Seinfeld was conceived as a show about nothing, though it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Rather, Seinfeld was a show about sports: Face-painted New Jersey Devils fans, recalcitrant will-call-window attendants at Giants Stadium, middle-aged ball boys at the U.S. Open, yada, yada, yada.... But the reverse is also true: Sports nowadays are all about Seinfeld. So whenever opposing players or officials offended them at this year's Final Four, members of the the Stanford band chanted, "No soup for you!"
Step further into this hall of mirrors and you will see sports and Seinfeld emulating each other emulating each other into infinity. Several professional athletes, none of them actors, appeared on Seinfeld during the show's nine seasons. Several Seinfeld actors, none of them professional athletes, were preseason contract holdouts in 1997, seeking a Jordanesque $22 million apiece from NBC for what would become the program's final year. In what is now the Sein qua non of athletic entitlement, Jerry Seinfeld received free Nikes on the set of his sitcom, which comes to an end on May 14. Jerry Stiller, who played Frank Costanza, got his own Nike commercials, in which he looked more like Vince Lombardi than Lombardi ever did.
Speaking of Lombardi, the final episode of Seinfeld has already reached Super Bowl levels in ad rates ($1.8 million per 30 seconds) and hype (five months of promotion, or three days longer than the typical Super Bowl pregame show). No wonder NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer openly rooted for a World Series sweep last October, lest the Fall Classic bump a Seinfeld episode from the schedule. So it has come to this: A show that so often touched on World Series teams and heroes—be they the 1986 Mets of Keith Hernandez or the '96 Yankees, for whom George worked in the front office under the blustery command of the calzone-loving Big Stein (who was even more Steinbrennerian than Steinbrenner), or Joe DiMaggio, who dunked his morning cruller at Dinky Donuts—grew to be of vastly greater interest to Americans than the World Series itself.
If no program better crystallized the 1990s, that's because this decade will largely be defined by an endless and unhealthy obsession with spoils. On Seinfeld, George wanted to name his unconceived child Seven, for Mickey Mantle. In real life, memorabilia collectors wanted to buy Mande's liver. One had to suspend disbelief in switching from Seinfeld to SportsCenter, not the other way around.
On one particularly memorable episode Jerry developed a crush on Hernandez, the former Mets first baseman who was, alas, already in love with someone else: himself. "I'm Keith Hernandez!" Hernandez was heard to be thinking before he made out with Elaine in a parked car. You couldn't ask for a better moment to encapsulate sports fans and sports stars at the end of the millennium.