Long Tail Sports

February 19, 2012

Neymar-mania vs. Lin-sanity?

Lin-sanity notwithstanding, this is a time of year when I always find myself wanting more as a sports fan in America. The memories of the Super Bowl and BCS Championship game have already started to fade; March madness remains a long way off; pitchers and catchers have yet to report for Spring Training; and both the NBA and NHL have just passed the midpoint of their respective regular seasons. Add that it’s the middle of Winter (even an historically mild one), and these factors combine to make mid February a less than thrilling few weeks.

Lately, I’ve partially solved my urge for non-stop sports entertainment by turning to leagues that have much less popularity and almost no visibility in mainstream U.S. media coverage.

First, during a brief trip to Brazil for a conference, I enjoyed watching some early round action in the Paulistão, or the elite soccer league of São Paulo state. With historically dominant teams like Corinthians, Santos, and Palmeiras, São Paulo boasts one of the most competitive state-level championships within Brazil and usually includes several young players who will become international superstars with household names within a few years (e.g. if you haven’t heard of Neymar yet, just be patient, the teenage phenom will likely figure prominently in the Brazilian national team’s efforts when the country hosts the World Cup in 2014).

Then, the week after I returned from Brazil, I spent a few afternoons watching the final games of the Serie del Caribe, an international tournament that wraps up the Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The games were tight, competitive and included a number of Major League players who seemed either to have chosen to return home as triumphant stars or to hone their skills among Latin America’s most competitive leagues.

Despite the fact that you’ll never see your local ESPN network cover either of these events, both have a ton of history behind them and tremendous fan-bases (ESPN’s Brazilian and regional Latin American affiliates cover both). They are also extraordinarily competitive and played at a very high skill level.

Latin American soccer and baseball are not the only options. There are also a whole range of winter sports that never show up on U.S. television schedules until the Olympics. In other words, the only thing preventing you from watching terrific, exciting sporting events in the middle of the annual mid-Winter lull is the fact that you would probably either need to pay an inordinate sum for satellite coverage or seek out unauthorized streams on websites that serve sketchy advertisements and mal-ware along with the game.

At the risk of making a very Ethan Zuckerman-esque point, the Internet makes it theoretically trivial to solve this problem, but that theoretical triviality only underscores a much bigger problem in the way our attention is distributed and canalized by a combination of cultural habits and incumbent media networks. In other words, maybe you’d be more likely to watch Neymar and Santos take on Palmeiras if either your local television network would it or if you could easily find a high quality stream broadcasting in English (I also enjoy watching these things online because I get to listen to Portuguese and Spanish language announcers). Indeed, as long as somebody is streaming a broadcast of any of these games anywhere around the world, there’s no practical reason that it isn’t possible to watch that stream anywhere else. But for a whole variety of reasons that I don’t fully understand, that just doesn’t happen yet.

My point is that American sports fans live in a media ecosystem that has not yet figured out what to do with its (long) tail. There has to be a better, less monopolistic solution than satellite and cable providers charging high rates for access to particular sports packages or leagues. This model ensures that only existing fans who are willing to pay to watch teams they already like will ever subscribe to such services, condemning these sports and teams to continued obscurity. Instead, it would be great to see some affordable way for fans to take advantage of existing Internet streams to experiment with new sports, new leagues, and new cultures by tuning into otherwise less popular or less well-known events when their hometown favorites are not in season.

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