The top sports in the US are football, basketball, and baseball. Why are team sports so popular? And I mean popular among sports pundits, who devote hours to talking sports.
Here's a recent example. Brett Favre was the disgruntled football player from Green Bay. Each year, he'd ponder whether he'd come back or not. He'd string the media and his team long. Most years, he came back and played yet another year. Why did people care?
Because people stay loyal to teams, not to the people on the team. When Brett Favre is wearing your uniform, he's your guy, supporting your city or supporting you because you chose that team, as many people liked the Bulls because Michael Jordan played on the Bulls.
Team sports aren't simply more popular because there are lots of players thus increasing the number of people to talk about, but because there's a relationship between the team, the coaches, and even management. Players can be picked to play on a team or not, so someone is making a decision. You can ask if that decision is wise or not.
You can debate whether a player is good in the clutch or not, whether he played a poor shot at a crucial moment, whether he's selfish, whether he's the best ever, whether he can beat your team or not. People often debate whether coaches should have total control over the team or not. Joe Torre wanted Manny Ramirez to cut his hair. It's amazing that baseball controls its players to this degree that they worry about their haircuts, but they do, and the funny thing is, most sports pundits say that's OK.
Indeed, many fans believe that coaches should have absolute power, and so do many sports pundits. Coaches, outside of Isiah Thomas, are often seen as the braintrust, and must reign in the team. If a player is not following rules, he's seen as a prima donna, someone disrupting the team, and told to shut up. Great players are told to toe the line because it's good for the team. They are cogs in a great machine and should be dispensed if they act up, act individually.
Indeed, sports commentators spend hours talking about misbehaving players and the effect all their own talk has on the team's psyche. It might have no effect if they didn't blah blah blah about it. Is Terrell Owens behavior hurting the team? Well, if the media didn't cover him, he would have no medium to pander to, and then he wouldn't have anything to say. But the sports pundits have to talk about something, so they love TO, or they love to hate him.
Individual sports are personality based. Tiger Woods doesn't play for a team. He plays for himself. People watch because he's so good. The only personality I can recall that got attention for stuff outside the sport is Mike Tyson, whose jail time, ear biting, tattoo wearing all lead to a lot of coverage of Tyson's life outside of boxing.
As good as Tiger Woods is, the problem is that people have a hard time talking about him full time. They can say how great he is, and they do that a lot, but he doesn't get the kind of attention Brett Favre does because he doesn't play for a team. There isn't player-team dynamics. The closest equivalent might be to play for something like Ryder Cup, but because the average sports fan only cares about regular titles, even as prestigious an event as the Ryder Cup pales by comparison to the big individual events.
I suppose pundits could opine about how Tiger should play Ryder Cup (he does). The closest whining that goes on, and it goes on all the time, is Michelle Wie playing the women's tour. However, it leads invariably to the same comments again and again. Beat other women. Stop playing against men. It's a gimmick, and you aren't beating anyone this way. But people still talk about her.
Roger Federer, on track to being the best player ever has been derailed by himself and the Nadal machine, and heck, even Rafael Nadal are two players most people don't even know. Find a sports show and ask them to spend an hour talking about Rafa, and they're stuck. They can say how great he is, but that lasts five minutes.
Another thing that helps team sports in the US is a post-season. Other places in the world don't have a great notion of post-season. So if you can't talk about a player, you can talk about how a particular team will do, and whether they will make the post-season, and people will talk about who is going to make it.
The discussion for tennis is "Nadal is likely to win the US Open, with Djokovic and Murray as outside chances, and Federer, del Potro, and Blake as even further outside choices". That might be it, and that's if you even follow tennis. When it comes to actual team play, you can finally talk about all its players, whether this player being injured matters, how they can do when certain players are slumping or injured, how a returning player will help the team or not.
Now, there are things that resemble team sports but are effectively not team sports. Namely, cycling. For all the talk about Lance Armstrong and his seven wins, the fact of the matter is that cycling is a team sport, but it's the most individual of team sports. In effect, the rest of the team serves as a huge windshield and do various duties to fend off other teams attacks.
They are the offensive line to the main cyclist's quarterback which is why, as important as the offensive line is to a quarterback's success, they don't do enough to make their play interesting enough to talk about.
Indeed, in football, there's only a handful of player positions people talk about. Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and occasionally a cornerback or some defensive player and the kicker. The offensive line, the punter, etc. don't get much talk.
So these are kinds of questions you can debate with team sports. How's the team doing? Are there players that they should get to replace the ones now? How are the star players playing? Is there an injury? How good is the strategy by the coach? Is some player acting up, trying to act defiant? Is some player going to retire? what's the chances of making the post-season? Can team X beat team Y? Is player X the best player ever? Is this team the best ever? Are the new rules affecting the sports adversely? Is the new owner too meddlesome? Is the new coach the answer to the team's problems? How well are they adjusting to this new player joining the team?
In other sports? You can't ask nearly this many questions. There isn't the same season long drama. Tennis and golf are one-off tournaments and are completely optional to players. If some player doesn't want to play a tournament, they don't have to. Team sports force players to play a schedule and there's question whether they should play hurt or not. In sports like golf or tennis, you can simply rest and not play, even if, in theory, you can play. In team sports, you are told you need to play, even if hurt, and then there's discussion about how tough you are to play with injury.
This is why it's hard for individual sports to be discussed. There's just less to talk about overall. Teams also tend to moderate any one great player where individual sports often have dominating individual players. In a team sport, you can often have seemingly weak teams do enough to create a huge upset.
It's sad but true.
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