SBJ/November 26 - December 2, 2001/Opinion

Unlikely sources give sports a boost

With the recession, the war, fear of flying and toxic mail, the sports business hasn't been good of late, but it has received a boost from a couple of unlikely sources. The rest of television and the movies have been so bad in recent months that even the voice of Dick Vitale comes as soothing balm.

Those who might ask what TV and the flicks have to do with the sweaty world of athletic endeavor aren't tuned into the big picture.

We hear repeatedly that sports are entertainment, but we tend to overlook the consequences of that designation. Of a given evening, the main competition for, say, a National Basketball Association game isn't hockey or college hoops but what's on the tube's non-sports channels or playing at the multiplex in the local mall. Research and actual experience tell us those alternatives loom larger if a female person is involved in the decision.

The paucity of good stuff to watch on television has been a national scandal since Newton Minow, the 1960s Federal Communications Commission chairman, dubbed the medium a "vast wasteland." In his day people got four or five channels, and cable's multiplication of that number by 50 or so has served mostly to increase the desert's size. I've been turned off of sitcoms since the advent of the laugh track (ha-ha-ha), and the number of decent dramatic shows shrinks annually.

This fall's crop of new dramas seems to consist mainly of "Law and Order" spin-offs and shows based on the premise that beautiful, 110-pound young women not only can subdue savage criminals with the aid of guns, a la "Charlie's Angels," but also can kung-fu them into submission.

Another new show, "24", was plugged incessantly on Fox during the World Series and got some critical approval as well. I watched its second episode in its entirety and never had the faintest idea what was going on. With old favorites like "ER" and "NYPD Blue" getting more soap-operaish by the week, the pickings are slim to the point of skeletal.

The movies usually come through better, but not this year. I should have known they were in trouble last spring, when the 2000 best-picture Oscar went to "Gladiator," a sodden toga epic whose dialogue was so stilted it would have sounded better in Latin. I saw "AI," Steven Spielberg's futuristic number about a robot child, and went away wondering how the kid's batteries lasted 2,000 years.

"Deep End" was a widely hyped thriller, but its plot hinged on the hero-mom's sinking the body of the man she thought her son had killed in a lake's shallow end, where — surprise! — it was quickly discovered. Woody Allen always has delivered for me, but in his latest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," his reedy, rheumy-eyed appearance made his nebbish-gets-the-girl act terminally ludicrous. That one hurt especially because I'm about his age.

Media-savvy friends tell me I shouldn't expect more from TV because creativity in the medium long ago was sacrificed to satisfy the preferences of focus-group members selected from the portion of the population that moves its lips while it reads. Much the same, they say, goes for the movies, which increasingly are big-screen versions of the slam-bam video games favored by teen-agers. The youngsters are said to be prized as customers because they scarf more popcorn, soda pop and candy in the theaters than do their elders.

All of that might be true, but it's also possible that a clever sports executive has masterminded the infiltration of his competitors' camps with an eye toward sabotaging their offerings. Is Bud Selig behind it? I don't think so. Paul Tagliabue? Probably not. Most likely it's David Stern.

Either him or Don King.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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