Recently, I’ve been surprised over the lack of outrage that normally-insane Boston sports fans have expressed about Rob Gronkowski’s hesitance to return to action. Considering that it’s just Week 6, I started to wonder if the relatively mild reaction was due to a decline in interest that many fans may have in the regular season. Of course, that’s only one example, so to test my hypothesis, I had to look for more.
Last season, the NHL cancelled 34 of its 82 games for each team, and it would be reasonable to expect a drop in interest from fans, based on the huge decline in interest after the 2005 lockout that wiped out the entire season. Yet the NHL’s attendance rose by about 1,000 fans per game last season. From the numbers, it seems fewer games equaled more interest. According to Forbes, the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013 had double the ratings of the first game in the 2012 finals. The average price for a Cup Finals game ticket also rose in 2013, and it appeared that the lockout had an opposite effect than what was expected; the condensed regular season made every game that much more important, meaning that the overall excitement surrounding the product increased. There’s a reason that the NHL’s deputy commissioner claimed that a certain sticking point in lockout negotiations was “the hill we will die on,” only to compromise on that issue a few days later in order to avoid losing the entire season. The NHL and its owners knew that the regular season wasn’t all that important, and that a great deal of it could be sacrificed without long-lasting damage to the league. The playoffs are the real show.
Forbes also noted that there was a major spike in demand for the playoffs in the NBA. Regular season ratings last year dropped, however, from both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. These findings support what I heard from many NBA fans during the league’s own lockout two years ago: “I don’t watch NBA regular season games anyway … I really only care about the playoffs.”
Considering the NBA and NHL’s ticket sales and TV ratings, the Gronkowski situation and MLB’s eternal quest to make baseball games go as slowly as 79-year-old Commissioner Bud Selig probably drives his car, it seems as though the regular seasons for American sports are starting to matter less and less. From ages seven to about 11, I would always try to finish my homework in time to be able to watch
the Red Sox game on TV that night. I highly doubt there are nearly as many young boys doing that today.
So, why the decline in interest? Well, some answers are obvious, such as how technology has quickened our lives and the way we watch sports. It doesn’t make as much sense for a person who is used to smartphones, Twitter and instant news updates to set aside a few hours of his or her time to watch a game. But there has to be more of a reason than that.
Surprisingly enough, I think the fact that sports fans are becoming more informed is hurting the leagues’ regular season appeal. For example, people seem to be more aware than ever before that there is no benefit to being a mediocre team in any sport, as fans are rooting for their teams to tank for a better draft pick. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that that doesn’t bode well for regular season interest.
Also, at any point of the season, an NBA fan can now look online and find the exact chance that each team has of winning the title according to thousands of computer simulations. If only three teams have more than a 10 percent chance of winning the title, as many simulations were indicating at the end of last year’s regular season, can you really blame NBA fans for not caring about regular season games that ultimately won’t mean anything come May and June?
In hockey and baseball, the opposite is true, as everyone who makes the playoffs has a legitimate chance to win. While the regular season actually separates the great from the bad teams too often in the NBA, the NHL’s and MLB’s regular seasons don’t separate them enough. Yet, the effect on the overall interest is the same. By the end of the regular season, the games only matter for the few teams scraping to get into the playoffs because fans will remember that, as long as their team is in the tournament, the games aren’t very important.
Only football seems to have the right combination, where every team in the playoffs has a chance to win it all, while teams who have better regular season records still have definite advantages. But even that isn’t as true as it once was. The past three Super Bowl champions went 10-6, 9-7 and 10-6 in the regular season, and last year’s champs, the Baltimore Ravens, couldn’t have looked worse in December. But nobody remembers that anymore, because, after they went beast mode in the playoffs, fans thought to themselves, “Well, I guess that’s why the regular season doesn’t matter that much.”
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.