Tell me if this sounds familiar: Your favorite college or professional football team has been back in action for the past few weeks and, for some reason, you aren’t incredibly excited. Something feels off.
This isn’t just a football thing, either. The energy level around the Rockets’ playoff run amounted to little more than a local whimper. On top of that, the Astros are in the midst of an unlikely playoff run, and the level of Houston pride is barely palpable.
If I’m going to use sports as an analogy to life, you should know I do understand there may be an actual sports-related reason for the lack of local interest.
Everyone knew the Rockets couldn’t advance in the playoffs – not with their hare-brained experiment of finding the smallest possible players to compete in the NBA. Heck, apparently coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t even want to stick around for another year of that.
The Astros probably don’t have the pitching to make it through another round, not to mention the sour taste we all have of the miracle kids of 2017, who apparently lifted half the trash cans washed away in Hurricane Harvey and used them as modern-day smoke signals for pitching signs.
It’s no better for Texans fans, who have replaced masks with head-covering paper bags. An 0-4 start, coupled with squandered draft picks and an emperor coach just shown the door, does not lend itself to street parties.
And it’s not much better for local Cowboy fans around town, much less the hapless Longhorns or Aggies, who have coaches earning a combined $12.5 million this year and a slim chance the schools will combine to win 12 games this season.
OK, so the Houston sports scene may be the worst model to share my hypothesis on the anemic energy levels usually devoted to our favorite sports teams. Which means you must excuse the following “humble-brag” as I remind our long-time readers (or inform our new ones) that I’m a native Alabamian whose first known words were “Roll Tide.”
That’s right, I am not some band-wagon Alabama fan – I was born a mile from Bryant-Denny Stadium and my Houston-born children may as well have been, too.
After a couple of years of mediocre seasons (meaning Alabama did not compete for, or win, the national championship) we have a team this year that will be hard to beat. In fact, most serious college football fans would tell you it wouldn’t be completely unfair to end the college season right now and allow Alabama and Clemson to pay a 3-game series to determine this year’s champ. (Here’s looking at you, Ohio State fans.)
In other words, I’m not wearing paper sacks or silently cursing my coach and quarterback, yet even I feel like something is off to this year’s football season.
Obviously, I know many of you are not die-hard sports fans, which means you’ve probably moved on to another story by now. But for those of you still around, don’t you find it interesting that in a year when we’ve needed a diversion more than ever, we hardly care about some of our favorite diversions?
If you remember back to the early months of the COVID crisis, anyone remotely interested in sports couldn’t wait for professional and college sports to return to TV. We swore it would be the panacea to the doldrums of lockdowns and social distancing.
Except that hasn’t happened at all, has it? If you don’t believe me, let’s go to the ratings.
According to an outfit called Sports Media Watch, which tracks TV ratings for sports programs, viewership has plummeted. The NBA Finals are a train-wreck. Game 1 between the Lakers and Heat had 7.4 million viewers. Last year, Game 1 between the Raptors and Warriors had 15.1 million viewers. That’s down by half, and the Lakers are a national brand. Major League Baseball has seen enormous drops in the playoffs, and even the NFL isn’t immune to declining interest.
There are all sorts of reasons for this. Some say it’s the athletes taking up social justice causes, and it’s not intellectually honest to completely blow that off as part of the reason. It’s not the main reason, but it fits in the discussion. Then there’s the coalescence of all sorts of sports piling up at once – when did the NBA, MLB and NFL ever all play on the same night? Attention does get diverted.
Some will say having no crowds at the games makes for bad TV viewing.
Others will argue that COVID has taught us to live without athletic entertainment. But I’d argue we were all begging for sports a few months ago.
Here’s my theory: Our political parties have become our only allegiance. Maybe this is an election-year phenomenon, but I’m not so sure. This year, you’re either Team Biden or Team Trump, and every ounce of your emotional energy is devoted to your political team. We’ve replaced Thursday Night Football with Thursday Night Debates. We’ve replaced Longhorn hats with Biden/Harris paraphernalia. We’ve replaced A&M jerseys with MAGA shirts.
You see, I think most normal people only have so much excess emotion outside of their homes, churches and jobs. And most years, we save our excess energy for Opening Day, or the NBA Finals, or Texans tailgates, or Alabama competing for National Championships.
This year, we can’t take a step without being reminded of national politics. It consumes our social media feeds, appears during every commercial break, rears its ugly head during lunches or family gatherings.
Political parties, I fear, have become our greatest and only allegiance, and following the drain of a pandemic, we’ve left no room to enjoy loyalties some of us have held dear our entire lives.
And if you don’t think that’s a damning indictment of our national culture today, then maybe our priorities have been manipulated. I’m sorry: National government is important, but there’s more to life than the power-grab of Washington, D.C.
For all you once-faithful Houston sports fans, I know this year is tough, but consider taking off the political pins for a day and throwing some burgers on the grill. If you need one, I’ve got a Bama hat you can wear, and we’ve got plenty of room on our bandwagon.