Now that professional sports in America are now trying to get their seasons underway while dealing with COVID-19, it got me to thinking about how my view of sports has changed as of late. I am still a sports fan and missed sports during their necessary shutdown. The shutdown also gave me time to reflect on sports as a whole.
When 2020 began it was the start of the seventh decade in my life that I have been watching sports. Having been born, raised, and lived in Chicago most of my life I was fortunate to have access to multiple TV broadcasts and live events of multiple sports during my life. I was six years-old when the White Sox went to the World Series in 1959. All the games started around 2:30 PM. I remember running home after school to catch the games. At that time, an MLB game averaged just 2 hours. Pitching duels were even shorter. Commercials were few and far between. Many games saw the starting pitchers on the mound for nine innings. Batters did not step out of the box after every pitch to play with their gloves (there wasn’t any). Pitchers did not feel the need to take a nap between pitches. I look back to those days with fond memories when the greatest game ever invented (the only game where a defense controls the ball) dominated the sporting world in America.
It just so happened that also in 1959 all the Chicago Bears and NY Giants games were broadcast for the first time. The Bears were pretty bad through the 1950s, but when I was ten in 1963, they won the NFL Championship, thus cementing by loyalty to the team through the years. By this time, I was already an AFL fan. The AFL was far more fun to watch. They were already signing big-time college players and the offenses were innovative. Back then the commercials were far fewer and broadcasts shorter. Now we have 3-hour games with 11 minutes of action and 100+ commercials in them. As great as the athletes are these days I have yet to see one on the field greater than either Jim Brown and Gale Sayers were.
Broadcasts of NBA games trickled through the 1960’s. It was not until 1965 that a Sunday game would be broadcast and those would often include either the Boston Celtics or Lakers. Even with this limited lineup I saw two of the all-time great teams play.
Like the NBA hockey broadcasts were sporadic during the 1960’s. But my Blackhawks with Hall of Famers Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and Glenn Hall won the Stanley Cup in 1961. Following that event, I went to an autograph signing with my Cub Scout troop to a bank where the entire team was signing autographs. A true childhood highlight.
Today, all these sporting leagues have sold their souls to corporate America. The leagues and too often the players have forgotten their roots. Their entertainment value has more to do with production than product. How many sponsors they shove into a single broadcast as opposed to putting the best product on the field/court. Professional sports are just a money grab these days.
Forgotten is the what made all these sports great. All the things that collected fans of different centuries. The first is the unfettered love of the game by the ones playing it. There were not any big paydays in the early days of any sports. They were played by people that loved the game so much they would often play as amateurs long before professional leagues were established. I seriously doubt that today’s professional athletes love their sport as much as they did when they were playing in Little League and other childhood leagues. Their love of the game has been filtered by the business side of their chosen profession. College scholarships, agents, contractual obligations, interviews, travel, time away from family. I still do believe their competitive nature kicks in when the step on the field/court.
Franchises that are worth insane amounts of money have made sport’s teams more valuable than many other types of businesses. And they have accomplished this while they sell you on team loyalty, even though they might put a lousy product on the field/court year after year.
One positive aspect of all this is that sports and their spin-off industries employ many people. And I still love sports. But I find it hard to watch a three-hour baseball or football game without recording it and fast forwarding through all the commercials. To be honest, I do this with almost every sporting event I watch these days.
In closing, I believe that sports, like nearly everything money touches, has lost its soul. We have been bombarded by constant access to the sales machine. Instead of fans, many have become addicts. This summer (if COVID-19 allows) I am going to go to Little League games and try to remember what it was like when I was really, truly, in love with sports.