Not long ago, sports were America's communal campfires.
A few times a year, when a championship was in the balance, people would scoot their sofas a little farther forward and click on their TVs for a moment that would be long etched in the country's consciousness.
With each passing season, though, that rite is nearer extinction. Slowly but certainly, America's devotion to big-time sports events is waning.
Viewership is at all-time lows for Monday Night Football, the Final Four, and the World Series. Now, with two teams in this Sunday's Super Bowl that have less offensive firepower than Liechtenstein, some observers predict a ratings tumble even for this citadel of the sports calendar.
Primarily, the culprit is choice: With the explosion of cable, viewers can always turn to something else. Yet there's a deeper malaise, too.
With never-ending labor disputes and ill-tempered athletes, many longtime fans feel less fealty to sport than they have in the past. And increasingly, the youngest Americans are finding their heroes on skate ramps and in wrestling rings.
The decline in ratings "is irreversible," says Paul Schulman, president of Advanswers, a media buying firm in New York.
The statistics are revealing:
* This year's Subway Series received a 12.1 rating, meaning 12.1 percent of all the television households in the US were tuned in. It was the lowest-rated World Series ever. One night, more Americans watched "Frasier" than the game. Five years ago, the World Series rating was 19.5. Twenty years ago, it was 32.8.
* Ratings for the Final Four college basketball championship have dropped every year but one since 1982.
* The 2000 Summer Games in Sydney drew the worst ratings for any Olympics in 32 years.
* A year after the departure of Michael Jordan, ratings for the 1999 NBA Finals fell 40 percent to 11.3 - the worst ever. Last year's championship ticked up to only 11.6.
Given such figures, it's perhaps surprising that industry analysts say pro sports are as popular as ever. In fact, the amount of sports that Americans watch has been steady for years, says Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research at ESPN. The difference is there is an ever-expanding universe of what fans can watch.
From ESPN2 to the Golf Channel, sports watchers are being spread over more networks. On top of that, satellite providers can give fans access to every football, hockey, or basketball game.
"What has really changed is the amount of sports viewing available," says Mr. Bulgrin, noting that 61,000 hours of sports aired on cable and network TV last year.
Yet there's more than saturation at work.
In some cases, experts say, the product might just be bad. The NBA without Jordan isn't just faceless, it's boring, says Mr. Schulman. Scoring has dropped 15 percent in the past 15 years. In 1984, every team averaged more than 100 points per game. This year, only two do.
Indeed, despite the declining sports ratings, fans continue to reward excellence. Golf ratings are up 9 percent over last year - due entirely to Tiger Woods - and Mario Lemieux's return to hockey has doubled ratings on ESPN's broadcasts.
Beneath the numbers, however, some analysts suggest that America's tastes are simply changing.
For one, many fans are growing tired with players. In the past week alone, ex-football player Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiracy in the shooting death of his girlfriend; basketball star Jason Kidd was arrested and charged with assaulting his wife; and linebacker Ray Lewis was at the center of the Super Bowl buildup, not for his tackling, but for his role in a murder trial last year.
"There's a massive part of the population that is being alienated," says Richard Davies, a history professor at the University of Nevada in Reno. "As a result, the number of people who are vitally interested is dropping off."
Moreover, younger fans see a broadening definition of what sports are. Where kids once pinned posters of Larry Bird and Reggie Jackson to their bedroom walls, many now gawk at skater Tony Hawk and wrestler The Rock.
Part of the reason may be the decline of the neighborhood pick-up game. With parents increasingly wary of sending their kids out to play unsupervised, sandlot baseball has increasingly lost out not only to more-organized pursuits like soccer, but also to the make-believe world of pro wrestling.
"Part of sports was the fantasy of the whole thing," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University in New York. "A baseball game is a really powerful experience to someone who's been on a baseball field. But there's a precipitous decline in the number of kids just spontaneously playing football or baseball."
To a degree, the Super Bowl has been immune to these changes. Seven of the past nine years, its rating has been between 43.2 and 46.1. The Super Bowl is more than a game. It's an event that marks the passing of a year as much as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. And that's what might save it from declining ratings.
For his part, Avi Cohen never misses a game. On Sunday, a handful of friends will make the trek to his duplex apartment in Somerville, Mass., to watch it. Who's actually playing is almost an afterthought.
"I am always interested in the event of the Super Bowl as much as the game," says Mr. Cohen, a 20-something manager for Sodalis Technologies here. "It is an all-around good time." Besides, he adds, "even if the game is a blowout, there are still the commercials to watch."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society