As the majority of the country takes a day off to enjoy the anniversary of the independence of the United States, baseball takes center stage. With the NFL still a month from getting its preseason underway and the NBA and NHL seasons recently concluded, baseball is the only show in town.
As part of that showcase, Major League Baseball will continue to pimp itself as being “America’s Game.” It’s a mantra MLB has spewed for decades, about the time it quit actually being America’s Game. There is little doubt that the NFL has taken that mantle away from baseball – it did years ago – and the love of sports fans has shifted from baseball to football. It’s still the national pastime (with the emphasis on “past”), but, like other sports, Americans love something that is ours and ours alone – not something shared with the rest of the world. Have you ever wondered why boxing has died as a viable professional sport? It’s because Americans no longer dominated it and the heavyweight champions were Russians, not guys like Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield (and Ray Edwards didn’t help the cause).
One needs look no further than the World Baseball Classic to prove that baseball is no longer America’s Game. Latin America, Central America and Asia have all become hotbeds of baseball and many Major League teams have just as many players from foreign countries on their rosters as they have home-grown American players. The NHL has long been a sport in which most of its top stars aren’t from the United States. The globalization of basketball has resulted in many of the top stars being from Europe and, when the NBA conducts a draft, the questions often asked after a pick are, “Who is that guy and where the heck is Belarus?”
There is something to be said for globalization of a professional sports brand. Opening new markets and increasing fan interest worldwide definitely helps the bottom line for MLB, the NBA and the NHL. But, in some ways, it disconnects the sport from being an American enterprise and shifts it into more of a global business. The NFL isn’t that way and doesn’t appear to be heading in that direction any time soon.
To the rest of the world, football is what Americans call soccer. Although just about every grade school and summer youth sports program offers soccer and participation is high, as a spectator sport it has never caught on with the American public. Why? Because soccer isn’t an American sport … or at least the United States doesn’t dominate it. The U.S. has never been a soccer power and struggles to win against much smaller countries with far inferior training facilities. The fact that watching televised soccer is often the equivalent of watching paint slowly dry doesn’t help garner fan support in a fast-paced society the United States enjoys. Soccer has an American fan base, but it is a fringe fan base.
There is a centric nature to Americans who like to chant “USA! USA!” at sporting events. They love to follow their own heroes and they provide a sense of nationalistic pride. That isn’t to say that players from other countries are viewed differently by fans – if you’re a talented player, the fans love you – but when baseball effectively owned the sporting world for the better part of the 20th century, it was because it was the American dream of most young athletes to play in the Big Leagues. It became a sport of immigrants who came to the United States and became part of the adoption of their new country and new culture.
It can be argued that a MLB team comprised solely of Dominican players would dominate a team made up entirely of Americans. A similar non-native dominance is true in the NHL. It isn’t a surprise that in international competition, the United States isn’t a consistent winner. That distinction belongs to the Canadians, the Russians, the Swedes, the Finns, etc. As an example, of the 27 players currently on the roster of the Minnesota Wild, only eight of them are Americans, trailing behind 13 Canadian natives on the roster and six European players.
Barely more than half of the players currently on the official roster of the Minnesota Timberwolves are American-born players. Of the 17 players currently listed on the roster, nine of them are American natives. The other eight are from Germany, Guadeloupe, Montenegro, Puerto Rico, Russia (two players), Senegal and Spain. The globalization of the NBA has turned the game into more of an international showcase than a U.S.-centric sport.
From the fan perspective, there is no questioning that the NFL is the top dog in terms of professional sports and an argument can be made that college football has pushed its way into a battle for the No. 2 spot in terms of rabid fan interest.
As the feeder program to the NFL, fans of Notre Dame football can become Vikings fans as they follow the careers of guys like John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph and Harrison Smith. Fans can watch the NFL stars of tomorrow on Saturdays today. The same can’t be said for any of the other three major sports, where college programs produce precious few elite professional players in any of their respective sports.
Regardless of where you celebrate the Fourth of July today, if you’re in the vicinity of a television, radio or mobile device, you will surely be able to find a Major League Baseball game being played – no doubt tying in the outdated mantra that baseball is America’s Game. The NFL has unofficially been America’s Game for the last 20 years, but it just hasn’t come out and said so. Maybe it’s time for the league to embrace what fans have known for a long time. America’s Game is football…period.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.