Commentary

Illuminating the pitfalls of superstars

Search is on for the next transcendent sports figure, whether we need one or not

Updated: April 11, 2012, 9:40 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Will The Next Big Thing in sports be a white male?

Will it be a black man?

[+] EnlargeBubba Watson
AP Photo/Matt SlocumBubba Watson acknowledges the crowd after winning the Masters.

A woman?

Someone who is straight?

Gay?

Catholic?

Christian?

Muslim?

Conservative?

Liberal?

An NBA point guard who's Asian American?

A charismatic Southerner who wins the Masters, hasn't taken a golf lesson and owns the General Lee from "The Dukes of Hazzard."

A 6-foot-8 woman who becomes only the second woman to ever dunk during an NCAA tournament game?

This is our obsession in sports. We always want The Next Big Thing, an athlete who can dominate over years, not just a weekend or a stretch of midseason games.

Already, Bubba Watson's future is being projected. Will he fill the outsized role? Is he the heir apparent to Tiger Woods?

Can he become a bona fide superstar, one whose appeal crosses cultures, regions and age groups? Can he inspire widespread adoration beyond just golf zealots?

It's too soon to tell, but the speculation two days after Watson's first major win raises a question: Why would any sport want the Next Big Thing?

Over the last two years, Tiger Woods has gone from a dominant, perennial champion to an erratic mess who sometimes plays like he couldn't sink a crumpled paper ball in the wastebasket, much less make a clutch putt.

At his apex, Woods arguably was the most dominant athlete on the planet. Woods had become so powerful that it was once suggested he separate from the PGA Tour and start his own tour.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
AP Photo/Beth A. KeiserBig stars cast long shadows, even after their oncourt power has faded.

Since Tiger's fall, golf has struggled to connect with casual fans, young ones in particular. As we question whether Tiger can ever return to form, perhaps we should be asking whether the sport of golf can create big-time buzz if Woods is never the same.

And that's despite the excellent golf played by other golfers, including at this year's Masters. Watson, with his untamed hair, provided fans with a wild, heartwarming storyline. And, a playoff.

But the ratings from this year's Masters are in -- and they weren't good. The final round of the Masters drew its worst preliminary television ratings since 2004. It represented a 22 percent drop from last year's tournament.

Presumably, had Woods been in contention, as he was early on Sunday in 2011, there would have been a ratings explosion.

Seeing as how golf hasn't figured out how to sustain and grow interest during two years of up-and-down play by Tiger, is it healthy for any sport to be so attached to one superstar?

Another example: Long term, did it help or hurt the NBA to be so dependent on Michael Jordan?

Jordan was the NBA for at least the 1990s, when the Bulls won six titles. And there is no questioning his contributions to the league's growth. His worldwide popularity helped the NBA become a global game. He changed not only the way we consumed the NBA but also the expectations of what superstars should be able to achieve. His accomplishments influence how we discuss and analyze the stars of today.

Jordan also changed the NBA's marketing strategy. The league accelerated the promotion of superstars and individual matchups at the expense of rivalries and franchises.

Since a single elite player can change a franchise's destiny as soon as he joins the roster, it always has made sense to market those game-changing NBA players. But the growth of superstar-strategic marketing also has inflated the superstar ego. And it creates a vacuum when the one guy who fills the lead marketing role is injured, or can no longer shoulder it, or retires.

[+] EnlargeTebow
AP Photo/William PhilpottTim Tebow hasn't done enough to retain a starting role in the NFL, but he has captured many fans' hearts.

The league has searched for Jordan's replacement, but has yet to find him. Sure, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are international stars, but none of them is as beloved as Jordan (nor has any of them won as many rings).

No one player is the NBA. No one player may ever fill that role again.

This is not to say the NBA and golf are worse off because of two of the biggest stars in sports history. It's just that there is a downside to being overrun by The Next Big Thing, especially after he becomes The Past Big Thing.

The irony is that Jordan and Woods connected with so many people despite being perfectly, purposely bland. They were the antithesis of Muhammad Ali, a bold, dynamic character with strong political beliefs who often was more hated than adored.

Is The Next Big Thing an oddity like Tim Tebow, a devout Christian whose unconventional quarterbacking sometimes makes people's blood boil like hot fish grease?

Or is The Next Big Thing lurking undiscovered?

No one knows for sure. But maybe we don't need the next big thing as much as we think.

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Jemele Hill | email

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