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Weekend Links with Jon Marthaler: Making sports relevant to a mass audience + a look at Jared Burton

  • Blog Post by: Michael Rand
  • August 10, 2013 - 1:17 PM

It occurs to me that the hardest thing for any televised sport to do is to make the viewer, at home in his living room, feel like something is at stake. This is why baseball draws great TV ratings in local markets, but terrible ones nationally. Fans will tune in to see their home nine try to win, because something is at stake; nobody will watch the Pirates play the Braves, even if both are very, very good teams, because in a 162-game season, a single game doesn't matter.

There are two sports that have become absurdly popular, in part, because they have this figured out. One is college football, which has the weekly Top 25 poll to lean on. It takes two seconds to figure out what's at stake when you turn on a college football game; if you see #3 vs. #6, you know it's a big game, even if it happens to be Boise State vs. Oklahoma State, or some other matchup of nontraditional powers. Throw in the regional rivalries, and what's at stake comes through the television loud and clear.

The other one is English soccer, which has gained a surprisingly large foothold on American television. A combination of a much freer market for talent, the lack of an effective salary cap, and teams owned by oil gazillionaires mean that only three English soccer teams have a shot at winning the league title, and only about seven have a chance of being any good at all. This is terrible for league parity, and I imagine if you happen to be a die-hard Fulham fan, it'd be immensely frustrating. For American fans, though, it makes the league intuitively easy to understand; even casual fans know that Chelsea vs. Manchester United is a big game, and that if Manchester City is playing Swansea City, then Swansea are the scrappy underdogs. Either way, knowing what's at stake is simple.

This week, American soccer star Clint Dempsey made a surprise return to America, leaving English club Tottenham for the Seattle Sounders. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated covered the details of the transaction, but the thing that stood out to me is that Major League Soccer - which is run as a single entity, and thus governs player allocation in cases like this - made no bones about wanting Dempsey to go to what it clearly considers one of the league's marquee teams in Seattle.

MLS has long suffered from a decided lack of big teams and big games. Even if they're both good teams, the excitement of a Colorado-Montreal game just doesn't come through the screen. It's possible that this Dempsey allocation, while potentially not great for league parity, at least shows that MLS is starting to think about making the league interesting to the casual fan.

*On with the links: 

*Weekend links favorite Parker Hageman talks with Jared Burton about pitching, and it's fascinating.

*This cartoon by Molly Brooks explains, better than I ever could, why sports are better than fiction and reality TV and pretty much every other form of entertainment.

*Clint Irwin is the Colorado Rapids' starting goalkeeper, but as somebody who's making the league rookie minimum and has played in the lower North American leagues, he can describe for you exactly how hard it is to scratch out a living.

*At Grantland, Sean McIndoe fixes the NHL, and I must say I pretty much entirely agree with him.

*Joe Posnanski writes about Cap Anson, but really about the entire Hall of Fame debate and who belongs in the Hall.

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