Taylor: Lockouts benefit marginalized sports

July 14, 2011, 1:45 a.m.

I discovered a new sport last week: cycling.

I’m not going to lie and say I’d never heard of the Tour de France before, but it’s never been a focus of mine until now. On top of facing a bit of a gap in my schedule with the new soccer season in Europe still a month away and U.S. college sports mostly winding down for the summer, I’d been disheartened by the continual failure of British teams or athletes in general (compare, for example, the success of Spanish tennis players to their homegrown counterparts at Wimbledon). Still, cycling managed to catch my attention, at least for a few days.

As I write this, it seems things have changed a little. But at the start of the Tour, Britain had more riders than anyone else in the top 10, and one of these was on exactly the same time as the leader. Outside of track cycling, in which we won a host of medals in Beijing, I don’t really remember much substantial success in this sport, so it was pretty exciting to see this brief flash of promise in the Super Bowl of cycling.

Such unexpected successes can do a lot to publicize otherwise ignored disciplines. Winning a rare gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics suddenly made British fans aware of the sport of curling — a forgotten sporting relic that originated in Scotland. In 1999, the U.S. women’s soccer team succeeded where the men failed, not just by winning the World Cup, but by securing a place in the hearts of American fans. Fernando Alonso even turned Spain, a country hooked on soccer and motorbikes, into Formula 1 fans. Win or lose, the TV exposure alone can have a subconscious effect. In the U.K., amateur runners and tennis players always appear (apparently out of nowhere) in the days following the London Marathon or Wimbledon. But the athletes disappear just as quickly, and that is often the problem for these sports: they can hit the headlines, but most can’t stay there for long.

We might be facing a unique opportunity to do just that, at least in the U.S., in the next few months. The prospect of a simultaneous NBA and NFL lockout would leave a huge hole in the world of American sports. Journalists might be able to partly fill this by talking about the political twists and turns of the situation, but surely that wouldn’t satisfy the fans who’d otherwise tune in for Monday Night Football.

I don’t wish to overly criticize the stance of these deserving athletes, though I can’t quite agree with their motives. While many of their fans are losing their homes and jobs in the world financial crisis, players are causing tumult in search of an extra zero in their already substantial paychecks. Not that I’m supporting the team bosses either, but I’d rather see this money filter down to the little people, the fans, by making tickets and replica gear cheaper. And both parties might find they are biting the hands that feed them. Something will need to fill the dead air, and if there were ever a chance for fringe sports or even the already-popular college sports to gain a greater slice of the pie, this could be it. It won’t be easy to go against the power of — and traditional loyalty to — the NBA and NFL, but with a little bit of ingenuity and a hefty slice of luck, who knows?

The MLS and WNBA seasons will be peaking at about the same time that the NFL and NBA seasons are due to start, providing the former sports a great opportunity to steal some of the spotlight. For both, it could be a tempting proposition to consider moving game times to fill the vacant primetime slots or even to find a way to extend their respective seasons by a few extra weeks. Ironically, any attempt to cash in on increased coverage might work against them — provided that the warring parties in the NBA and NFL make peace — but either way, it would be a win-win situation for fans. At least they’d be guaranteed some basketball and “football.”

But even given this opportunity, it will require something extra special for these two to break the overwhelming monopoly of their bigger cousins: an extraordinary end to the season, full of twists and turns, to etch themselves into the memories of watching fans and stay there through the off season. Because if anything is certain, it’s that eventually, NBA players will return to the court and football stars will walk back out onto the field, and when they do, they will be seriously tough opposition.

Tom Taylor would like to commandeer a minor sports league before the NBA and NFL lockouts end. Sell him yours at [email protected].

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