Professional sports in trouble

SPORTSThere are 60 seconds remaining in the basketball game. How long will it really take? According to a website called Inpredictable the average is 5.4 minutes. Although in a March 3rd game when Boston College beat Virginia 53-52 it took 8 minutes and 48 seconds. In the NBA, you're lucky you weren't at the game between the Nuggets and Thunder last November when the final minute took 20 minutes to complete. Someone kept track of those so called :20 sec time outs and they actually ran 1:23, 1:21, 1:15 and 2:46 (ABC decided to throw in a commercial. It's not only basketball  that's in trouble. Baseball  games are getting longer and longer. Games are now 30 minutes longer than they were 40 years ago. In 1963, when Vin Scully was in his 13th year as Dodgers broadcaster, games averaged 2 hours and 25 minutes. What could have added a solid half-hour since then? In a Boston Globe story by Amalie Benjamin the answer was "VELCRO." More about that later.

By now you've probably heard that in a  National Football League game of 4 quarters of 15 minute duration, along with a 15 minute half, the actual time players spend playing is not one hour, not the 2 and half hours it typically take to play the game, but 12 minutes. That figure represents the time clocked from the moment the ball is snapped until the play is whistled dead.

BASKETBAL:

Basketball was my first love. In baseball I was always the kid they put in right field and I can't remember anybody interested in pro-football. You didn't have to be a giant in those days and I wound up lettering in basketball. I still have my big "N" for Norwell High School stashed in a drawer somewhere. It was 1950 when the Boston Celtics welcomed Red Auerbach as their new coach and we had a guard named Bob Cousy that neither owner Walter Brown or Auerbach really wanted but they soon changed their minds. By 1956 we had Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman and the great Bill Russell, one of the finest centers of all time. I was a basketball fan, that's for sure.

I couldn't believe it when we moved to Illinois in 1967 and found little interest in the NBA. The Bulls had been playing for one season and had the dubious honor of an official attendance of 891 at one of their games in the old Amphitheatre. Moving to the stadium with Johnny "Red" Kerr as coach and eventually players like Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Chet Walker, Norm Vanlier and Tom Boerwinkle the team improved but attendance was low. WGN radio broadcast home games for a couple of seasons and I was the only staff guy who knew anything about basketball so I did the color commentary alongside Vince Lloyd or Len Johnson. The stands usually had 2,000 - 4,000 fans at the most and they gave away as many tickets as they sold. Owner, Dick Klein held on though, eventually selling his interest in 1972 to a group that included Blackhawk owner Arthur Wirtz. Then in 1984 the Michael Jordon Era began and the rest his history. what's missing today is the old finesse. Under the basket is like a wrestling match.

What happened to that beautiful flow of the game? And they've just stopped making calls on "traveling". Back in 2009  The NBA put into writing a new rule, "A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon the completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball." In the old days even players like Bob Cousy could get away with taking an extra step. Now they take three. Back in April, Eric Zorn had a column in the Chicago Tribune in advance of the Final Four in college basketball and had some interesting suggestions to speed up the game: "Ideally," he said, "teams would get no time outs - like in soccer - or maybe one time out per game - like in hockey. The best coaches would prepare their teams for all contingencies and condition them to be in top shape at crunch time." There is another point to make here and that is the attitude of the players, especially in the pros. It is summed up best by former NBA All Star Charles Barkley: "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court". 'Nuff said.

BASEBALL:

Baseball's fan base is not only growing older, but the decline in the number of young players - the best source of future players - is only growing steeper. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal by Brian Costa, between 2009 and 2012 the number of children between the ages of 7 and 17 playing baseball in U.S. fell by 18%. Peter Kirk, president of the independent Atlantic League, says, " When I talk to my kids, they love going to the ballpark for a few innings, and then they get bored. If you watch the shots of the crowd during a major league game televised game these days, an awfully lot of the kids are doing everything but watching the game. The Boston Red Sox games last longer than any other team in the major leagues - an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes. That's 13 minutes longer than the average time in 2010.

At the request of commissioner Bud Selig, the Red Sox formed a committee of seven team executives and a volunteer corps of 30 front -of-office staffers who spent over 350 hours combing through video of Boston's 2013  regular-season games, charting every little drag on the pace of play. They're still working on it. Brian Costa's story points out that "length isn't so much of an issue as pace. In 2004, when baseball's pace was hardly considered blistering, fans saw a pitch thrown once every 35 seconds. In 2014, it is one pitch every 38 seconds". He also pointed out that with the rise in strikeouts there's a whole lot of standing around in the field. If you're watching s baseball game, you're waiting longer to see less action.

Back in 1964, on average there was a ball put in play every 2 minutes and 29 seconds. Fans this season have seen a ball put in play just once every 3:30. Batters have become annoying as they take so long to get ready for the pitch. Catcher turned first baseman Mike Napoli, now with the Red Sox, spends an inordinate amount of time digging his right foot into the dirt in back of the batter's box. In a single night, that digging will account for 39.5 seconds over four at-bats and for 1 minute and 18 seconds over a three game series against the Blue Jays last month. Johnny Gomes takes off his helmet after every pitch. Jacob Ellsbury steps out of the box and wanders around the dirt and sometimes even the grass. David Ortiz steps out after every pitch to adjust his batting gloves.

Vin Scully has been doing play by play for the Dodgers for 65 years - yes, 65 - and says "I partly blame it on Velcro," referring to the advent of batting gloves. By the way, it hasn't been defined as fact, but Ken Harrelson is widely credited with popularizing them in the 1960's. "In the days," Scully says, there was no nonsense, no fussing." There have also been changes on the mound from 4.8 pitches per nine-inning game in 1963 to 7.7 in 2012. They tired something in the minor leagues that was drastic but it helped. They instituted a ban on leaving the batter's box if the player hadn't swung at the preceding pitch. It resulted in some bizarre moments, such as the one with Red Sox minor league Josh Papelbon on the mound in a single game. Papelbon had two outs and two strikes on the batter. The tying run was on third. The batter stepped out.  Game over. There are many things Major League Baseball could do. Eliminate mound visits is one. Stop changing baseballs every time they hit the dirt. Make the mangers tell the umpire he's making a pitching change as he leaves the dugout instead of going to the mound and conferring with pitcher, catcher and assorted infielders and then calling the new pitcher from the dugout.

Can baseball really change? In the Boston Globe, Amalie Benjamin writes, "There are rules to govern pace of play. Rule 6.02 reads, ' the  batter shall take his position in the batter's box promptly when it is his time to bat.' And batters are not supposed to leave the batter's box except for specified reasons - and they're never allowed to the leave the dirt surrounding home plate.  There are rules for pitchers, too, including rule 8.04 which says, " When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball." The clock begins on that when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and end when he releases it. Will things change? The only thing slower than then game, are efforts to change it.

GOLF:

Golf is caught in the rough.  The game is losing more players than it's gaining, as 4.1 million people left the sport in 2013, outpacing the 3.2 million who picked up the game last year. The difficulty of the game may have something to do with it. If you want to be a good golfer, then you must practice several hours a week. Fewer and fewer players have that much time to spend. The National Golf Association says that some 650,000 quit the sport in 2012.

The Chicago Tribune carried a story this week from Bloomberg News that pointed out the slow sales in golf equipment. Dick's Sporting Goods is selling some drivers for $99 that were $299 just two months ago and their CEO says sales missed Dick's target about $34 million in the first quarter. Another interesting observation pointed out  that  the motivation for wannabe executives to spend hours chasing balls no longer exists. The publisher of Trends magazine says, "It's something associated with boom times. Most of society's not moving up, and golf is associated with moving up."

Only 14 new courses were built in the U.S. last year, while almost 160 shut down. It was the 8th consecutive year that more courses closed than opened. And the people who are sticking with the sport are playing fewer rounds, opting for nine holes rather than 18.

One idea to make the sport a little less of a challenge is the new 15-inch hole. Now if you're a purist don't get your knickers in a knot.  The CEO of TaylorMade Golf, Mark King, says it's not going to replace the traditional 4.25 inches, but to give juniors, newbies and would be golfers a way to start out just having fun. In fact, they're selling 15-inch cup "kits" to 20 courses around the country and should expand to another 80 facilities soon.

And then there's FootGolf which originated in Spain back in 2008 and played on golf courses. It's a precision sport where players kick a football into a cup in as few shots as possible. The first shot has to be played from the tee box and to reach the hole, bunkers, trees, water and hills have to be crossed or avoided. The first 9 hole FootGolf tournament on a golf course was played in the Netherlands in 2009 and they had a World Cup in Budapest, Hungary in June of 2012.

Mark King insists they are not to undermine the original game. "What we're saying is we need other vehicles than the traditional form of golf, to bring people in to the game. Gone are the days when we can be stuffy and exclusive and turn up our nose on any idea that is not conventional. It  may not be the golf you grew up with - or scared you away. Maybe it's enough to lure you back for an hour with your foot. There'll still be a beer at the end."

Filed under: Opinion

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