With the National Basketball Association recently following the National Football League down the path of prolonged labor strife, sports fans in America are being forced to ponder the prospect of an autumn without either pro football or pro basketball. While the players and owners will surely work things out eventually (the NFL seems decidedly closer than the NBA at this point), the dual disputes make you wonder: What would life be like if all the major professional leagues — not just the NFL and the NBA, but also Major League Baseball, the Women’s NBA, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and even NASCAR — suddenly went away?
Before any football widows (or widowers) get too excited about fall weekends involving apple-picking, raked lawns and meals that don’t have to synchronize with halftime, consider the more likely reality of a world without pro leagues.
The easiest assumption, of course, is that new leagues would spring up to take their place. What sports leagues mainly do is provide a structure that makes competitions easily accessible and neatly packaged for fans, broadcast networks and commercial sponsors. It’s a lucrative business: The current NFL labor unrest, after all, is over how to divide billions of dollars in annual revenue among owners and players.
The appetite that has made sports so financially opulent probably wouldn’t just evaporate along with pro leagues. And the entity with the infrastructure to easily fill the void is the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Universities already have all the necessities to make sports economically viable: organized leagues, buildings in which to stage competitions and established fan bases with the requisite color-coordinated wardrobes. For sports fans in many parts of the country, college football Saturdays already dwarf NFL Sundays in significance, and without having the pros to battle for airtime, it’s not hard to imagine the college sports schedule sprawling further and further across our calendars and the nation.
Of course, the idea of college sports becoming more professionalized is easy to envision because, in many respects, that horse has long left the barn. With top college coaches commanding seven-figure salaries and NCAA football and basketball having endured so many scandals involving improper benefits, it seems the barn has actually been turned into a luxury suite for rich alumni — and the horse got some free tattoos for his trouble.
But however fragile the amateur structure of college sports, there’s little question that the prospect of its athletes playing professionally is one of the few things holding it up. With no pro sports, the NCAA would certainly be able to command higher ticket prices and more lucrative TV deals — but how long would it be able to depend on a free labor force if the only money to be made for players is during their four years of college?
Even in a world without pro sports, the idea of paying college athletes surely would be anathema to some universities, but just as surely not to all of them, especially in light of TV deals that could potentially defray the cost. And with no pro contracts to be had, there’s little doubt where the top athletes would choose to play. Schools that currently attempt to balance academic piety with rabid athletic competitiveness — you know which ones they are; I attended one of them — would be forced to decide between going “pro” to compete at the highest level and remaining “pure,” with lesser players and a diminished athletic profile.
And if college sports overtly went pro, the trickle-down effect would be obvious. The idea of televising high school sports nationally might strike some as ludicrous, but those who have been paying closer attention know that several schools in our community have already appeared on ESPN. Currently, it’s considered an honor and an opportunity for the network or its affiliates to televise a high school’s game. But without pro sports, the balance shifts: Networks with huge swaths of airtime to fill would need quality programming as much as, if not more than, top high schools would need the exposure. What’s the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference boys basketball game of the week worth? With no NBA, we could find out.
Of course, the money from networks or advertisers wouldn’t flow so freely without an audience. In a pro sports town such as this one, would college and prep sports capture the same audience and hold it as rapt? Would ACC fantasy football leagues become office staples? Would Wizards fans trade their Verizon Center seats for a spot on the bleachers at DeMatha High?
The answers lead to the essence of why fans watch sports. Do we want to bear witness to and be inspired by the fastest, strongest and most skilled of our species pushing the limits of physical achievement? Or do we just need the intellectual diversion of an organized activity with easily measured outcomes that is purely engrossing but entirely ephemeral? Do our sports teams satisfy the need for community that has disappeared from many other aspects of modern life?
In one of his comedy routines, Jerry Seinfeld suggested that pro sports fans essentially are rooting for clothes. With players constantly changing teams and cities in pursuit of the highest-paying contracts, the only thing consistent about a team from year to year is its uniform. Years ago, hockey’s Jaromir Jagr went from being hated in Washington as a member of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins to hailed as the promising future when he signed as a free agent with the Capitals — only to be loathed again when he left town having underachieved.
As Seinfeld said: “Boo! Different shirt!”
Our region’s love for the Washington Redskins is undeniable. Fans plan their weeks around watching the team play on Sundays, whether in person or on television. The Skins’ performance dominates conversations the next day — on sports-talk radio, on the Metro and in office lunchrooms. But what if there were no Washington Redskins? Would fans trade in hailing the Redskins for fearing the turtle? Or would the absence of this autumn staple jolt us into reassessing what we get out of it? What would we do with all our burgundy-and-gold apparel?
Sports fans are loyal customers, committed to ritual and routine (this is part of what makes them so valuable to advertisers). A pro sports void could lead some fans to ask themselves for perhaps the first time: Why do I watch? The answers would probably vary widely.
I discovered my own this past week at a B-meet in Division Fof the Montgomery County Swim League. In the 25-meter backstroke race for girls ages 9 to 10, a certain swimmer fought off fatigue to make a brave finishing kick and reach the wall a split-second ahead of another competitor. Exulting at having witnessed such an effort — which secured 17th place, instead of 18th — I raised my arms and hooted, not missing pro sports at all.
Matt Rennie is a sports editor at The Washington Post.