I was thinking the other day about ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There was a time in America — and not so long ago — when the concept of a show like Wide World of Sports made sense to all of us. The concept was best described in the famous lead-in, read by the incomparable Jim McKay:
“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports. The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
Not many people know this, but that lead-in was actually written by a man named Stanley Ralph Ross who had one of the more wondrous careers in entertainment. He wrote the shows in the old Batman and Wonder Woman series, came up with story lines for shows like “All in the Family” and “Columbo,” did various parody songs, played bad guys in gloriously awful kids shows like “Far Out Space Nuts” and “The Lost Saucer,” showed up now and then on “Falcon Crest,” appeared in movies like “Helter Skelter” and “Sleeper,” and did voiceovers for countless cartoons — he was Braniac on the Superfriends, for instance. Wikipedia also says he became an ordained minister and officiated Burt Ward’s third wedding. Talk about someone’s cup running over.
Anyway, those Wide World of Sports words carried a lot of power back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Enormous words. We were willing to watch pretty much ANYTHING back then that fit within those parameters. Wide World of Sports would bring us rodeo and racquetball and surfing and loggers trying to make other loggers fall off of logs, and people on skates jumping over barrels and demolition derbies and Evel Knievel jumping busses on his motorcycle and the Harlem Globetrotters … we watched them all. Yes, there were some sports that we’d probably consider more serious too; we’d get big time boxing matches on Wide World of Sports, and huge track and field events and world championship gymnastics competitions and so on. But in many ways the point was that some weeks it was more important, some weeks less, but we watched it all — the constant variety of sports.
And I never once remember asking: Why are we watching this? We watched because it was sports. We didn’t need an actual reason. Anyway, there wasn’t anything else on.
The point is: It did not have to matter. To be blunt about it: Sports almost NEVER mattered, not in the way we think about today. Why would we watch a mishmash of professional athletes and actors compete in stupid superstars competitions or “Battle of the Sexes” match-ups? Why not? There was a little thrill of victory, a little less agony of defeat, and what else were we going to do anyway? The landscape was just different. People often wonder about the bowl setup in college football — how did a system so ridiculous ever get come together? But the system is only ridiculous when viewed through today’s prism. Well, for a long time in America, we lived in a bowl nation — a sports landscape of match races and boxing match-ups (we actually called the people who put these things together “matchmakers”), and odd professional wrestling matches and quasi-interesting exhibitions and barnstorming and now-quaint events like when the NFL Champions would face off against a team of college football All-Stars.* In that setting, it made perfect sense for men in ugly jackets to scout games and determine what might be a fun match-up for people to watch on Dec. 28th. That’s how we determined pretty much everything in sports.
*Though I’ve already had my 44th birthday, I like to think of today as my real birthday because I was born on the Sunday of the first ever Super Bowl bye week. I was born in those years when fathers were expected to wait nervously in the lobby while their children were born — all the while clutching celebration cigars to hand out to complete strangers upon hearing “It’s a boy!” — and my parents still talk to this day about how the moment I was born my father was watching pro football on TV. This, in and of itself, is no big deal. What I love is that the game he was watching was the now departed Playoff Bowl, a bizarre and long-forgotten NFL exhibition that would face off the third and four-place teams in an effort to determine, once and for all, who deserved to be third. That day, the Baltimore Colts beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14.
The landscape, of course, has changed drastically. We have little use for the constant variety of sports — quite the opposite. I hear people constantly griping that they want LESS variety, that they don’t care about soccer (boring) … track and field (come on) … tennis (who’s that guy?) … hockey (icing?) … golf (get over yourselves) … auto racing (that’s a sport?) … women’s basketball (they don’t even dunk) … baseball (too slow) … the NBA regular season (doesn’t matter) … college bowls (stupid system) … college basketball until March (no brackets) …. even the current NFL (not as good as it used to be). In many ways, it seems to me, today’s sports discussion is more about what we DO NOT care about than what we do care about. It’s all one blur. We are like candy store kids who can no longer taste the difference between Rolos and PEZ and no longer care. We just want the sugar rush.
All-Star Games don’t fit into our brave new sports world. This is true of all sports. Baseball’s All-Star Game, by far the most famous and well-regarded of the games, received its lowest ratings EVER this year. There were many attempts to explain this away, some of them technical TV jargon. Apparently: “Nobody gives a damn about all-star games” was not good enough. Up to 1986, the All-Star Game pulled a 20 rating every single year but one (1969 — not sure what happened that year). It often pulled 25 ratings. In 1976, when I was nine, it pulled a 27.6 rating. That’s about the rating that the AFC Championship just pulled — twice the rating of American Idol. Everybody watched. This year’s All-Star Game rating? Right: 7.5. A little less that “The Good Wife” will get most weeks.
Sure, television has changed — there were countless fewer TV options in 1976 — and baseball has changed too. But it seems to me that the feelings about all-star games have changed even more. There was a time when we would all gather around just to watch athletes play their sport, nothing had to be on the line, nothing had to be at stake, the ruled did not even have to make sense. We just wanted to watch, just like there was a time when we would gather around to hear the late Fred Travalena do a few of the same impressions, watch Donny and Marie do a few skits, watch that “You doesn’t have to call me Johnson” guy do that same annoying bit. Basically: We were stupid. And we didn’t have any other choice.
But now … no, people aren’t going to watch the All-Star Game just to see Albert Pujols get a couple of at-bats. We can see that any time we want. Nobody cares. Yes, the NBA has smartly turned their All-Star Game into a weekend of stunts — watch these guys dunk, watch these guys shoot three-pointers, watch Charles Barkley say something funny — and there’s a certain fun in that. The NHL has pulled out the North America vs. the World gimmick, which doesn’t seem to excite people nearly as much as playing games in odd places like Fenway Park (I think the NHL All-Star Game should be in some new odd place every year — (“Hey, they’re playing the All-Star game on the 14th green at Augusta! Awesome!”). Even staid baseball has tried to liven up its game with the interminable home run hitting contest. Basically, these ploys keeps these things afloat. But the basic theme remains: Nobody cares.
And the Pro Bowl — well, everyone agrees its the worst of the bunch. They’ve moved the thing around. They’re trying to mike up more players. Nothing works. I asked around to find why people think the Pro Bowl is widely viewed as the worst of the already lifeless lot of All-Star Games? They generally broke it down to three things:
1. It’s the only one played at the end of the season, not in the middle. For this, perhaps, it doesn’t feel as integrated.
2. It’s the only one where the players are specifically prohibited from playing their sport to the best of their abilities — no blitzing, for instance. If the game means so little to the league, how can it matter to fans?
3. Football, more than the other sports, requires perfect coordination between players. In baseball, nine strangers who have never seen each other can go out and win a baseball game.* In basketball and hockey, yes, more coordination is required, but that can come together naturally, during a game, in the flow of action, without much practice. In football, though, you have 11 players on each side doing 11 different things, and no matter how skilled they are individually their success relies so much on each other. And it really is a team sport — individual excellence really is of minor importance. In other sports, you might watch to marvel at Sidney Crosby’s feel for the game, Kevin Durant’s pure shooting touch, Roy Halladay’s ability to paint the corner. But if the Pro Bowl game itself is boring — and it’s pretty much ALWAYS boring — it won’t be salvaged by watching the blocking talents of Kris Diehlman or the instinctive movement of Jonathan Vilma. That’s just not the thrill of watching football.
*I’m reading John Thorn’s quite excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden (coming soon), and he makes a point that I don’t think is made quite enough. Most people, unlike poor sap Bud Selig, know that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball, had nothing to do with inventing the game of baseball, probably never even played baseball and that believing in this myth is a bit like believing there’s are little tiny singers and bands performing inside your radio. But it has become common to believe that while baseball was not really “invented,” the man who came closest was Alexander Cartwright. He and a committee wrote down a set of rules in 1845 after forming the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. It is said on his Hall of Fame plaque that Cartwright set the bases 90 feet apart, established 9 innings and 9 players per team as standards and carried baseball to Hawaii. As Thorn writes of the Hall of Fame plaque: “Every word of substance is false.” But I’ll let you read the book.
The point that never gets old is that we are supposed to believe that Cartwright and the Knickerbocker fellas invented baseball, just came up with the rules. And then they played the very first game of baseball ever, the first game under the Cartwright rules, against a ballclub of ragtag players, a club so new and undistinguished that they did not even have a name (they are often called the “New York Nine”). So you would expect the Knickerbockers to have a bit of an advantage since we are supposed to believe they invented this new game.
As Thorn points out: The Knickerbockers lost the game 23-1 in four innings.
I think there’s at least one more reason the Pro Bowl matters less to us than the others — something else about football the game. I think football is a more serious game than the others. We may take everything in sports more seriously than we once did, but this is five times more true for professional football. Every game is staggeringly important. We accept the carnage of football — the concussions, the broken bones, the injury timeouts, the Coors Light coach commercials — because the games are so important.
But if you take away that staggering importance, football feels empty. This is why exhibition football games are unwatchable. Te Pro Bowl has no chance in this environment. People still argue about Pete Rose crashing into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game and perhaps altering his career. It might be the most famous moment in All-Star Game history. Some think Rose was a jerk, some think he was just playing the game hard, and some think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But imagine something similar in the Pro Bowl, imagine a linebacker blindsiding some gifted young quarterback, say Aaron Rodgers, and busting up his career. NOBODY would look at that as something worth arguing about. It would be a travesty. It would be a criminal act. Nobody wants to see someone get hurt in a stupid Pro Bowl. In baseball, you will hear people longing for those days when the All-Star Game mattered and players desperately wanted to win for their league. Nobody I know feels that way about football.
Of course, as much as people say they don’t care about the Pro Bowl … it’s a near certainty that more people will watch tonight’s Pro Bowl than any of the other all-star games. Many of us will watch, but we won’t really care. And, no, that would not make for nearly as compelling a Wide World of Sports opening.