When we talk about second-tier sports, the nature of the discussion is entirely different.When two teams make the Super Bowl, the talk among commentators centres on the game and players. What are the weaknesses of each defence? What would a win mean for Quarterback X’s legacy? How will Kicker Y’s big-toe injury affect the decision to go for it on 4th down?
In contrast, when two teams make the Stanley Cup Finals, a lot of the mainstream talk centres on one question: is this good for hockey?
The conversion isn’t, “What team will win?”
It’s, “What team winning would be better for the sport?” As if the relative strength of the sport is more important than the Finals games themselves.
We’re all familiar with this meta-level commentary. Seemingly every time there’s a story about soccer, tennis, boxing, or (decreasingly) hockey, the majority of the talk is about its impact on the sport itself.
When the talk around your sport dips into this territory, you’re in trouble.
Only when the talk around your sport is about the games, players, and teams themselves are you firmly in the top tier of sports popularity.
Football is there. Basketball is there. Baseball is there.
Hockey is almost there again after collapsing into the second tier after its lockout.
Men’s tennis floats in between depending on the players involved.
Soccer, boxing, women’s tennis, NASCAR, and every other fringe sport not worth mentioning are solidly second tier.
But how about golf?
On the eve of the 2011 U.S. Open, golf seems to be staring at a future on the margins of the American sports landscape.
A lot of this has to do with the downfall of Tiger Woods. Without him, the sport lacks a transcendent athlete. It lacks a crossover star who forces the mainstream to care about the outcome of a golf tournament.
Tiger in his prime allowed an entire novel’s worth of storylines to develop. It created the good/evil, favourite/underdog dichotomies that are such a huge part of following sports.
With Tiger, the question on the bottom of the screen during PTI was always, “TIGER OR THE FIELD?”
Without him, the question has been more along the lines of, “IS PARITY GOOD FOR GOLF?”
In theory, this doesn’t have to be the case. The popularity of golf while Tiger was on top shows that with a handful of rivalries and marketable stars, the sport can go mainstream.
But golf has no stars right now.
Tiger is reeling. Phil, Ernie, and Vijay are getting old. And the oft-predicted David Duval comeback, sadly, ain’t gonna happen.
Instead the game is filled with promising youngsters, Southerners who bomb it off the tee, and a bunch of Europeans who are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
Some have argued that there are a lot of great golfers on the tour right now. And they may be right.
But in sports, greatness is relative, not actual. Greatness is defined by consistently winning and sometimes dominating. Greatness is being overtly better than whatever the average is.
It has nothing to do with a player’s singular, objective abilities.
That’s why Babe Ruth is great even though an average major leaguer in today’s game could probably also dominate if they time-traveled to the 1920s.
That’s why Novak Djokovic isn’t great even though he’s better than every other player of his generation except two guys who happen to both be in the All-Time Top 10.
Golf lacks dominant players or even consistent winners. So golf has no great players.
Without great players, all the things that make us discuss who will win this weekend’s Open disappear. And we are left asking the dreaded question, “What would be the best outcome for golf?”
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