(Don't) Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Apr 26, 2011
Originally published on April 27, 2011 12:36 pm

Ice hockey has a reputation for televising poorly: You can't see the puck! Even ESPN, which buys up the rights to every sport this side of musical chairs, let the National Hockey League go. So what's happened? NHL ratings have soared, and the league just signed a new contract with Comcast, doubling its old figure.

Professional sports are simply more popular than ever on television. Last fall, the National Football League, which was already the surest must-see thing on TV since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, suddenly, unexpectedly, saw its ratings jump into the ozone layer. NASCAR, which had been slumping, rebounded. The NBA ratings have skyrocketed. More and more Americans are even watching — yes — European soccer.

Now maybe it's all anecdotal, a temporary spike. It's been a brutal winter in most of the country, and gas prices are high, so maybe more people are staying home — and you can only watch so much American Idol.

But I'm convinced it's a much more significant trend, fostered by two factors. First, prices to too many sporting events are just too expensive. Second, as home television sets get larger and in clearer definition — even 3-D — people are more inclined to watch a game there in the family room, where they can see it free, and bigger and better, and in more comfortable surroundings.

It's surely illustrative that during this same period when sports ratings are up, the box office for movie theaters has plummeted. Sure, maybe Hollywood is just in a creative slump, but I find it revealing that a group of the most prominent film directors and producers wrote an open letter to four studios, pleading with them not to go ahead with new plans to release films to video right after their theatrical openings.

With today's monster-screen HDTV, if you give viewers — movies or sports — an option, they'll opt for the couch near the refrigerator at home.

Attendance figures at sporting events are invariably suspect, because teams announce the number of tickets sold, not those actually used. But now, especially when the weather's dicey, you see the best seats as only that — seats. When attendance was bad, the old gag used to be, "A lot of fans came dressed as empty seats tonight." Now it's more like, "A lot of ticket buyers dressed in their pajamas tonight."

I even wonder how sports bars are doing these days. Watch the game at home, you don't even need a designated driver. "Hey, sweetie, it's overtime: Pop me another Red Stripe!"

Here's an anecdote that says it all. A longtime New York Rangers season-ticket holder got his bill for the first round of the playoffs. Instead of buying the overpriced seats, he went out and, for even less money, bought a humongous new 3-D HDTV.

And guess what: He could see the puck even better than he ever did at Madison Square Garden.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The old song says "Take Me out to the Ballgame," but commentator Frank Deford thinks most fans would rather stay in.

FRANK DEFORD: Ice hockey has a reputation for televising poorly - you cant see the puck. Even ESPN, which buys up the rights to every sport this side of musical chairs, let the National Hockey League go. So whats happened? NHL ratings have soared, and the league just signed a new contract with Comcast, doubling their old figure.

Professional sports are simply more popular than ever on television. Last fall, the National Football League - which was already the surest must-see thing on TV since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon - suddenly saw its ratings jump into the ozone layer. NASCAR, which had been slumping, rebounded. The NBA ratings have skyrocketed. More and more Americans are even watching - yes, European soccer.

Now, maybe its all anecdotal, a temporary spike. Its been a brutal winter in most of the country, and gas prices are high, so maybe more people are staying home, and you can only watch so much "American Idol." But Im convinced its a much more significant trend, fostered by two factors.

First, prices to too many sporting events are just too expensive. Second, as home television sets get larger and in clearer definition, even 3-D, people are more inclined to watch a game there in the family room, where they can see it free and bigger and better and in more comfortable surroundings.

Its surely illustrative that during this same period when sports ratings are up, the box office for movie theatres has plummeted. Sure, maybe Hollywood is just in a creative slump. But I find it revealing that a group of the most prominent film directors and producers wrote an open letter to four studios, pleading with them not to go ahead with new plans to release films to video so soon after their theatrical openings.

With todays monster-screen HD TV, give viewers - movies or sports - an option, theyll opt for the couch near the refrigerator at home.

Attendance figures at sporting events are invariably suspect because teams announce the number of tickets sold, not those actually used. But now, especially when the weather's dicey, you see the best seats as only that -seats. When attendance was bad, the old gag used to be: A lot of fans came dressed as empty seats tonight. Now its more like: A lot of ticket-buyers dressed up in their pajamas tonight.

I even wonder how sports bars are doing these days. Watch the game at home you dont even need a designated driver. Hey, sweetie, its overtime, pop me another Red Stripe.

Heres an anecdote that says it all. A longtime New York Rangers season ticket-holder got his bill for the first round of the playoffs. Instead of buying the overpriced seats, he went out and, for even less money, he bought a humongous new 3-D, HD TV. And guess what? He could see the puck even better than he ever did at Madison Square Garden.

INSKEEP: Comments from Frank Deford perfectly good to hear at home or in person. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.