Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why cycling isn't on network TV every week

Floyd Landis capped a remarkable come-from-behind victory in the Tour de France today, even though he'll need hip replacement surgery in a few weeks. The win becomes all the more notable when you consider this year, combined with cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's seven straight titles, marks the eighth time in a row an American won the world's premier cycling event.

Had this been the eighth straight championship for a German or an Italian or a Spaniard, people in those countries would engage in wild street celebrations, and the winner would be a national hero. Here in America, the milestone gets, at best, a couple of minutes on the nightly news, and the winner -- unless he breaks into the rarefied air that Armstrong inhabits -- will enjoy a few talk-show appearances and a handful of endorsements before fading from public consciousness around the time the NFL preseason begins.

Soccer fans sometimes claim average Americans would care more about the sport if the national team consistently performed better on the world stage, but the last decade of Tour de France races belies that assertion. For almost a decade, the United States has won every single year, but cycling -- particularly when it occurs outside the confines of the sport's marquee event -- arguably is no more widely followed in the United States now than it was before Armstrong's reign. Likewise, the Stanley Cup ends up in American hands most years, but NHL broadcasts continue to gasp for air.

So why don't more Americans care about cycling or soccer or numerous other sports beloved elsewhere in the world? The answer may well be parochialism: Americans want to watch our country's best athletes compete in sports native to our country. The United States' three most widely viewed sports -- baseball, basketball, and football -- have two key things in common: First, they all were invented in America, and second, the best professional leagues those sports have to offer are stateside. The pattern isn't limited to team sports, either: NASCAR drivers compete individually, but the popularity of the races started by Americans and ruled by Americans continues to grow by the year.

The country does, from time to time, take an interest in sports started elsewhere, but usually just for a short time, and almost never without a red, white, and blue hook: Armstrong's inspiring domination, an American athlete who wins several gold medals, a World Cup played on U.S. soil, etc. A few weeks later, the fervor dies down, and it's back to the baseball-football-basketball rotation that owns the American sports mindset.

Sure, the rest of the world may find the whole thing odd, but then, they aren't counting down the days until college football is back. Just what kind of sports fans do they think they are, anyway? (For the record, it's 34 days until Stillman-Tuskegee. An all-Alabama kickoff, just the way the football gods intended.)


Blogger Hanging by the News said...

You're right in that had a rider from another country won the Tour, there would likely be a national celebration in his home country. I think some reasons why that would be so is because those countries you mention are closer to the Tour itself - so it's pratically in their backyard - and they're probably able to watch it live at an hour that doesn't clash with their workday; it looks like all the live coverage on OLN was during the morning when most Americans are at work. By the time most Americans get home, they've heard what happened during that day's stage.

As for the Stanley Cup comment, although the Cup is usually won by a stateside team, most of its players are usually from other countries. Sure, the teams represent those home cities, but the sport just doesn't get as much play as the truly American sports. And I think part of that is that in the majority of the nation's high schools, it's possible to watch a football, baseball or basketball player go from high school to college to a pro team. With hockey, you have much fewer high schools with programs; the same goes with colleges.

I don't know if you can truly say that the best professional leagues in the "big three" sports are in our country, at least if you take into account the players we choose to represent our country. This year, the U.S. Team finished 8th out of 16 teams in the World Baseball Classic. In hoops, the last few "Dream Teams" got creamed. I think we still have "American football," as the only international football league I can think of is NFL Europe, and you'll often see American players on those squads.

Finally, there's no way the Tour de France, the Olympics or the World Cup are going to be more popular in the U.S. than the big three sports, and that's because the big three go months on end while the international events last only a few weeks. It's like comparing apples to watermelons. (OK, you come up with a better comparison.)

2:05 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

True, the Tour is in the Europeans' backyard, and their TV coverage may come at a more convenient time. But even when international events like the Olympics or the World Cup are in North America, people elsewhere in the world often follow them more closely than we do here. In fairness, though, the World Cup ratings were up a lot from 2002 levels this summer, probably due in no small part to the country's growing Hispanic population, so soccer finally may be on the fast track to widespread public attention.

Lots of baseball and NBA stars are from other countries, so I'm not sure if that explains the NHL's struggles as much as the fact that it's a Canadian sport (and, of course, the fact that it tried to commit suicide by canceling the 2004-05 season). Great point about the high school pipelines, though; they allow people to feel more connected to those sports.

Americans don't win every international competition in baseball and basketball, of course, but the very best athletes in those sports, regardless of their home country, tend to gravitate to the American professional leagues because they have the best competition and the best pay.

As for the Olympics, World Cup, etc., those events by themselves naturally won't enjoy the same kind of sustained popularity as a full NFL or NBA season. Still, it's a fair comparison because cycling, skiing, track, etc., have seasons and regular competitions just like the big three; they just get nowhere near the same attention on SportsCenter.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fyi... Basketball was invented in the U.S. by a Canadian.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

I stand corrected, anonymous commenter, as does my post. James Naismith spent most of his adult life in the United States and later became an American citizen, but he was, as you suggested, Canadian by birth.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous dresramblings said...

When we have the NCAA signing multi-million dollar contracts with television networks to broadcast games, of course we'll be watching our "big 3" more than other sports. I may get some grief for saying this to, but many of those other sports that we don't normally watch are more graceful on a regular basis than our big 3; no one ever gets hurt or beat up. Most of those team sports field smaller teams, reducing the chance at achieving the American Dream and providing less opportunities to find someone to follow, just like what hanging by the news.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

A craving for violence certainly could help explain football's popularity, and maybe basketball to a lesser degree. (We all know some people only watch NASCAR for the crashes, or only watch hockey for the fights.) Baseball, though, usually isn't a very violent sport, and if violence were the major determinant of popularity, you'd think boxing and hockey would have much greater national followings than they do.

I'd agree that the larger team sizes probably have something to do with it, and the huge TV contracts only retrench the status quo.

1:55 AM  

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