The site was the Kennedy Center. Not RFK. The event was ballet. Not football. So what on earth was that noise that rang out last week, immediately after the world premiere of David Gordon's ballet, "Field, Chair and Mountain?"

Was it, "Oooooooohh?" Because people loved it so?

Was it, "Loooooouuu?" Did people see Lou Piniella in a tutu?

Was it, "Perduuuuue?" Were people clamoring for chicken?

No. It was a familiar Anglo-Saxon sound often heard at sporting contests.

Boooooooo! They booed the ballet! How could this be?

In Philadelphia, where people boo everything, the only time they'd boo the ballet is if Leonard Tose were to dance "Swan Lake."

People boo Reggie Jackson. People boo George Steinbrenner. People boo Dave Kingman. Warner Wolf used to award a Boo of the Week.

But who boos a ballet?

"I must admit, it doesn't happen very often," said prima ballerina Martine van Hamel, who was on stage taking bows -- somewhat prematurely perhaps -- when from somewhere was heard that discouraging word.

Mikhail Baryshnikov -- the Jim Palmer of grand jete'e -- tried to brush it off by saying it was no big deal: "I am booed every second day." (Nice try, Misha. By whom are you booed? By Liza? By Halston? You certainly weren't booed in Russia. People who boo in Russia tend to wake up in a gulag; the worst that can happen to a booer in the United States is to wake up to "Good Morning America.")

I'm personally cheered by this development, and I'd like to welcome all you ballet guys and gals to Sportsworld, where booing is not only normal, it's also healthy. You pays your money, you vents your spleen; it makes no difference if your target is the Buffalo Bills or the American Ballet Theatre. You stink the joint out, you're gonna hear about it.

Booing is an intelligent response to poor performance -- athletic or cultural. Those who don't boo a rancid pas-de-deux are cowards who are intimidated by the fear that the Cultural Police will disapprove, label them boors and not invite them to the next chardonnay and goat cheese party.

I read where the last time anyone booed a performance at the Kennedy Center was a decade ago. People in the arts sure do have it easy. All Billy Kilmer had to do was miss three passes in a row to make the crowd at RFK sound like 50,000 lovesick cows on date night. (Hey, Misha, you want to hear some real boos? Strap on that helmet, baby, and cough up the ball on a couple of firsts-and-goal.)

Booing is probably the best thing to ever happen to ballet.

Sportswriters and sportscasters have fondly compared certain athletes -- those particularly acrobatic ones like Julius Erving and Lynn Swann -- to ballet dancers for years. Such comparisons flattered the athletes, but what have they done for the dancers? Now, as they say, the slipper is on the other foot. Knowing that a dancer can be booed ought to make ballet more attractive to the sports fan, and soon you may see ballet advertised like this: Tonight at 8! In their only local appearance of the season! Alexander Godunov and Rudolf Nureyev -- The Russian Beef Brothers! You'll hate their guts!

Given the right promotion, ballet could become the chic entry in the "Sport of the '80s" sweepstakes. Soccer, the early favorite, is out of the running now; the NASL is a lame, wheezing league. Ballet would be up against the usual array of yuppie sports: gymnastics, cycling, Nautilus and dermatology. Ballet's great advantage is that it is a contact sport; most people would rather hold a dancer than a barbell.

Now that there's no longer a tabooing on booing, the breakthrough may be at hand. I am told that one of the clauses in Brent Musburger's new contract with CBS guaranteed him the play-by-play job when the 16-team National Ballet League "toes-off" next spring. Musburger will also anchor "The NBL Today," featuring Amanda McKerrow's expert analyses of the key match-ups.

Not to be outdone, NBC has apparently scheduled the 14-team American Ballet League for its spring lineup, with Vin Scully, Joe Garagiola and Dame Margot Fonteyn up in the booth. (I can't wait for Garagiola to say, "Ya know Vinny, I remember when this Dame came to dance in St. Louis, and me and Yogi . . . ")

Since ABC could hardly allow itself to be the odd network out, it signed up the 12-team United States Ballet League and will telecast "Monday Night Ballet" beginning in April. That big, stud hoss himself, Keith Jackson, will handle the play-by-play, with young Ron Reagan, the president's ballet-dancing son, doing color, and Bob Uecker reporting from the cheap seats.

Inevitably there will be a merger: The United Ballet League will be formed, and the 32 teams will compete for "The Nijinsky Cup."

The winners will receive a phone call from the White House.

The losers will be booed.