Is the game over?

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
12:13
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The New York Times is a heavy-hitting paper, and a good chunk of its heaviest hitting comes in the Sunday Review section. It's not often about sports, but this past Sunday's cover is dominated by an enormous Rebecca Mock illustration of a baseball player taking a cut in an otherwise entirely empty stadium. The headline over Jonathan Mahler's article asks: "Is the Game Over?"

Tough question.

What follows is sober analysis of how the "national pastime" came to be as irrelevant as it is. Baseball can't touch football by any metric, and now is looking pretty bad compared to basketball too. This all projects to get worse as audiences age, and become more global. Mahler investigates, and makes some points that are straight from the HoopIdea playbook. Basically, in the name of tradition, baseball failed to adequately foster excitement.
As crazy as it sounds, baseball was once celebrated for its speed. Into the 1910s — before all of the commercial breaks and visits to the mound — it was possible to play a game in under an hour, says the author Kevin Baker, who is writing a history of baseball in New York City.

To the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of “the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!” The 21st century, not so much.

At the NBA offices, they're congratulating themselves for being on the right side of this point. But that's no reason to rest. If there's any lesson of baseball's decline it's that institutionalized complacency, and an unreasonable attachment to tradition, can quickly catch up to any sport.

The first HoopIdea was to combat needless delays and standing around, sapping the fun of NBA crunch time.

Dramatic tension is to sports as cheese is to a quesadilla. It's not everything, but nobody'll give you a penny for one without it.

Mahler goes on to explore some reasons for the NFL's dramatic ascendance. They include some "structural advantages," like playing only once a week, elimination games all playoffs long, and a scarcity of games that helps each one rise to the level of mattering to a national audience. (With 162 games, plenty of them just don't matter. Mahler points out that a recent Astros game had TV ratings implying fewer than 1,000 people in Houston watched. Meanwhile, the trick is to matter on SportsCenter and in the national consciousness, a tough assignment for a baseball game.)

The funny part about that is ... every league could have those things. It's not like the NFL lucked into a better format. They chose it.

Meanwhile, there are, of course, real, long-term business reasons for minimizing the delays and standing around, and maybe even for reducing the number of games.

Ironically, the reasons those things haven't happened already in the NBA is: business. There's money to be made from the way things are. But that's short-term thinking mired in tradition and a fear of letting the game evolve.

The simple truth is, as much money as there is from the current set-up, there may be even more to be made, long term, from making every minute of every game as energetic, artistic and delightful as possible. That's what HoopIdea is about -- making the best game in the world even better. Getting those things right is fantastic. Getting them wrong ... look how that worked for baseball.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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