WEB EXTRA: Between the Lines: Ratings nothing more than a sign of the times

If Americans know who won the NBA Finals last month, they must have caught the highlights on SportsCenter.

Before the confetti was even wiped from the floor in San Antonio, the news came from Nielsen Media Research that not too many people saw what the Spurs were celebrating when it happened. In fact, television ratings for the championship series were the lowest in recorded history, making the Finals the latest major sporting event to lose viewers in substantial numbers. The Stanley Cup Finals and NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament both drew record-low ratings earlier this year, and the World Series did the same last October.

So, league officials and television executives desperately ask, what is wrong with their sports product? What on earth happened to these games to make them so unappealing lately and what can be done to bring them back to their awe-inspiring, profit-raking glory of old?

Well, in short, nothing.

The decline in viewers of big-time sporting events in the United States is hardly a new trend. Ratings for most sports have generally been falling for years, prompting all kinds of suggested rules adjustments and elaborate new television technologies to try to entice people to stop surfing past the sports channel.

But it hasn’t worked. And what people in sports need to accept is that trying to alter their product- either by adjusting how or when the games are played or by showing them through cameras seen only before in spy movies- will not change a modern truism of American culture. That is, people of all levels of interest in sports have a vastly expanded breadth of entertainment alternatives and do not spend as much time watching sports on television as they once did.

There is a telling scene in the classic sports movie Rudy, which is set in the 1960s and 70s, that showed Rudy’s family huddled around the television for a college football game. His parents and siblings of various ages all just sat there, their every facial expression hinging on what they saw on the screen, and during those few hours nothing could take any of their attentions from The Game.

Americans don’t do that anymore. The average televised sporting event competes with several other games in various sports on different channels at the same time along with every other show genre imaginable. And that’s to say nothing of the Internet and video games.

If that scene in Rudy were set in the year 2003, Rudy would probably still be watching the game. But his father would flip back and forth between the game, Bob Vila and bass fishing; his mother would be watching E! in the bedroom; his younger sister would be on Instant Messenger; and his brother would be beating up a prostitute in “Grand Theft Auto” on his Playstation 2.

Sports on television, and even games on the radio before the 1950s, used to transcend the games themselves. They would bring people together, because there weren’t many alternatives. A typical broadcast would attract the passionate fan, the friends and family of the passionate fan, and the casual observer who was interested only because so many other people were.

This transcendence of sports into a hallmark of American life still happens today. It just doesn’t happen quite as often.

To the true sports fans, little has changed. But with more sports on TV and even more non-sports options to choose from, the more casual observers that fuel big ratings simply aren’t watching.

Many of these people still care just as much about sports. They just don’t want to spend three hours for six nights to see who wins the NBA Finals when they can get the abbreviated version on SportsCenter, which illustrates another reality in American sports culture: people know when something is important and when it is not, and they’re far less likely to watch games or parts of games that are less important until that Game Seven or fourth quarter comes around.

It’s like the entire country has attention deficit disorder. People want the same thing out of sports but they don’t want to spend a lot of time getting it, which is why more people will watch ESPN’s Baseball Tonight than will actually watch baseball tonight.

This, to me, is why football has maintained its overwhelming popularity through all this change (both the NFL’s television ratings and attendance numbers increased in 2002). One game a week, sixteen games per regular season, and single-game playoffs. Every game counts, and that’s why people still park themselves on the couch on Sunday afternoons, not because football is inherently better than all other sports (I’ll leave my loathing of the NHL out here).

For people with billions of dollars at stake, the frigid TV ratings may be hard to accept. During the week of June 2-8, two of the dozen or so shows that beat out both the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals were NBC’s Miss Universe Pageant and the kids’ version of American Idol on Fox, American Juniors. Television industry logic might say, “Okay, so we’ll put Tim Duncan in a dress and high heels and have that annoying little son of Jason Kidd sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'” But they can’t change what they don’t control.

The sports industry is not getting the casual fans back on a nightly basis. And while there are certainly things that can be done to make some sports more appealing, officials should be cautious in making major changes to the games or how they are presented, because if they try too hard to do so, they’ll risk alienating the fans that give them the ratings they still have left.

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