This Monday is my favorite day of the year other than my anniversary and the kids’ birthdays. It’s opening day for big-league baseball in Washington and the night of the NCAA men’s basketball final.
For a sports-crazed nation, where 70 of the 100 most-watched television shows last year were sports related, it’s a feast. The basketball final will feature Gonzaga, a small Jesuit school out of Spokane, Washington, which had never been to a Final Four, and North Carolina in its 20th. Earlier that day there’s always something magical when the boys of spring trot out to start the long season.
This also may be the time when professional football, the king of American sports for decades, is challenged for popularity. Baseball has been buoyed by the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series win, their first in 108 years. And March Madness is one of the great marketing schemes of modern times; on Tuesday morning, the dominant chatter at water coolers, break rooms and food courts will be the wudda cudda shudda of doleful bracketologists.
Baseball is called America’s pastime, but for almost half a century the National Football League has dominated. It’s a neo-socialist money machine, with the 32 teams sharing most of the television revenue and the worst teams given preference in selecting newcomers. Its annual revenue of more than $12 billion dwarfs professional basketball’s and baseball’s.
The genius of NFL Films popularized pro football. Think of that growly recap of the 1967 “Ice Bowl,” a term now recycled as cliche along with “frozen tundra” every December or January in Green Bay, Wisconsin, even though Lambeau Field there now has a sophisticated heating system under the gridiron.
But the NFL has big problems. The huge television audience fell off last year, and over half the teams aren’t selling out their games. For years the league covered up the correlation between collisions, concussions and subsequent brain injuries. With tragic outcomes for some former players, the violence is catching up to the game.
Prominent athletes are citing the dangers. Basketball great LeBron James says he won’t let his sons play football. Similar doubts have been raised by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Brett Favre, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw. Americans still love football but these red flags may get brighter.
Women, especially, may be switching. With a boost from a generation of federal civil rights enforcement, a lot of young women are playing high-level basketball or softball, not football. This will only grow, with Friday night’s Connecticut-Mississippi State Final Four matchup as one of the classic college contests of any sport or any gender. UConn, which had won a record 111 games in a row and beaten Mississippi State by 60 points last year, was upset in overtime when a 5-foot-5 guard made the winning shot at the buzzer.
College basketball, with its relentless pursuit of bigger bucks, too often mocks the ideal of the student-athlete. A University of Louisville staffer enlisted hookers to attract 18-year-old basketball recruits. The University of North Carolina, according to its own investigation, steered athletes into fake classes where easy grading preserved their eligibility.
Yet the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which sanctions some kids for minor stuff, has yet to throw the book at these two sports powerhouses, preferring to believe that Rick Pitino, the control-freak coach of Louisville, was oblivious to his program’s scandal and that North Carolina had just had a few bad apples.
Still, most programs are clean and the game is more fun and competitive than ever. Now that it’s easy for star players to leave top schools for professional careers after their freshman years, there’s more parity. This enables smaller colleges like Gonzaga and Butler to compete with Kentucky and Kansas.
During March Madness there are plenty of remarkable plays, but one of the things that makes it fun is that there are also some entertainingly stupid ones. Years ago, I took basketball great and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley to a college game where I wondered incredulously why a player took an ill-advised shot. “Because he’s a 20-year-old kid,” Bradley explained.
On Monday night, 20-year-old kids will produce thrilling moments — and Charles Barkley will analyze them!
On the professional level, baseball, more than football, is showcasing marquee talent. The Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, all 25 or younger, are the most exciting young players since Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron in the 1950s.
Baseball expects to parlay them and the Cubs-Cleveland Indians World Series last fall to a banner 2017 season with compelling narratives.
Memo to my editor: Don’t call between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m on Monday afternoon. I have appointments at Nationals Park. President Donald Trump decided not to follow custom and throw out the first pitch, sparing us, for at least a couple hours, a chorus of boos. It was the smartest decision he made last month.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.