Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Media no longer control fan loyalty

This conversation actually took place two days ago in the sports department of The Roanoke Times:

Guy 1: "Can't wait for Game 7, baby."

Guy 2: "Game 7 of what?"

Guy 1: "Celtics!"

Guy 2: "Game 7, huh? Cool. Who are they playing?"

There's no way I should admit this, but I was Guy 2. And my ignorance was not feigned. I had zero idea that the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were engaged in a highly competitive series in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And it got me thinking: How is this possible? How could a guy whose job is to write about sports be so clueless about the happenings of a major American sports league? How could a guy who compiles a daily sports roundup on weekday mornings, who consumes sports media with as much vigor as he does a plate of Mac & Bobs nachos, who spent his youth cheering for Calbert Cheaney and Gheorghe Muresan and the woeful Washington Bullets, not at least know who's still alive in the NBA playoffs?

The easy answer would be to say that the NBA simply got away from me. My passion for it faded. And because we don't have a local pro team, I'm not required to cover it. Any posts I used to toss up on my blog about it typically drew an army of crickets. It's not a huge priority around here.

But there's more to it than that. Last year, I had the same level of interest in the NBA that I have now, but I knew who was playing. I watched the big games. I could tell you about all the controversies in the news - the blown calls, the wars of words between players, the champs and chokers.

Why? Because I had fewer options.

This is not a column about the quality or lack thereof of the NBA. Millions of people love the league, and I'm glad. The minute folks stop caring about sports is the minute I'm out of a job. Passion - whether it's directed toward today's Coca-Cola 600, Indy 500, Orioles-Royals game, Spurs-Thunder game or the final round of the BMW PGA Championship - is terrific.

No, this is a column about sports Darwinism. More than ever, each spectator sport must stand on its own merit. So many of the props I never even considered - but in hindsight, shaped my viewing schedule - are gone.

I am a sports talk radio geek. It drives passengers in my truck crazy. "Can we get some music please?" No. My truck, my rules.

For years, whenever I drove to an assignment, I listened to ESPN Radio. And that wasn't the only time I did it. Mowing the lawn, walking the dog, grilling out in the back yard - ESPN Radio. I could recite every public service announcement on AM 1240 word for word.

As much as I loved it, ESPN Radio also drove me crazy at times. I would tune in hoping to get the latest baseball scores and instead would find myself sitting through 20 minutes of Mel Kiper Jr. breaking down the next year's NFL draft prospects.

"IT'S FLIPPIN' JULY!" I'd scream at nobody in particular. "CAN YOU GET OFF THE NFL HYPE TRAIN FOR TWO SECONDS?!!"

My blood pressure these days is a lot more steady. Now those baseball scores come to my smart phone. Instantly.

Often, I don't need to look at my phone at all - because I'm listening to the game live on XM.

If there isn't a game on while I'm driving, I still have options. Oh, so you want to rehash that debate you've been having for six weeks on LeBron? Great, I'll pass. Let me head over to Rivals Radio and hear some SEC football talk, or check in on NASCAR news, or listen to the MLB Network, or see if Yahoo! Sports Radio is discussing a topic more interesting to me.

And this, I now realize, is how it happened. The minute the conversation turned to the NBA, I changed the station. It's not that I didn't care at all; it's that I cared about other things more. Do this over and over again, and all of a sudden, you don't know who's playing in a Game 7.

Buffet-style media consumption isn't limited to radio. We tailor our Twitter accounts to feed us just the sports we love. Phone applications text us when our team takes the lead. ESPN cutting ties to the NHL was a huge deal a few years back; now you can pay to watch any hockey game you want on a variety of platforms.

I've watched The Preakness on my phone. I've watched Brewers-Padres games on my computer. I've watched international soccer on cable.

Given this, the sports landscape has the potential to change drastically over the next 10 years. Nobody's holding our hands and guiding us to events anymore. It's our choice, our time.

And if you want to survive as a sport? Well, you'd probably want to keep that in mind.

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