As a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, your typical Saturday morning meant one thing: the NBA on NBC.
Admit it, every time you hear the familiar tune of “Heart of a Champion,” you’re transported back to a childhood weekend in front of the old-school Hitachi TV set. There’s Marv Albert, calling the game. Mike Fratello providing commentary. Bob Costas, Peter Vecsey, and Hannah Storm in studio. Michael Jordan going head-to-head with John Starks. Those were the days.
Back then, professional sports made it their mission to reach out to the youth of the world. Primetime games were played at 10:00 AM on Saturday mornings. Shows like NBA Inside Stuff with Ahmad Rashad were geared towards engaging a younger crowd, as well as adults. Even the NBA All-Star Weekend featured a pre-event tailored especially for pre-pubescents. The stars of yesteryear were role models (despite what Charles Barkley might profess), and the best of the best capitalized on their kid-friendly fame to expand their fan base (think M.J. in Space Jam).
When I wasn’t being a spry, young couch potato watching basketball, my dad would take my brother and I to Seattle Mariners’ games. I still have ticket stubs from the early- and mid-’90s that show a single-digit number after the dollar sign for nearly all seats in the spacious Kingdome. That, and I can recall my dad shelling out for parking, food, and drinks at the game without having to drop half his paycheck (who can resist the infamous King Dog, after all?).
The Mariners’ were an organization on the cutting edge of reaching out to children. The product on the field was barely worth watching, at times, but the M’s got people to come to games simply by making it affordable for families to attend. That, and they were experts at keeping youngsters entertained with special events, games, gimmicks, giveaways, and a Moose mascot that was seemingly everywhere (pick on the Moose all you like, but what would you rather have, a marine? That’s not a lawsuit waiting to happen, or anything…”Come here, kids, and give the marine a big hug!”).
That was then, this is now.
These days pro sports franchises are choosing to cater more to their big contract players, rather than the fans who pay the salaries. Instead of broadcasting ballgames at kid-friendly times of day, teams are more content to showcase their brightest talent when the youngsters are already in bed. Hell, even a number of adults have trouble staying up and watching the late games now, especially those East Coasters trying to watch a West Coast contest.
No longer is it affordable to watch a game in-person. Sure, most clubs offer a special discount seating area, but that area is usually closer to Siberia than the actual playing surface. And once you factor in parking rates, food, and the occasional souvenir, most laypeople can’t even afford to think about taking their kids to the park or arena.
At the same time, leagues don’t go out of their way to make players appealing to children anymore. While Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the rest of the icons of the era were ready to kowtow to the younger crowd, today’s superstars seem more distant and not nearly as accessible as their predecessors. Even LeBron James, perhaps the safest of bets for minors, often seems more concerned with perpetuating an image of adulthood, distancing himself from his own relative youth, as well as the youths of America.
Of course, we won’t see any backlash from this behavior until a generation has passed and franchises begin to suffer. The result of the ’80s and ’90s kid era is that those of us now in our 20s and 30s are huge sports fans willing to pay ridiculous sums of money to be a part of the sports we love. Not so for the emerging generation that follows us.
Kids of today suffer from a lack of exposure to the sports that we couldn’t enough of. They’re more concerned with other things, and rightfully so. Exposure is the key, and pro sports leagues have seemingly forgotten that.
We tend to overlook these things as adults, but this ignorant behavior towards children will eventually come back to hurt all of us. Declining revenue in our favorite pro leagues in coming years will mean a bigger financial hit to those of us who want to be a part of the show. Eventually, many of us will be priced out of the game, if we haven’t been already, and forced to distance ourselves, too, from the games we once loved.
No, kids aren’t the sole target audience of the NBA, MLB, and NFL, among other leagues, but they need to be a greater priority if we intend to bridge the gap between today and tomorrow in terms of expansive (not expensive) fan bases.