SI's Joe Posnanski has a great column on the core problem of the Pro Bowl.
When I was a kid, I would desperately root for the AFC to win the Pro Bowl. Well, OK, I'm exaggerating a touch. The adjective "desperately" is too strong. I wasn't painting "AFC" on the side of my face or anything. I did care, though. I honestly cared. I can remember feeling happy when the AFC scored, unhappy when the NFC scored. I can remember, late in games, going through those mental gymnastics fans do when watching games and figuring what their team needs to do to win the game. It mattered.Posnanski helped me understand the reason I get so worked up about how well things could be done to present track meets (but are not). It's because I care about this more than the people who are entrusted with the job. I see things that could be done better, and are loused up every single time, and I figure they either don't know or don't care. Neither do the people who hire/fire them.
Then, I suppose everything mattered when I was a kid. It mattered that the Globetrotters won on Wide World of Sports. It mattered that Evel Knievel made his jump. It mattered who won the Superstars competition. It even mattered who won on Battle of the Network Stars. That Patrick Duffy ... what an athlete. But you could not never count out the competitive spirit of Robert Conrad.
I would watch the Pro Bowl with interest and passion -- Go AFC! -- until I realized that I had more interest and passion in these games than the players. I suppose I came to that realization when I was about 13 years old. When you care more than the players do, the event became pointless. And after that, the Pro Bowl became more or less pointless to me. I might watch. I might not. But it never again mattered.
Case in point: this week's adidas Boston Indoor Games. The meat of the event schedule goes from 6 to 8 p.m., but the broadcast window is from 5 to 7. I was about to blow my stack over this until it was pointed out to me that the meet is on Saturday...and the broadcast is 23 hours later. On Sunday. During the Super Bowl. At which point I just slumped in my chair in defeat.
You see, these Visa Championship Series broadcasts are blocks of time bought by USATF. They can't pick and choose exactly when they want airtime, but there's some leeway involved. I'm 95% sure USATF took Super Bowl time because it was cheap. But it does nothing to advance the sport.
Last Friday's Millrose Games were adequate but not enthralling. This week's meet won't be watched by anyone, myself included. Then there's a three-week break before the national championships. It's not much of a TV presence for track & field.
And here's the thing no one in Indy ever seemed to understand: Paying attendees to an event are nice, but over the last 25 years the rule has been that if your sport isn't on TV, to the sporting public it does not exist. And even more important, it does not exist to potential sponsors. Sponsorship and TV contracts are where the money is.
How do you make a TV presence happen? Well, you can be wholly owned by ESPN, and they'll plaster you everywhere. (Examples: X-Games, pro bowling.) You can be a niche sport that meshes perfectly with specific highly profitable sponsor companies. (Example: golf, poker.) Or you can do your darndest to use TV to show how amazing your sport is. Examples there would be...oh, everything else that's on TV a lot, but most notably basketball and football.
You argue, those are the most popular sports in America--track can't compete with them! I suppose no one recalls the early 80s, when the NBA was so unpopular that its championship finals were shown tape-delay after The Tonight Show. Yet the first two World Championships in '83 and '87 were carried live in prime time. Seems hard to believe now, huh?
Major League Soccer was once like USATF. It was a niche sport not well appreciated in America. They got on TV only because they bought air time. Somehow they progressed past that level, but it was hard and took years. It was because people cared and tried. They were more like the players in the Super Bowl than those in the Pro Bowl. I have yet to see any indication that USATF's leadership goes that direction.