For a month and a half, we’ve been gliding through the calm waters of mid-summer, when baseball dominates the sports calendar and the other leagues are, for the most part, quiet and out of sight.
Alas–these peaceful days are about to end, now that NFL training camps are open. Real football season is rapidly approaching, with hockey and basketball not that far behind. Before we know it, we’ll reach that frantic point in late October when all of the major sports leagues are in action at once. And while that may seem like a sports fan’s dream, having sports schedules competing elbow to elbow comes with some downsides. If the leagues are at all wise, they will consider the possible benefits of shrinking their schedules and easing up on the cutthroat battle for every fan’s attention, all of the time.
It’s worth noting that having lengthy schedule overlaps is not the way it used to be. The four major sports played shorter schedules back in the day, and arguably that tighter focus within the calendar helped these leagues rise to the prominence they now enjoy.
Of course, baseball has always had a long season. Even before the 1961 expansion of both the leagues and the schedule, MLB’s lengthy 154 game season played out over several months. However, that schedule did not extend nearly as far across the calendar as the modern schedule does. The World Series used to end by the middle of October, a setup that was possible because the season ended just as October was beginning, as well as of a lack of multiple playoff rounds. Bobby Thomson’s legendary, pennant-winning home run, “The Shot Heard Round The World,” famously occurred on October 3, 1951–in the 157th game that season, which was the third game of a playoff series between the Giants and Dodgers to decide the NL pennant. The actual, scheduled end of that season occurred on September 30th.
…with all the leagues playing bloated schedules that carry their games well outside their natural seasons…the leagues have begun seeing diminishing returns.
And when did that season begin? The Giants opened on April 17th with a win over the Braves. That’s easily two weeks later than the MLB season starts today.
Opening the baseball season midway through April, and shutting everything down by the middle of October, meant that MLB and the NHL had very little overlap back then. Indeed, as late as 1966-67–the last season before the NHL expanded–the Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs started their season on October 22nd and hoisted the trophy on May 2nd. The 1967 Stanley Cup Finals were practically the only game in town in late April and early May; only the barely begun baseball season competed for the sports fan’s attention while the Leafs were taking out the Canadiens.
Surely that’s wrong, you say–what about basketball? The NBA Finals stretch all the way into June; they must have overlapped the Stanley Cup Finals, just like this past season. Right? Nope. The NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers (who started their season on October 15, 1966) wrapped up their victory over the Warriors on April 24th–when the Stanley Cup Finals had barely started–and nearly two months before this year’s Warriors won their championship.
So there was a bit of a logjam there in April of ’67–but nothing like today. From the beginning of May until the middle of September, baseball pretty much had the sports scene all to itself back then.
I bet you did a spit-take just now, when you read “middle of September” in that last paragraph. Take a moment to clean off your screen. Ready? OK–yes, the NFL did not start playing in 1967 until Sunday, September 17th. And the playoffs–the playoffs, up to the NFL Championship, mind you–wrapped up by December 31st. Only Super Bowl II pushed into 1968, with the Packers beating the Raiders (from the AFL, of course) on January 14th.
Let’s sum up this information: Until the late 1960s, the World Series ended before the NBA and NHL seasons began. Baseball’s opening overlapped the other two leagues’ championships, but only by a week or two. And the NFL schedule was neatly confined to a four month period that coincided roughly with autumn, plus the holiday season and the two week period leading up to the ultimate game, during which only the in-season sports (NBA and NHL) were actually playing games.
(Note: all of these dates are available to look up and double check via www.sports-reference.com–a go-to source for all manner of comprehensive data about the major sports leagues and their past seasons.)
What does all this mean?
Here’s a suggestion: back during the “when it was a game” period–that mystical time which everyone recalls fondly, when the games we love became the games we love–those games didn’t need to compete so doggedly with each other to hold the attention of the sports spectating public. And thus, they were all able to thrive, at least to a certain extent.
Certainly, the leagues were doing well enough that they felt justified in expanding their memberships after the seasons mentioned above: the NHL expanded in 1967-68 and MLB continued its previous expansion by adding four more teams in 1969; meanwhile, both the NBA and NFL expanded through mergers with the ‘A’ leagues in the early 1970s.
Today, however, with all the leagues playing bloated schedules that carry their games well outside their natural seasons–and well into the other leagues’ seasons–the leagues have begun seeing diminishing returns. Sports fans are growing fatigued by these never-ending seasons; by constantly their sports fix, fans are seeing their taste for these games fading, in the same way a glutton who eats nothing but chocolate eventually can’t stand the sight or smell of the stuff.
That, perhaps, partly explains the constant mantra of “lowest rated (fill in the blank) ever” stories about baseball; the continued marginalization of the NHL (which, despite recent growth, remains the major league on the outside looking in within American sports); and even the fact that the 2015 NBA Finals was the highest rated series since Michael Jordan’s last championship run. Notice, however, that the 2015 rating (average overnight rating of 13.9) was still not close to the 1998 numbers (average overnight rating of 18.9). Despite maximizing their presence across the calendar, the leagues are not as popular as they used to be.
The exception to that rule is, of course, the NFL. Indeed, the NFL is the league that is bloating itself the most, pushing the Super Bowl all the way into February, making a big show out of its draft in April (or May, depending), and then splashing itself all over the scene as soon as camps open here in July. (Don’t think that the Brady drama going on right now is not, at least party, driven by a marketing desire by the league to grab attention and headlines right from the first snap of the exhibition season.) Pro football will not be satisfied until it sucks all the air out of the room every day of the year; it is largely the driver behind this era of schedule bloat. (And by the way, the Packers’ ’67 championship was played in a 14 game season–only two games less than today’s schedule. It’s all the extra rounds of playoffs that are pushing the NFL across the calendar.)
So what’s a sports fan to do about these facts? The obvious thing: ignore them, as much as possible. Don’t feed the beast; every so often, take a break and walk away from these sports. In a sense, that very sensible advice is already being heeded; hence the declining or already small ratings. Certainly, if you wish to maintain any sanity, don’t pay any heed to the NFL until the games start in earnest in September.
And perhaps, when the lack of attention grows significant enough, the wisenheimers running our favorite sports leagues will be forced into the shrewd and sensible action they should already be taking: shorten these schedules, the better to hold the notice of today’s attention-deficient viewers, and get the hell out of each other’s way. Because if they don’t take steps to return to more sensible scheduling…well, this is how golden egg laying geese get killed.