Growing up, we had a crappy basic cable system (It wasn’t Cox but I can’t remember what it was called. If anyone remembers what it might have been let me know). Anyway, we didn’t get very many channels but we did get WGN and HSE (Home Sports Entertainment, a precursor to Fox Sports Southwest).
WGN would eventually cost me a lot of time, money and emotional trauma as a Chicago Cubs fan. They would also occasionally show Bulls games, which provided a rare glimpse at regular-season Michael Jordan. HSE was a mostly-worthless station but they aired quite a few Dallas Mavericks games.
You didn’t need cable to watch the NFL back then, and whether you had cable or not you were put in a headlock and forced to watch the Dallas Freaking Cowboys every single week. Even on the bye week they just showed the Cowboys playing golf, snorting coke or killing puppies.
Anyway, we already know that millions of years ago Satan had sex with himself and gave birth to the Dallas Cowboys. That’s not the point of this post. This post is about how terrible all of those professional teams played — and how that made them all much more fun to watch than sports today.
First let me put this in terms of poker. One table is full of pros wearing sunglasses and hoodies, taking for-freaking-ever on every decision. The other table is a bunch of drunks cracking jokes and making calls and bluffs that make no sense whatsoever. There’s no question which table is displaying better poker. There’s also no question which table you’d rather play at or watch on TV.
I’ve always thought this would make for a great poker TV show. Instead of high stakes games with great players, just televise a small-stakes game with funny people and plenty of alcohol. I never watch poker on TV but I’d watch that show every day of the week.
Over the years since the poker boom, players got better and better. This lowered the chances of weaker players winning and drove many out of the game entirely. It’s a natural Darwinistic cycle and there’s not much you can do about it. I’m certainly not going to purposely cost myself money for the benefit of everyone else. But as a consumer of professional sports on TV, it’s a little sad to see the same things happening there.
The NBA is the most obvious example of this. Just to be clear, I still love the NBA, and the overall quality of play is better than it’s ever been in the history of the game.
Remember those 90s Mavericks teams I watched on HSE? They played terrible and they looked more terrible. But guess what? By the standards of today’s NBA, those Jordan-led Bulls of the same era also played terrible.
Kind of crazy that basketball has been around for 130 years and the 3-point line has been part of it for about 40, yet only recently did teams figure out that shooting nothing but layups, free throws and 3s is an optimal strategy. James Harden has perfected the art, and he’s the best offensive player of the modern era. But there are lots of players more fun to watch on TV than the reigning MVP, especially when the refs are whistle-happy and he’s shooting 20 free throws in a game. There’s no question it’s optimal basketball strategy, but watching the same 3-point shot, pick-and-roll dunk and manipulated foul call every possession isn’t great for viewing.
When Jordan was running the show, he could literally shoot from anywhere on the court. When James Harden dribbles inside the 3-point line, you know he’s not pulling up for a shot unless he can get all the way to the rim. If he stops or pulls up it’s to draw a foul, not to actually try to score. Jordan could shoot a 3, he could shoot a 2 with his foot on the line, he could shoot from 15 feet, etc. He might spin around and shoot a baseline fade-away. A few years later Kobe Bryant was the same way. Nobody pointed out that Jordan took a lot of terrible shots, and anyone who said that about Kobe was labeled a jealous hater. Those guys won titles because every team in the NBA played that way and those guys were a lot better at it than everyone else.
Last year’s Rockets team, which didn’t even make it to the NBA Finals, would have smoked the Jordan Bulls or the Kobe Lakers. You can tell me I’m wrong about that but I’m not. Because math. (Of course, those older teams could adapt their games and then it’s a different story, but I’m only talking about how they actually played at the time).
Now every team plays some version of this style, and it’s not as entertaining as watching Jordan score from all over the court or Bill Laimbeer give a forearm to the face of someone who tries to score in the paint. The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.
Baseball is my favorite sport, but it’s in danger of moving toward irrelevancy, largely because of teams getting too smart.
First, after 150 years teams finally figured out that players not named Tony Gwynn don’t spray the ball randomly and evenly across the diamond. They tend to hit them in certain areas much more than other areas. So instead of evenly distributing fielders like frickin’ idiots, they put more defenders in the areas where the ball is more likely to be hit.
Clearly this is smart baseball, and also clearly it’s more exciting to watch a single or have guys on base than watch a routine groundout to second.
Hitters reacted to this by saying, “If all of my ground balls are going to be outs, I’d better hit the ball in the air.” Again, smart thinking but also frequently boring baseball. Home runs are fun, but the uppercut swings also led to a lot of flyouts and strikeouts. And because everyone started thinking this way, many players wound up with about the same stats. Low batting average, a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks, 20+ home runs. Seems like there six guys in every lineup that fit this bill now.
Math guys also realized that stolen bases are not worth the risk of an out. So there’s really no place for Lance Johnson or Eric Young anymore, slap hitters who could cause havoc on the basepaths. Triples and stolen bases are the two most exciting plays in the game and they are going extinct.
Another idea somehow just now gaining steam is that a guy who has thrown 140 pitches probably isn’t as good as a fresh pitcher who the opponent hasn’t seen. So now managers yank their starters after four innings, or in the case of Tampa Bay last year they don’t even use a starting pitcher. The Rays won a lot of games just putting 9 random guys in for one inning each.
Yet again, smart idea but bad for baseball. We want to see Randy Johnson throwing gas into the 9th inning. We don’t want to see 20 pitching changes (and 20 TV commercial breaks) that push the time of game over three hours. Most baseball fans don’t mind three hour games if they’re filled with action (i.e. triples and stolen bases). But those aren’t good plays anymore.
The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.
Football is a little behind the other two sports in terms of optimizing strategy. Teams still don’t go for it on fourth down as often as they’re supposed to, although it’s trending in that direction. Also, math says NFL teams should be passing the ball on about 70% of their plays, which nobody does.
The good news for football fans is that when teams start to fully embrace these things, they’ll make the game more exciting. (The Super Bowl sucked this year because of punts, and because the Eagles didn’t win it).
Unfortunately, football is becoming harder to watch because of what we now know it does to the guys playing it. There was a quaint time in my youth when Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan put a bounty on the Cowboys’ kicker and stole my heart forever. (You should check out that link, the back-and-forth between Ryan and Jimmy Johnson is gold.)
Stories like that are much more funny when you assume the guy will get up off the ground, shake it off like a man and be none the worse for wear. But it’s not cool that a very high percentage of NFL players will have some kind of negative lingering side effect for the rest of their lives. And those are the lucky ones who won’t lose years off their life or have their personalities forever changed.
The NFL has tried to change the rules to make the game safer, but there’s only so much you can do without changing the game completely. College games are even harder to watch because the players are exposed to the downside without reaping the financial rewards of the NFL.
I still like football and I’m sure I’ll watch the Sooners and the Eagles as long they still field teams. I can promise you my sons won’t be playing football though.
The game evolves and there’s no stopping it, but it just isn’t as fun.