Some quick confessions: Many years ago I decided that, by never turning on a football game, I would add years of leisure to my life (I’ve been pretty faithful). Secondly, I fully empathize with those non-Californians who felt this year’s World Series was a yawn. Finally, I really like bars — but not when they’re filled with people yelling for their team.Having said all this, I nonetheless understand the willingness of TV mavens worldwide to pour billions into sports programming, even though faced with fragmentation and tumbling ratings. Variety‘s John Dempsey reports this week that no less than three new sports networks are springing to life in the U.S., spurred by digital cable and satellite. And overseas when the Kirch empire went belly up, there was no shortage of players eager to bid for soccer and other events. Bet on growth There are also new enticements: Los Angeles is the latest city where it’s possible not only to watch horse racing at home but also to bet on your favorites. We’re surrounded by sports. We’re overwhelmed by them. It’s just too bad the games aren’t more interesting. The pace of baseball makes turtle races seem exciting, so it’s no surprise World Series ratings plummeted last week. That won’t shut off the money. NBA ratings, too, are tumbling, but a new TV mega-deal was just negotiated. (Are any New Yorkers really going to watch those flabby felons known as the Knicks?) Europeans and Asians are slightly behind the U.S. in their sports craze, but the gap is closing fast. Some $1.87 billion was shelled out for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups (still, ESPN’s soccer forays have had dim ratings in the U.S.). American NBA teams may swipe Chinese superstars, but now 150 basketball games will be available on TV in China this year. And product placement is ubiquitous: Nike is sponsoring the Chinese pro league while Nokia is all over the networks, as the Wall Street Journal reminded us last week. The big news: Chinese basketball players can actually run, unlike their NBA role models. Loyal legion With all of the ratings problems, advertisers in the U.S. still pay a premium for sports because their audience is dependable. Couch potatoes make up in loyalty what they lack in charisma. But will fragmentation test this loyalty? ESPN is trying all sorts of alternative shows, not to mention movies, to fill out its schedule. Presumably the new networks will try to meet the hard-core audience’s appetite for hard-core sports, though it won’t exactly be superstar time. In fact, given the money being tossed around for rights, one can imagine the sort of events that may be available. On the new National College Sports Network, we may catch a stirring whiffle ball game between Sweetbriar and Vassar. I’m told Ursinus and Lafayette have a feverish Lacrosse rivalry. And when is the last time we’ve been offered badminton on TV? There’s clearly a future here. Given the big bucks thrown at the major tennis tournaments worldwide, it’s hard to imagine what the new Tennis Channel will be able to grab. Some pay-per-view stunts would seem to be in the offing. For $20 you may be able to watch Andre Agassi bash balls at Serena Williams. Where is Bobby Riggs now that we need him? And then there’s the new Football Network. What games are left to televise? Canadian football? Junior college football? It would seem the most fertile arena that remains to be tapped is prison sports. The lethal competition within prison walls is easily more intense than at the college level — indeed, more and more so-called college players end up doing their “graduate work” in jail. Where is the Slammer Sports Network? Andy Rooney ran into a buzz saw recently complaining about female football analysts. Well, anyone who has to spend his — or her — career watching professional sports deserves our empathy. Think of what it’s like out there, describing overpaid, under-motivated athletes wallowing in their sea of product placements. I think old Andy should be analyzing whiffle ball at Sweetbriar.
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