Monday, August 2, 2010
Bill Simmons’s latest piece on ESPN.com is the quintessential Sports Guy column: longer than it needs to be, filled with minutiae about the Red Sox that very few people care about, and obsessed with quantifying the unquantifiable using fuzzy logic. He “breaks down” the average fan's dissatisfaction with the Red Sox’s season and baseball in general by assigning suspiciously round percentage values to the things he doesn’t like about this baseball season. “Injuries” are 10 percent, and “The Bandwagon Effect” is 5 percent, and only Simmons knows why.
Maybe this is a lousy baseball year, all those no-hitters notwithstanding. For the first summer I can remember, I’m not paying attention to the games at all. Maybe it’s because my team, the Mariners, are one of the worst teams in baseball. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV. But the NFL team I root for is lousy too, and I don’t have an NBA team anymore (RIP Sonics), yet I’ll go to the trouble of finding a way to watch professional football and basketball, but not baseball. And apparently I’m not alone. Attendance is holding steady (Simmons says that’s because of recent cuts in ticket prices), but TV ratings have been going down for a long time, and the graph of the number of people who’ve watched the All-Star Game gives you a good idea of how baseball is doing these days.
So why don’t people like baseball? In honor of Bill Simmons, here’s my “percentage pie.”
Steroids: 1.75 percent
You might think people regard steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs as cheating, but football players are practically sprinkling HGH on their breakfast cereal and no one complains. When we watch professional athletes do the amazing things that they do, I doubt that many of us really think, “That 360 dunk doesn’t count because he used a banned supplement.” Let’s not forget that when Jose Canseco, who had replaced all of his internal organs with testosterone glands, was stealing 40 bases and hitting home runs, everyone was talking about how awesome it was. I think the real problem was…
The response to the steroid scandal: 17.39 percent
Major League Baseball’s response to the growing sense that their guys were getting some help in hitting all of those home runs was to test all of their players and then keep the results secret, which ensured that the players who tested positive would get revealed a little at a time over the years thanks to leaks and keep steroid use in the news. The sports media’s response to the discovery that Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were not just working out really, really hard was to talk about steroids all the time and to act like every player who used steroids—when, by the way, there was no rule against them in MLB—was a combination of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. There was a lot of hang-wringing about how now the statistics from the “steroid era” were more invalid than the statistics from the era when blacks were banned from the league or the era when spitballs were legal. Each new “revelation” that a player was using steroids set off more of the same arguments about who was eligible for the Hall of Fame and how awful it was that these guys were “cheating.” If you paid attention to the sports media, you probably got sick of listening to sportswriters bitch about steroids and went over to the NFL Network, where no one ever complains about HGH use because HGH makes players better and the games more entertaining. Which brings me to…
Baseball’s lack of spectacle: 16.4 percent
In this column about baseball’s TV ratings, a guy named Rocky Mamola says, “Baseball is more chess to their checkers in that it requires much more strategy and that pace of the game is much slower and methodical,” which is the sort of thing die-hard baseball fans say because they can’t say baseball is boring. But compared to the NFL—which has exponentially more strategy than baseball—watching a baseball game is pretty dull. All that steroid-taking resulted in more home runs, which are exciting in person but on television highlight reels, all look pretty much the same. The Home Run Derby is about as exciting as watching this over and over. But the real problem is that between home runs and great plays in the field, a baseball game has long, long stretches of nothing happening. Glove adjustments. Conferences on the mound. Pitchers shaking off catchers. Pick-off attempts. Worst of all is probably when a game is clearly a blow-out, yet the losing team still has to get 27 outs, which usually takes a long time, meaning that one-sided games that aren’t worth watching after the third inning last longer than close games. Which is why Bill Simmons is right when he talks about…
The time of the games: 31.23 percent
World Cup games lasted 90 minutes, unless they went into overtime, in which case viewers were glued to their seats anyway. You can plan your day knowing exactly how long you’re going to be watching men kick a ball around. Baseball games, on the other hand, are like acid trips—you never know how long they’re going to take, but by the end you’ll probably want it to be over. These days, most games take between three and four hours, which is insane, especially since most games start at 7 pm. Children who have to be in bed can’t watch the ends of weekday games, and most of the rest of us don’t have the time to stare at David Ortiz stepping out of the batter’s box for hours upon end. At best, we’ll put the game on the radio as a background while we do important stuff like updating Twitter and posting lewd pictures on the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist. And that’s why the biggest slice of my percentage pie is…
Television and the internet: 33.33 percent
Ever try listening to an NBA or NFL game on the radio? It’s not nearly as good as watching in on TV. There’s too much happening too quickly for a play-by-play man to accurately describe. But baseball has the opposite problem. There’s so little happening in the average moment of a baseball game that the play-by-play guy needs one or two other guys to tell amusing stories in between pitches. Baseball is built for the radio. A game is a good thing to give a third of your attention to. You want to hear the background buzz of the crowd, the guys in the booth chatting leisurely with one another, the sudden swelling of noise when a ball suddenly rises towards the sky. Or you can ignore the game on the radio and read about it in the paper, and dissect the results through the box score—baseball is one sport that can be described almost completely through numbers. In the days before cable television was readily available, or further back, before everyone had a television, baseball was great because you could follow it closely without watching a single game. Now, of course, we can watch every game and then watch the highlights on Baseball Tonight and read the blogs written by stat geeks that argue about cERA and UZR. I’m not sure baseball benefits from all this analysis. It’s a slow, almost lazy kind of sport for those lazy summer afternoons, only now it’s only played at night and there’s a lot of other stuff to do on lazy summer afternoons. Increasingly, baseball seems like a weird, almost unmarketable sport that appeals mainly to a shrinking audience of aficionados. Remember when boxing was the biggest sport in America? Yeah, neither do I.
Slicing up the Red Sox's Boring Pie (ESPN)