Americans Tune Out Spoilsports

Big games are on TV this week, but ratings show that old sports loyalties are strained.

Sports fans, get ready for overload.

It's a traffic jam on the airwaves this week. There's mayhem on the ice for hockey's Stanley Cup finals, Michael Jordan flying for a six-pack of basketball championships, and national pride at stake in France for soccer's World Cup. And in case anyone needs it, baseball season is in full swing.

Is it too much of a good thing?

Maybe. Even though all the kicking, jumping, and pumping will fill hundreds of hours of programming, three pillars of American team sports - baseball, hockey, and basketball - have all had less-than-stellar years, with problems ranging from renegade owners to dropping TV ratings.

Still, Americans' appetite for athletics is as ravenous as ever. Regional sports networks are booming. An estimated 100 new sports publications were created last year. And earlier this year CBS, Fox, ABC, and ESPN agreed to shell out $17.6 billion for the exclusive rights to broadcast National Football League games.

The bottom line, experts say, is that fans are taking their money to sports that aren't weighed down by sniping owners and ill-behaved players.

"Americans' love affair with sports only has its marital problems when the sports leagues don't deliver what fan expectations are," says Dean Bonham of the Denver-based Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing company. "If the players conduct themselves as reasonable citizens and league managers, and owners conduct themselves as role models, we won't see the end of the amount of support the public will give to sports."

As of late, though, it seems that the traditional sports have failed to deliver. Indeed, Art Taylor of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society says professional sports are at a crossroads. For example:

* Baseball is in great trouble despite some signs that attendance is starting to return to pre-strike (1995) levels, Mr. Taylor says. "It has no commissioner and has a bunch of owners who are renegades."

* At the same time, basketball may be starting to have its own problems. This year, television ratings are down. And the tough-talking commissioner, David Stern, is threatening to lock out the players in July if they are unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. "I think it will have some impact on the popularity of that sport, plus there is the issue of the attitudes ... of some of the players on and off the court," says Mr. Bonham.

* Professional hockey is also having its troubles. Television ratings are down, and the sport did not get the bounce it expected from the Winter Olympic Games. "I think hockey has a hard road to hoe," says Todd Crosset, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts' Sports Management Program in Amherst.

In the meantime, other sports have made inroads into territory long held by the "big four." Auto racing is the prime example of a new sport - without any marital problems - that is attracting millions of new fans, says Bonham. New tracks are pulling in 250,000 to 300,000 fans per race. "The television ratings are high and promoters are building tracks as fast as they can get the shovels in the ground," he adds.

Soccer is another sport that is trying to move from the fringes to the mainstream. And the next month will be a test of how much of an impact the sport has made here during the past few years.

The month-long World Cup, which begins in France tomorrow, is expected to draw 37 billion television viewers worldwide. In America, ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 will broadcast every game of the tournament.

Yet Bonham - a newly converted soccer fan - is not sure how many US viewers the games will attract. "It will do very poorly by comparison with the major sports," he says. But he adds, "soccer is in its infancy here."

Despite its low scoring, the sport has a growing cache of dedicated fans in the US. Paul Mott of Lawrenceville, N.J., is one of them. During the final rounds of the tournament, he plans to take time off from work to watch critical games.

"This is an opportunity to see some of the best teams in the world playing," says Mr. Mott.

A more typical sports fan is Robert Becker, a Manhattan lawyer who will add the World Cup to his evening in front of the television. "It's special, it only happens every four years," says Mr. Becker, who usually watches one athletic event while monitoring a second event on a small window within the screen. During commercial breaks, he switches to his "secondary" event.

One of those events is not likely to be basketball, he says. With all the time-outs at the end of a game, he says, the sport seems to "take forever."

The fact that Becker must divide his attentions is something that bothers Taylor of the Center for Sport and Society. "We used to have sports that didn't overlap to the extent they do now," he says. The overlap makes it difficult for fans, and he believes that most sports should shorten their seasons to help solve the problem.

"Sometimes you don't have time to follow everything," echoes Becker. This week, though, it's something sports fans will have to get used to.

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