In politics on rare occasions someone supports an issue that in the long run is best for his constituency, but may be his (or her) own undoing. Often the fruits of these decisions are not seen for many years after they are made. In todays sports world the two enterprises that are most in need of some true statesmen are horse racing and boxing. During the the time that my Grandfather was the age I am now, these two sports along with baseball and college football were the crown jewels of the sports world. Baseball and college football are still doing relatively okay, but as for the other two……..well lets just say less so.
The root of this problem is money. We all want to make money, so I blame no one for that. The problem here is that the short term money grabs are destroying the long term viability of the sport. People complain all the time about how their connections to their favorite MLB or NFL teams are not as strong as they used to be because of free agency. In those sports though ,peoples true passion is for the team. So no matter who slips on the O’s jersey or the Redskins helmet its still the O’s or the Skins. In horse racing and boxing the individuals are the teams; so when the fan base has no connection to the participants you end up with no fan base.
Boxing’s problems are twofold. One unfortunately is that fighters don’t fight often enough. In my youth because the fighters didn’t make as much per fight, you saw them more regularly. This built interest. You didn’t just care about a fight, you cared about particular fighters careers. My personal favorite Ray Leonard fought 9 times in 1979, culminating in a title shot against Wilfredo Benitez. Muhammad Ali would fight 5 or 6 times a year during the seventies against competition like Frazier and Norton. Now if you are lucky you get two fights a year from the stars and then it is on PPV, or hopefully HBO or Showtime. Now we probably cannot get fighters to fight more often. If they can make their living not risking their bodies to more beatings then more power to them. But the second problem has to be where those fight that do happen are seen. I am from one of the last generations that got to watch boxing for free. As late as the early 90’s spring and summertime would include at least two Saturday fights on ABC or CBS, ESPN on Friday, USA on Tuesday, and the bigger fights on HBO. Only the truly historic fights were closed-circuit or Pay-per-view. You got to know Leonard, Hearns, Tyson and Holyfield before you were asked to pay big dollars to see them. After getting to know the fighters and becoming personally invested in their careers you were happy to fork over the money for a big fight because you were a fan. Unlike now where you often feel you are being taken advantage of. This weekend Nonito Donaire is headlining a PPV. Most sports fans have no idea who he is. He is a very entertaining flyweight champ somewhat like Michael Carbajal, but unlike Carbajal as far as I know none of his fights have ever been on anything but Showtime or PPV. So why would anyone but the niche crowd pay 40 dollars to see him in a fight that twenty years ago would have been on Wide World of Sports. It is tough to say to Donaire that he needs to make less money for a fight or two for the good of the sport, but this is why boxing needs statesman. It needs a sport wide consensus to do things like make less money for awhile and beg the networks to start weekend boxing back up when football is out of season. They need to take less money for some title fights and put them on ESPN. This will allow fans to develop. That way you can sell an array of fighters to the public not just one or two. It will bring more fans to the gate and more will be willing to pony up for PPV’s because they care about the participants. Guys like Chad Dawson and Israel Vazquez could be big stars that are known by more than 5 percent of Americans (if that), if the sport would bite the bullet to truly market with a long term approach.
Horse Racing has a similar problem, but unlike in boxing where I was reluctant to ask the boxers to take less; I have no such reticence in racing because the horses aren’t paid anyway. In racing the problem is the money involved in breeding. The problem is that eventually if there is no interest in the actual racing the breeding money will dry up. Smarty Jones was a sensation for 5 weeks in 2004. I haven’t seen the interest in racing in the last 20 years that high before or since. But after the Belmont, Smarty never ran again. Why? 39 million dollars. The owners were offered 39 million to sell him into stud. Smarty Jones wouldn’t have made even close to that in race earnings, if he’ run until he was 10. Afleet Alex, Street Sense and Big Brown are three other horses that were on their way to being big stars, but were raced either not at all or very lightly after the Belmont and never made it their 4 year old season. Horse racing like any other sport needs fans to continue. How can you build fans when you have no stars. In the 80’s the Kentucky Derby averaged around 25 million viewers; that number is now down to about 13 million, even though the country has about 80 million more residents. That is because as of now there are only two and a half days on the racing calendar that anyone cares about (other than the gamblers). Derby Day and Preakness, and then Belmont if there is a triple crown possibility. Those days though are still important and can still make stars. The industry needs to use those stars to revive the sport. It isn’t just that fans won’t see their favorites at any other races, but I believe retiring them early actually turns off fans because they are mad about starting to care for a horse just to have him yanked away almost immediately. Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid all had very productive four year old careers. Even into the late eighties Alysheba and Sunday Silence took their fame and excitement into their four year old year. Sports need fans and fans need a reason to care, otherwise horse racing is just for the gamblers and that does not have long term viability with so many other outlets now available to the gambling dollar. Have you been to the track lately on a regular day. It is a graveyard and an old folks home all rolled into one. Just like other sports, horse racing has to lose its stars eventually, just don’t take them from us in their primes. Imagine a race in 2005 that would have included Funny Cide, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones. Those kind of races can be the reality if racing gets a few statesmen. It is tough for one owner to risk his investment for the good of the sport, but if many get together and see the need for this it could happen. Jess Jackson set a good example for his brethren to follow by racing Curlin all the way through his 4 year old campaign. It just isn’t enough.
Boxing and Horse racing are dying sports. I feel that the literally centuries of excitement they have provided make them too important to die. I just hope the the leaders in each industry see what they need to do before it is too late.