Come with me on a journey. A journey to an earlier time, possibly as early as the 1920’s and perhaps as late as the 1970’s. If we were to observe the landscape of sports in America, we’d recognize much. Baseball in center stage. Football in its infancy. Basketball perhaps significantly lower in popularity, but far from low on talent.
But it is boxing and horse racing that would capture our attention as major differences. During these periods, these two sports experienced their highest peaks of popularity. They were the sports de jour for the upper class, and captivated much of the country. Big matches and big races were social events to see and be seen at.
What a difference a couple decades makes. Today these two sports are on the very periphery of the American attention span. In an age dominated by viewer ratings and profit margins, they are all but off the map.
The parallels between the two sports are notable. Both saw major surges between World War I and World War II. Both experienced declines during the 1960’s, only to have resurgences in the 1970’s with the rise of legendary stars like Secretariat and Muhammad Ali. Both depend heavily on gambling as engines of their popularity. Both have seen drastic declines since the 1980’s. Both are in dire straits today in 2012.
Horse racing’s popularity is inevitably tied to the Triple Crown. When racing declined in popularity during the 60’s, many blamed the long period without a Triple Crown winner – a streak broken by Secretariat in 1973. We are currently in another Triple Crown drought that has lasted since Affirmed won the races in 1978. For this reason, most consider the recent forced retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another just days before the Belmont Stakes race a major blow to horse racing’s popularity and future prospects.
Meanwhile, boxing is in a similarly discouraging but altogether darker place in its history. While boxing’s popularity has fallen drastically over the last 30 years, it still commands large sums of money in the form of major winner’s purses and pay-per-view sales. And those sums of money have been the source of corruption through the sport’s past. Perhaps most famously, Jake La Motta admitted later in life to throwing a 1947 fight against Billy Fox at the behest of the Mafia.
Today the sports world is talking about boxing again – but only to wonder if corruption has again taken hold. On June 9th dominant champion Manny Pacquiao and challenger Timothy Bradley fought for the welterweight title. After 12 rounds, Bradley was declared the champion by split decision, though most in attendance and viewing agree Pacquiao was the clear victor. The controvercial decision has sparked a firestorm of criticism and suspicion into the integrity of the sport – which is self-governed and has no form of oversight. Many believe this is a deep stain on a sport that can scarcely afford it.
How the might sports have fallen.