- - Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What if we woke up one day and the unthinkable happened — nobody really cared about sports?

I mean, cared like everyone has for so many years, cared like sports was one of the most important things in our lives, cared like we had to be there in person, and when we couldn’t, we had to watch on television.

What if that time is now?

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We’ve heard about the sports bubble for years, and we’ve wondered if the bubble was destined to pop.

But what if, instead of that burst we’ve been waiting for, there’s been a slow, steady leak all along?

NBA television ratings are dramatically down for the playoffs.

The NBA Finals Game 1 between the Toronto Raptors and the defending champion Golden State Warriors had an estimated 10.77 million viewers on ABC, down significantly from last year’s 18.5 million. Game 2 wasn’t much better, at 10.79 million.

Of course, last year’s Finals featured the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, who was then still with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But this drop isn’t just about LeBron’s absence. If it was, then he should be named NBA commissioner and make every business decision for the league.

No, this is a bigger issue than just the NBA, though it is humorous that the league is considered the hot ticket for young sports fans. That love is not translating to television ratings. So what good is it to be the hipster league built on a reality-TV offseason marketing platform? Do they love the game — the actual product for sale?

It’s all very confusing for those trying to measure fan interest and passion, and not just in basketball.

Major League Baseball’s national ratings have dropped dramatically over the year. That has been well-chronicled. However, local baseball ratings on regional sports networks have been among the top programs in nearly every market that has a baseball franchise day in and day out.

But people are not coming to the ballparks as much. The new baseball palaces that, since Baltimore’s Oriole Park in Camden Yards opened in 1992, have helped to prop up the game seem to have lost their allure. The latest report shows that baseball’s overall average of 26,854 fans per game so far this year is 1.4 % below last year’s comparable figure, which wound up being below 30,000 for the first time since 2003.

Many critics point to the aging baseball fan base, and the lack of younger fans — you know, the fans that supposedly love the NBA but don’t watch it like they do. Anyway, population projections show that the entire country is getting older. By 2030, it is projected by 2030 that 20 % of the American population will be older than 65, compared to 13 % in 2010 and under 10 % in 1970.

If baseball appeals to older fans, doesn’t the game simply have to wait until everyone gets older?

Obviously, it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s complicated enough to lack answers that make sense — which brings us to the NFL.

The league crowed about its ratings rebound last season to an average of 15.8 million viewers, an increase over the previous year’s 14.8 million average mark.

NFL supporters, of course, point to 2017 as an aberration, the year of Trump and the national anthem protests. But the 2018 ratings are significantly less than 2016 or 2015, when the average viewership for NFL games was 17.9 million.

People are watching less television, period, at least based on the traditional measurements. And people aren’t coming to NFL games as much as they did before, either.

Attendance has dropped from an average of 69,487 fans per game in 2016 to a 67,042 average last year — and it is far worse in places like FedEx Field, where the Redskins play.

Why are fewer people going to games? Some believe it is because the home experience — big screen high definition TVs, cheap eats, beer and no parking — is more attractive to fans than coming to the games. But fewer people are watching the games on TV as well.

Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

Those who get their checks from the business of sports — Ted Leonsis, the Ace Rothstein of Washington, for one — are counting on a version of duct tape to stop the slow leak in the business of sports. That is legalized sports betting. “I don’t think [the business model] is going to break,” Turner Sports President David Levy said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

He made it clear they are counting on legalized sports betting to save them. “We’re big believers that’s a big part of the future.”

It’s part of the future, but how big? How many people are really going to change their lifestyles to bet on sports legally?

I’m betting it won’t be as much as they are counting on to stop the leak.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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