The Big 3: Horse Racing, Boxing and Baseball

Photo credit: Power Creative / Dan Dry

Racing at the Kentucky Derby. Photo credit: Power Creative / Dan Dry

Sometimes it’s worth stepping back and realizing how much time changes things. That’s not true just because it’s interesting and enlightening to do so, but because it can also be inspiring. It’s a reminder that not only can things change, but that they certainly do. Big, immovable, permanent “truths” turn out not to be so permanent after all.

I was reading about the Kentucky Derby recently and in the discussion of the current popularity of Horse Racing, I read something that I’ve read and heard a number of times before: the “big 3” sports until 40 or 50 years ago were horse racing, boxing and baseball.

Let that sink in a moment. Imagine ESPN had existed in 1955. The lead story would very likely be who won a horse race that is NOT the Kentucky Derby, or a run of the mill professional boxing match or, of course, baseball.

Even non-sports fans know that today, the most popular sports in the U.S. are football, baseball and basketball. Really, it’s football — long pause to reflect how far ahead football is — baseball, and basketball. Then after that you’ve got the next tier of hockey, auto racing, and maybe soccer, before you tumble down to the truly obscure stuff like lacrosse, and, yes, horse racing and boxing.

How did this happen? Actually, it’s not all that mysterious, at least not in hindsight. As a pretty avid sports fan, I can probably lay out a pretty good explanation of the decline of both boxing and horse racing, and I can explain how basketball and football rose through the mists of obscurity to be on top. But short of such a treatise, the basics are this: horse racing, boxing and even to a smaller degree baseball faced societal changes that reduced their relevance and appeal, and they didn’t really do anything about it. Moreover, in some cases, the people running these sports made decisions that actually made their situation, and the societal tides running against them, much worse.

Take horse racing, which failed to evolve when other forms of gambling like the lottery and casinos became more mainstream, or boxing, which made the decision to take its best content and put it behind an expensive pay wall. Baseball, the victim of a long-term trend toward faster paced, louder entertainment and a more and more city-dwelling population, has suffered some too, but they’ve staved off the worst of it by investing in technologies, programs, and marketing to stay current.

On the other side, football and basketball have done many, many things to make their sports better and more in tune with fans and potential fans. They actively pursue relevance to as large an audience as they can cultivate. Baseball remains popular, even if it’s not as popular as it used to be, especially relative to football, by spending a lot of time, energy and talent thinking about how to counteract the societal trends that are most definitely running against it.

But the message is this: big things change, partly because the world and its people change, but also because people figure out ways for what they’re doing to suit those people better. This is a challenge when you’re on top, but when you feel like the power of popularity is running against you, it’s an opportunity. Things change. You can take that to the bank. The question is where will you and your sport or genre be when they do?

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