As you are probably aware, today is the first serious day of college football in the United States. Today all the preseason ranking will be proven wrong, all the analysts will change their strongly held opinions, and quite possibly some big name team will have its national championship hopes dashed by an upset.
I doubt I'll watch any of the games today, especially because Stanford's matchup with Sacramento State isn't televised and, frankly, shouldn't be. Nevertheless, major sporting days like this one - especially coming as it does, in the midst of baseballs playoff races, and with the NFL and NBA seasons right around the corner - spark thoughts about sports widely. I've written here before about the role and importance of athletic competition to our culture, so today I want to be a little more specific. What is it about each of our major sports, in particular, that make them popular?
Baseball, of course, is the so-called "national pastime," a quaint and anachronistic name for a game that has a cadre of die-hard fans, many of whom are stat-heads. The sport is buoyed, however, by casual observers who care a lot more about home runs than things like BABIP. Regardless, the attraction of baseball is, I think, its pace and its capacity for sustained drama. The one-pitch-at-a-time nature of the game - where one pitch could be complete inconsequential, or could be the third out, or could result in a grand slam - makes the excitement of those close games all the more palpable. There is no continuous action to force focus on a player, instead he must focus during the pause, as the crowd cheers and as everyone waits for the next pitch. On a related note, I think baseball also benefits, in a world of sports that are timed, by its lack of a clock. The idea that the game will simply go on until a winner is declared only adds further drama.
More than anything else, though, what is compelling about baseball is the skill necessary to play the game. While this is true of any sport at its highest level, in baseball there is a particular honor given to the guy who can hit. People often say that baseball is a game of failure, which is mostly true, but only because hitting is so difficult to do. Likewise, over such a long season, pitching consistently well (and without injury) is well nigh impossible. Even fielding and baserunning, which are frankly the easiest parts of the game, are full of nuance and challenge, so much so that players need gloves and basecoaches to help them do it right.
Basketball, is extremely different. I think the attraction here is, in part, all of the awesome moments that occur during a game regardless of drama at a given time. A slam dunk or an alley-oop or a three from the corner is pretty cool no matter what the score, and because basketball's best moments come from sheer athleticism, there's a kind of visceral reaction to them. I would argue this is why basketball's all-star game is so much more entertaining than baseball's or football's: in those sports, the score gives sense of drama that in basketball is generally missing, not because winning and losing don't matter, but because the game is so often decided in the last five minutes anyway that most basketball fans are used to watching for greatness without worrying about the points each team has scored.
I think, also, that basketball is well-liked because it is played so widely. More than any other major American sport, people play basketball. Basketball is everywhere, from the local gym to the driveway to the neighborhood park, and it's going on all the time. People feel a natural connection to athletes who play the same games they play (I certainly appreciate baseball more as someone who grew up playing), and so, despite the horrid officiating, the often boring first three quarters, and the bizarre and draconian salary laws in the NBA, people watch.
Football is almost certainly the most popular sport in America, but I don't think it's for the reason you normally hear. Football is an exciting and violent and fast-paced game, in some ways, and I'm sure a great many people watch it for that reason, but if that were what makes football popular, I don't know why rugby or, frankly, soccer hasn't caught on in the US. Both rugby and soccer are faster-paced than football, rugby is more violent, and soccer is, I'm willing to argue, more exciting. Football, I think, beats those sports - and basketball and baseball - not on drama, on intensity, or on pace but on tactics and strategy. Even the dumbest of the dumb football fan, if he is a serious fan, will talk with great intelligence and nuance about the values of the 3-4 defense compared to the 4-3, or about the kinds of blocking schemes his team's offensive line is using, and so on.
People say that baseball is appeals to the intellectual, and it does, but not because it is tactically complex. Baseball's "chess match" is really more of a checkers match, while the football is more akin to chess, if not something even more complicated like Go. Consider that, in baseball, even former players - many of whom are not that bright - often make good managers. Former football players - with the exception of quarterbacks - rarely make good coaches because the game is so complex, so tactically nuanced, and so strategic that only particularly bright people can handle it. On top of that, the NFL at least comes with a complex set of roster rules that add another strategic dimension to weekly preparation.
Football teams play only once a week in part because of how physically demanding the game is, no doubt, but I expect that a huge part of the reason for its infrequency is how mentally demanding it is as well. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on there, but it seems to me that, given the modern game, teams and coaches need at least a week to prepare tactically for the next week's game, as much as they need that time to prepare physically.
To summarize, baseball is a game of sustained drama, basketball a game of moments of extreme skill and athleticism, and football a game of tactics and strategies. Of course, all three games have aspects of all three of those attractions, but what makes each stand out - to me, anyway - are what I have listed above. Just don't tell any of those rabid Texas football fans that football is a slow-paced (four hours? Really?) game of the mind, lest they get offended.