Back in the days when Dad did the yard work in a cardigan, sports television seemed pretty simple. On weeknights you did homework and watched Wagon Train. On weekends you cleaned the garage and then waited for Mom to serve the roast. While you waited, you watched sports. By the time you finished dinner, sports was over and it was time for Bonanza.
These days, sports is never over. And that's what's going to kill it. Next year, in the four major leagues alone (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL), 4,974 games will be played. Not including playoffs, this is an average of 13.6 games per day. Most of them will be televised somewhere, locally, regionally or nationally. (Better set that VCR!) If you have cable or a satellite dish, add at least three round-the-clock "sports news" channels. Be sure to include a couple thousand hours for golf and bowling and auto racing on your calendar, too. (You're going to need way more tape.) And soccer, what about soccer? Or figure skating and bass fishing and tennis! Curling! Hurling! Semipro baton twirling! To say nothing of make-believe sports like street luge and all things "extreme." Cheerleading! The World's Strongest Man! The Global Aerobics Fitness and Lung Capacity Championships! Box lacrosse! And the colleges! We forgot the colleges! Double everything I just said!
The hypergigantism of American sports started when the networks, their affiliates and team owners began speculating on sports television as if it were the 1929 stock market. For years, sports and TV maintained a workable economy in which the team owners, the broadcasters and the players all made progressively more money and fans were left, for the most part, unscrewed by spiraling ticket prices and $7 dogs. The rampant overexpansion wasn't possible until cable came along. A 70-channel cable system has 613,200 hours of programming to fill every year. While this provides opportunities for greater diversity (the American Wallyball Finals!), cable's ravenous appetite for content and its atomization of the audience spells trouble for sports fans. Too many teams in too many sports in too many markets paying too much money for too many players; all of it underwritten by absurdly inflated national television contracts. The networks have gone begging to their affiliates to lay off some of the cost of multi-billion-dollar sports contracts. (Advertising can bring in only so much...until America embraces the $50 six-pack.) The NBA lockout happened because owners finally realized that they'd created an unsustainable economic model. Like a pyramid scheme gone sour, there was no longer enough money coming in at the bottom to pay off the guys at the top—especially since the guy at the top is no longer Michael Jordan.
When the overheated expansion economy created by television cools, marginal franchises are going to be in trouble. Hockey in Tampa? Not unless they charge $1,500 a seat to a busload of vacationing Canadians. Sadly, some of your favorite small-market teams will be dragged down in the aftersuck. Baseball in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh? Without revenue sharing? Not for long.
So the sports junkies got their wish—all sports, all the time—but we're all going to suffer for it when the market crashes. And it will, unless players and owners agree to take a lot less money. Which they won't do. When this house of cards comes down, and traditional sports are pay-per-view only, what can we groundlings expect to see on free TV? Are you ready for Rupert Murdoch's Indonesian Kickboxing Satellite Network?
Let me know. I'll be out in the garage.