With the Fall Classic wrapping up in epic fashion this past week and the NFL in another debate on player safety, particularly Cam Newton’s, it is time to face an inconvenient truth. Basketball is the sport of our future.
Think about it; we just staged a world series battle that can’t be topped. It was a series of epic proportions. The Cubs had not won in 108 years and the Indians are in a 69-year drought as of Wednesday night. It was a beautiful series, and Game 7 was one of the best baseball games I’ve ever seen, returning a 25.2 Nielsen rating. Even so, some basketball games have scored higher, like LeBron’s return to Miami which earned a 25.4 rating. That was the most interesting game baseball is likely to produce again.
There’s no nationally interesting World Series left. Everyone knew the Cubs curse, but without that 108 years, interest in even the Cubs will be gone. Like one bartender put it to me this weekend,“It’s going to be like 2004 with the Red Sox, everyone will go crazy, and then nobody cares.” The point is undeniable, 2007 and 2013 were just ho-hum championships for the Red Sox, except for Sox fans like myself.
Around the early 2000’s, people seemed to start realizing that football was what the U.S. preferred most. Youth football participation, however, is now on the decline. Participation went down about 830,000 from 2010 to now. That represents 27 percent of the three million participants there were in 2010. High school participation is down a much less drastic 2.5%, but some small schools have cut their programs all together in relation to injury concerns.
“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football,” is what an NFL doctor famously told Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Even if ratings are high right now for the NFL, if people come to adopt Bennet’s word as gospel, then it’s inevitable that the quality and participation at higher levels will go down. If 14 was the standard starting age, then that’s at least eight years of a head start other sports will have to own a kid’s attention.
So, if baseball is withering away (and it is) and football comes to be seen as too dangerous, what does that leave us? Hockey? Hockey is just as dangerous and definitely not going up in popularity. Soccer? Come on, this is the United States.
The one great ‘American’ sport that may not only survive, but thrive, in our future is basketball. Depending on what website you see, basketball is currently the second, third or ninth most popular sport in the world. Let’s be clear, there’s no way its ninth. The comprehensiveness of the first two analyses seems to soar past that of the third.
Rationally speaking, its implausible that basketball is ninth. Basketball has more professional leagues than any other sport and that number is growing faster than any others. There are leagues in the U.S., China, France, Turkey, Israel, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Australia, the Philippines, Brazil, Italy, and that’s leaving out quite a few. It’s the closest thing to a global sport outside of soccer. This brings a potential for drama, unmatched by other traditionally U.S. sports.
This, along with our constantly speeding landscape, is why basketball will overtake baseball and even football eventually, because literally and figuratively it fits better. We are becoming a more urban and globalized as a world. Baseball’s speed is ultimately what’s doomed it; and in our hyper-sensitive culture, football is just a sitting duck waiting to be cast off as barbaric. The best teams in basketball move the ball quickly and injury isn’t nearly as much a concern, especially when it comes to the brain. Plus, basketball can be played almost anywhere, which makes it especially adaptable to urbanization.
Losing either baseball or football completely would be a shame, but you can take solace in the fact that basketball somewhat combines the finesse of baseball and the physical domination factor of football. There will always be players more blessed by raw athleticism, but a skilled player can come in most any form in basketball. The point we’re at in the year is like where we are in our own sport’s history; baseball is going out with a bang, football is leaning just towards the better part of its tenure, and basketball is just heating up.