Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dogfighting. Betting scandals. Steroids. It seems like bad news all around in the world of sports these days.

And the reaction from fans has been an intense, almost astonishing feeling of … eh.

Amid the dire statements predicting the demise of America’s favorite sports properties, the reality is fans seem unmoved, feeling no guilt about watching and following sports with more fervor than ever.

“In some ways, they’re saying one thing and doing another as fans,” said Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at Oregon. “Maybe this is just a good manifestation of how sports have changed for the consumer. Rather than being about tradition, it’s just another form of entertainment. As long as it remains entertaining, that’s all that matters.”

While Major League Baseball prepares to watch Barry Bonds break the hallowed record for career home runs beneath a cloud of steroid suspicion, it is seeing some of its largest crowds in history. Baseball reported 717,478 fans attended games Sunday, the most in a single day. More than 50 million fans have attended games this season, and the league expects a fourth consecutive season of record-breaking attendance.

The NFL is addressing a string of off-the-field controversies, including Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s indictment on dogfighting charges, but hordes of fans are attending training camps with the regular season still weeks away. The league is coming off its best season financially, with more sellouts and higher television ratings than any other year in history.

“I can imagine a tipping point being reached where [fans] might tune out, but I think we’re very far from that,” said Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke who studies the interaction of sports and society.

It may be harder to discern the impact of the news that NBA referee Tim Donaghy is under investigation for betting on games he worked. The NBA is coming off three straight years of record attendance, but the scandal has spurred some dramatic commentary, with many sportswriters calling it one of the worst moments in NBA history. Some fans, however, have argued the scandal will lead to an improvement of officiating in the NBA, particularly if Donaghy was, as NBA commissioner David Stern said, a “rogue, isolated criminal.”

Stern noted the doping scandal at this year’s Tour de France could become cycling’s death knell, but for major sports the scandals actually may be helpful.

“It creates this whole new thing for people to talk about and theorize about,” he said. “It creates another layer of interest.”

David Berri, a professor of applied economics at Cal State-Bakersfield, noted last week there is rarely a strong correlation between bad news and attendance, going so far as to publish a chart showing attendance actually rose approximately 50 percent in the eight years following baseball’s Black Sox scandal in 1919. In a contribution to the Sports Economist blog, Berri argued journalists have made too much of the recent negative stories surrounding sports leagues.

“The media has an incentive to sensationalize each story it covers,” Berri wrote. “We have heard that player strikes and lockouts threaten the future of sports. Competitive balance in baseball must be resolved or baseball will be doomed. Steroids must be addressed or baseball will be forever harmed. And now, the NBA will never be the same because a referee has a gambling problem. When we look at the attendance data we see that the media is often ‘crying wolf.’ The reaction of fans is just not consistent with the dire predictions of media members.”

Swangard agreed, saying, “In some ways, the question arises as to whether those who cover sports are out of touch with their readers. It’s easy to throw stones, but we all need to appreciate and understand why fans are unwilling to shift their spending and behavior.”

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