tough times are coming for us Cleveland fans not based on the national happenings in a given league, but rather on the local circumstances in the area.

  • Jaker

    This article is upsetting. Sports are supposed to be a nice break from reality, and sometimes we forget that and take it too far. Yes, we can somewhat blame that on the constant losing we endure as Cleveland fans, but this whole depressing vibe I’m getting rom this article so totally unnecessary. This is a tough time of the year because its too early for the Tribe, basketball season can be long and dreary and the Browns are usually at home not doing anything, but to question relevancy is really just being shortsighted and a real negative nancy or Debbie downer.

    Sports aren’t relevant? Maybe to some people, but consider the positives. One of my greatest memories is when I was 6 years old and a JimThome home run ball hit my hand. I didn’t catch the ball, but I will never forget how excited I was seeing the ball come my way. My dad and I still to this day talk about that game. I have ons of other examples, but one will make my point.

    Oh, and I’m still waiting on the tshirt and TJ Ward signed picture. Thanks.

  • Natedawg86

    It is harder living out of state. I still follow all CLE teams and Ohio State, but live in MD. My kids are now 2 and 4. The four year old was in class (that is what we call daycare at a school so we don’t feel as bad) and they asked him if he was going to root for the Ravens and he said “NO THE BROWNS!!!” Hopefully this continues and they root for the teams that I do so that we can share the sports bond throughout life. For this to happen I would think the teams would need to be at least average.

  • Natedawg86

    If the Tribe left, I would have a hard time following baseball for a few years, but I live in MD so I would probably eventually latch on to the Phillies, Orioles or Nats.

  • Natedawg86

    Don’t let Mgbode fool you. He has a white Weeden Jersey AND a brown one

  • Natedawg86

    Can we call him dessert if we draft him…. Time for some Dessert

  • mgbode

    yes, best case scenario is the coaching staff believes they can fix Weeden’s issues and is actually capable of doing it especially since no QB seems worthy of #6 but EJ Manuel and Geno Smith (Weeden-clone anyway) will in all likelihood be gone by the 3rd round (which is why I mentioned Dysert).

  • mgbode

    no love for the orange?

  • mgbode

    that’s a good kid. real good kid.

  • Natedawg86

    No…haha you? There is nothing I care to remember about the Browns from 2002-2005. I was at the ATL game, but then when we should have beat the Steelers in the Wild Card when Northcutt dropped the ball….ugh. Nothing like being up 24-7 in third quarter of playoff game and losing

  • mgbode

    on the field, I am not a big fan of the orange jerseys (still love the orange pants w/ brown jerseys though).

    for the fans, I love the orange jerseys. I want to show I love the Browns as loud as possible and those orange jerseys do the trick :)

    yeah, I was w/ my little brother driving back to Ohio from the Rose Bowl + Nat’l Champ game for that Pitt game (in SA, TX). we got a free round of beer from the bartender because he felt so bad.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I almost said something similar until I realized they didn’t wear orange jerseys last year. This just proves you are color blind when it comes to Weedies! ;-)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Fix, teach, tutor, mentor whatever you want to call it lets hope it happens. Don’t know much about Manuel but I’ve never been high on Smith. It will be interesting to see who selects Geno and how he does as a professional.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    I feel that a few trends are taking sports down the path to irrelevance.

    First, the move of many huge sports events to cable. Call me old fashioned, but I do not have a cable or satellite subscription. Therefore, with two small kids to help take care of, I skipped all the BCS games entirely. It’s not that I wasn’t interested…it’s that I wasn’t interested enough to head to the local watering hole to watch them. When national broadcasts aren’t interesting enough for a 30-year-old man to seek them out, that’s a problem. Put the big games back on network TV…contrary to popular belief, there is a LARGE segment of the population that doesn’t have cable or satellite, and you’ll lose these people, especially kids, over time.

    Second, as a reporter for a small market radio station a few years back, I was shocked to see how low some participation levels were for high school sports. The coaches all said the same thing. If they put too many requirements on participation, the kids will walk away. That could include mandatory practice and ANY form of discipline. In many cases, kids feel like they have better things to do. You can point to “powerhouse” schools, but having graduated from one, it’s not great. Your odds of landing one of 12 varsity basketball spots are slim when your school has 1,200+ boys.

    Third, and this is football specific (but could be expanded to soccer and hockey), concussions are a BIG problem, and they will likely lead to the removal of football from high schools in the next 10 to 15 years. That’s not to say football for young people will go away. It will simply be the AAU-ization of the current system. This will limit participation and interest over time.

    Finally, and every time I bring this up, I get drilled, the cost of attending games is too high.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Changing demographics will likely make that statement finally true by then.