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Charles O. Finley is rarely, if ever, at a loss for words, but when asked what he thought American sport would be like in the year 2000, he was nearly dumbstruck. "All I know," he said, "is that the baseball will be bright orange by 1998." Others are less in awe of the great unknown. Lynn Stone, president of Churchill Downs and Hialeah Park, flatly declares that the $2 bet, for years the basic wager at U.S. tracks, will be replaced by a $3 or a $5 minimum. Bill Veeck predicts women will be playing on major league baseball teams and John Schapiro, president of Laurel Race Course, ventures that a majority of jockeys may be women.
Other experts hold that drugs will be sold openly at sporting-event concessions and that the hot dog of tomorrow will pack the same kick as the marijuana brownie of today; that there will be only one division in boxing, the heavyweight, all other classes having vanished because of boredom or bankruptcy; and that ski boots will have sensors that release the binding if the stress on a leg bone approaches the breaking point. Still other prophets foresee that non-contact sports will be played in the nude; that a round of golf will be played in one spot, by means of a computer and TV screen; and that ice hockey will be played on Teflon.
Mike Palmer of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., contends that "it is irrational to attach pro teams to cities; no one has loyalty to a city in these days of suburbs and transiency. I wouldn't be surprised if owners began to organize teams based on ethnic or ideological loyalties to regenerate enthusiasm—games featuring the Steel-workers vs. the Executives, the Hippies vs. the Straights, Hunters vs. Animal Lovers."
Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon who is team doctor for the Lakers, the Kings and the Rams, says, "By the year 2000, athletes will compete much longer—for 25 years or more. We will probably live to be 150 or 200 and an athlete's career will be just like a businessman's." Joe Delouise, a Chicago psychic, foretells, "I see skydiving increasing in popularity, with many housewives participating." Because of domed roofs and artificial surfaces, the vagaries of weather will be a thing of the past for almost all sports participants (possibly including racehorses and skiers, but probably not skydiving housewives). Subjective decisions will also be obsolete, sensors having been installed in sidelines, baselines, home-plate zones, etc. Even the scoring of a boxing match will be electronic, with sensors in the gloves and a sensitized powder on the fighters' bodies so that telling blows can be registered on a scoreboard. Some people even predict that Taiwan will be readmitted to the Little League World Series, since in 15 years the major leagues will be international, having expanded to include teams from Japan, Venezuela, Mexico and Cuba.
And so it goes, as one chronicler of the future puts it.
In discussing the specific future of sport, one must assume that there will be a future and that it will not be all that bad. For the purposes of this article ignore the threats of nuclear lunacy, global famine, worldwide economic depression and poisoned skies. In searching out the future of sport, one has to guess the unguessable. Indeed, there is really only one point of certitude: As it always has, sport will continue to reflect the society in which it occurs.
During American colonial days 95 of every 100 people were involved in farming. Sport was rustic, family-oriented. In colonial America, as in medieval Europe, spectator-ship was reserved for church and hangings. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and in the mid-19th century Americans began to leave the fields for the factories, exchanging farms for slums. Enormous crowds were crammed together; massive pools of athletic talent were suddenly gathered in one place. At the same time, family allegiances were being replaced by neighborhood loyalties or factory friendships and it was natural to hold athletic contests among these groups. Soon it became important that one group of factory workers prove it was better than another on the athletic field, so only the best players were used. The other workers retired to the sidelines to cheer and, later, to celebrate victories that demonstrated their team, factory, neighborhood or fraternal lodge was better. Thus, in a short period of social upheaval two phenomena were created—mass spectatorship and the win syndrome.
As C. P. Snow said, "Until this century social change was so slow that it would pass unnoticed in one person's lifetime. That is no longer so. The rate of change has increased so much that our imagination can't keep up." No one but a madman could have foreseen the technological, social, moral and economic revolutions of the American 20th century. As puritanism moved offstage, sport responded with Sunday games, beer sold openly at public stadiums and winning-justifies-the-means philosophies. As education became widespread, a superficially simple game like baseball was replaced in popularity by the apparently more complex strategies of football. As the American consumer society expanded—indeed, fairly exploded—and as the profit motive became more and more the national rationale, sport followed by becoming a hard-sell consumer business, too. It expanded enormously, until, as Joel Spring, professor of education at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, puts it: " Athletics have become big business, a business dependent on a large body of consumers or spectators. It operates on the profit motive, and that means it has to have lots more people in the stands than there are on the field. Games have come to be played under scientific management with factorylike specialization and expertise. The resulting trends could be continual changes in rules and forms of major sports to make them more consumer-oriented."
Thus far, 75 years into the 20th century, the mirror of American sport reflects a society of hard sell and high production, of enormous growth and rocketing optimism. But times are changing. The signs of a cooling off have long been at hand. Gregory Schmid, an economist at the Institute for the Future, says, "I don't think we will take for granted the consistent optimism of the past. There is suddenly more uncertainty in our lives. Inflation is up and growth is down. We are coming into a period of moderation."
When futurists write of tomorrow, they speak in terms of "scenarios," meaning contrived situations and conditions extrapolated from known facts and trends of the past. This is complex stuff and the point of it all is to raise guesswork to the level of a science. A number of intelligent people are trying to see what is ahead so we can prepare for it, and we should be grateful for their efforts—right or wrong.