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Point of View / Bob Oates : The Sound-Bite Generation : Basketball's Fast-Thinking Fans Favor Fastest Sport; Baseball Is as Good as Ever, but It Can't Hold Audience

March 13, 1994|Bob Oates

As baseball resumes this spring and as the basketball season begins to wind down, one thing is evident: On the popularity meter, these are sports heading in different directions.

Basketball is gaining. Baseball, the undisputed national pastime 30 or 40 years ago, has lost its grip on the country.

Nationwide polls, television ratings and other indicators make the critical points:

* Although pro football is America's most popular spectator game, the public's interest in basketball on all other fronts--college, prep and playground--is either comparable with football's or ahead.

* Although attendance remains high for major league baseball--identifying the game's loyal but aging fan base--support for baseball has been declining in the country at large.

* The college basketball championship game has moved ahead of the World Series to become the nation's second-biggest annual sports attraction. In the most recent television ratings, the NCAA title game's 22.2 was exceeded only by the Super Bowl's 45.5.

Since 1980, the average annual World Series TV rating has tumbled 47% to last fall's 17.3. By contrast, the NBA finals were up to a 17.9 average last spring, when college basketball's Final Four matchups averaged 17.0.

It shouldn't be supposed, though, that as a game, baseball has deteriorated.

This is still the same superb game it was in the years before television, before radio, before telephones.

What has changed is the America that created baseball more than a century ago.

Today, it is basketball that is in tune with the times.

*

This is an era of information overload, instant gratification and shortened attention spans. This, to use a TV phrase, is the sound-bite era.

And, contributing to the restive collective consciousness, basketball offers the quickness of movement and the repetitive, almost continuous, scoring that so strongly appeal to the sound-bite generation.

Baseball, once the obvious leader, is losing ground not because of its defects, real or imagined, but because 1990s Americans want something livelier, more modern, more pertinent.

And that's basketball.

This is a country always in evolution, and its history, in large part, is a history of a quickening of pace.

In the slow, hard days before electric lights and indoor plumbing, the symbol of early America was the horse. Nothing moved faster than a horse could run.

The pace picked up with the coming of electric, steam and oil power to a more active generation, and the symbol of that somewhat hastier time was a baseball.

In those years, nothing moved faster than a ball could be hit with a bat, and baseball suitably became the national pastime. But that era, too, was doomed.

With fiber optics and computer science and dunked basketballs, the pace has quickened again, and the symbol of this new age is the sound bite.

Time appears to be instantaneous on living-color television. The evening news can acquaint the entire country with the latest war reports, or more often the latest scandals, in bites of eight or 10 seconds.

And in doing so, TV people have found that that's all that Americans want to hear about anything, anyway, unless an ice skater has been assaulted.

As President Clinton recently said, "It's hard to get more than one message a day across to the American people."

If in such a country basketball is a better fit than baseball, the fit wasn't planned, it simply happened, evolving out of the nature of basketball--which not too long ago was a slow-moving sport with final scores of 28-27 and 32-30.

It has become a 104-102 sport because, for one thing, most of the nation's finest athletes are now in the NBA.

"I'd have gone for pro basketball if I were taller," Kansas City Chief quarterback Joe Montana said, expressing a view often made by professionals in all sports. "Basketball was my favorite game in school."

Many non-professionals, who play neighborhood and playground basketball all over America, agree with the pros.

"Basketball has such deep roots," former coach Red Auerbach once said. "It's a team game that two people can play. In fact, it's a team game that one guy can play by himself."

As a spectator sport, it also differs considerably from the others.

On a typical winter night, in an interval of three or four seconds, you can watch the athletic seven-footers of the NBA make--in one play--a sequence of six or seven seemingly impossible moves, followed by somebody's sudden shot.

The shot drops in more often than not, starting a race to the other end of the court and, perhaps, a dunk, followed by another race and another basket and another race in a long, exciting melange of sound bites.

There are no home run trots, no balks, no huddles.

And it is the constant commotion that holds the attention of today's shouting sports fans, who have to think fast to keep up with it all.

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