As a sports fan, these are the greatest few months of the year. It is the only time when all four major (US) sports are active. Baseball is reaching its zenith. Football is in full swing. The college season is at the midpoint, while the professionals are about a third of the way. Hockey has dropped the puck on a brand new season and Basketball is just days away from their own tip off. What a time to be a sports fan.
But is this really it? Is there more out there?
I grew up in a place geographically located to give me exposure to multiple television markets. Even with the limited channels we had, I had exposure to seventeen different “big four” teams. I loved it and was riveted to all four sports. I also stayed glued to the set for all of the Tennis and Golf I could find. This was usually limited just to the majors with the occasional special event like the Ryder Cup or Davis Cup. We also had the Olympics come around every four years. But they only showed a few events geared to what the American audience wanted to see.
About the time I was moving into high school, a wondrous thing happened, ESPN. It was nothing like it is today with wall to wall college and pro games on multiple channels. In the beginning they had to be creative with programming. It was the greatest thing any true sports fan could wish for. They had sports that were, shall we say, different, with the likes of Billiards, Bowling, Lumberjack games, Pro Rodeo and a favorite of mine Australian Rules Football. This was to help fill programming around the staples from the NCAA like the College World Series and March Madness.
It was the exposure to the “alternate” programming that really caught my interest. Nothing was going to change my love for the big four sports, but here was a whole new world of competition. That is what it is really about for me. I love the competition. This only became stronger when I left for college. I went to a school that has all of the traditional sports. It also has, a full complement of smaller sports. Since my school was committed to the smaller sports, we were good in a few and that gave them some well-deserved exposure. It was at this time that I added soccer (football) and lacrosse to my list of favorites. At first I was only mildly interested. Then as I learned the rules, what was happening on the field was making sense. I began to understand strategy and movement. I thought, “Hey, this is great!”
It was then I realized that there is much more to see to give me that thrill. I began to seek out new sports. Shortly after college, the Olympics made a change. In the past both the Summer and Winter games were held the same year and there was the long four year wait for the next go around. Now, the Winter Olympics would stagger with the Summer games and we would have them every two years. Television coverage improved and became much more extensive. We began to see more and different events. Ah, more for me to absorb.
Then, somewhere in the nineties, someone realized that women play more than Tennis and the programming opened up even more thanks in no small part to the US Women’s Soccer Team and the WNBA. Finally, the LPGA would make it to television and get the exposure it richly deserves. The Women’s College World Series would join the men on ESPN each year. I thought this was wonderful, and long overdue. Keep it coming.
So here I sit, in a virtual paradise for sports programming. All four major sports have their own networks. Tennis, Golf and Auto Racing each have networks dedicated to their own niches. Regional sports networks are everywhere. The English Premier League and UEFA matches are telecast in the United States. We have live coverage of the Australian Open. I can see the LPGA event from South Korea or this week’s European Tour stop. One click away is the Formula 1 race from Monaco or the Ryder Cup matches from Hazeltine. It is great sitting with my wife, also a sports fan, watching the MLB playoffs or this week’s NFL matchup. It is wonderful and I do spend hours flipping from one channel to the next, mostly when my wife is out of the room. But with this saturation of our most popular sports, I no longer get to see Irish Hurling from Dublin, Rugby from Auckland, Curling from Winnipeg, or Cricket from Johannesburg. Thanks to the internet I can still get my fill when I want it, but I do miss those days on ESPN. The gold blazer days. (If you are old enough, you will understand that reference.)
What is it that has me looking for more? Looking for new and different sports? The competition. As I mentioned above, I love the competition. I have friends who are dedicated to one or two sports. The guys who are totally immersed in football or basketball. They watch the film breakdowns on the NFL network. They are in several fantasy leagues. They can tell you any stat from last night’s games. I am good with that, but it is just not me. I, in my OCD influenced world, have levels of fandom. From the completely compulsive to the mildly fascinated, I have my sports organized.
I will admit, for my favorites, baseball and golf, I will get much more in depth than I will for other sports. For baseball I follow the minor league system down to its lowest levels. I also keep up with college baseball and softball up until tournament time when I dive in head first. Golf, my other top sport keeps me busy. I have been a lifelong follower of the PGA Tour. Along the way I began to obsessively follow the LPGA Tour. Then came the Senior, now Champions Tour. I now follow the European Tour with the same fervor that I have for the American tour. Let’s not forget about the Web.com Tour where the stars of tomorrow are coming from.
Then there is the next level where football, basketball and hockey reside, where I am content in knowing detail, but I don’t need it to the nth degree. There is a lot I follow with each of these sports and I want the broad knowledge, just not to the same level. I love football and am just about as detailed with the NFL as I am with baseball. However, while I keenly follow both the FBS and FCS levels of college football, I cannot revel in the stats beyond the Heisman candidates and top schools. Basketball and Hockey are much the same. I follow the NBA and NHL but other than March Madness and the Frozen Four, I don’t follow beyond the pros. I love these sports though.
Level three are the sports I like but don’t hang on every game. Soccer lands here. Since college I have been a fan of soccer. I follow the English Premier League, UEFA and the MLS, but only to know the teams. I do not get to the player level, other than the true stars. I do make an exception to this when the World Cup comes around. This is my every four-year guilty pleasure with both the men’s and women’s tournaments. I love the World Cup. I will also include Tennis, Motor Sports, and Horse Racing in this group. I was once much more interested in Tennis, but somehow drifted away a bit. I still know the top players and will be sure to watch the majors and occasionally stop on the Tennis channel. While I am not a great racing fan, I still find myself stopping to watch the big races. I watch all of the circuits and will be sure to watch at least part of the races from Indianapolis, Daytona, Monaco and a few others. As for Horse Racing, everyone loves the spectacle of the Triple Crown. A beautiful well trained horse is a sight to behold.
Level four is where I group the sports that I have watched and enjoy but don’t always know the players. Lacrosse, Rugby, Cricket, Australian Rules Football all fit the bill here. As does a fading favorite in Boxing and the relatively new MMA. I will also include several Olympic events. swimming, track and field, various skiing and snowboarding events and I love to watch rowing. I know all of the rules but don’t need to know the participants to enjoy the event.
Level five have the curiosities. These are the events that are only ever seen at the Olympics, On ABC’s Wide World of Sports or the early days of ESPN. The Good for a lark sports like polo, curling, handball, field hockey, wrestling and the list goes on and on. Once every few years and I am perfectly content.
I have one more group. A group of sports that are beloved by millions. I too enjoy many in this group, but I will never be able to be as fervent as all of the others. My reason, these are judged sports. Please do not get me wrong. I consider each of the individuals athletes in every sense of the word. They are highly skilled and well trained. I just cannot seem to muster the same enthusiasm for these as other sports where the players determine the outcome. In this group I give you gymnastics, diving, figure skating, and many more. I like them, I just can’t love them.
Did I leave anyone out? I am sure. Will I develop new loves and obsessions? Without a doubt. When I find a new sport, the first thing I will do is learn the rules, at least the basics. That makes the watching so much more enjoyable. Then, if it stays with me, I will continue to follow it. It may move up in my ranks. It may not. Either way, I am certain I will continue to watch.
Do you enjoy a sport that is not in the mainstream? If so, and I have not mentioned it here, I would like to hear about it. I welcome your comments and maybe you will give me my next sports obsession.