Sports three kings: horse racing, boxing, baseball now becoming irrelevant

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If you live in the Chicago area, or even just pay attention to what goes on there in the sports world, a collision of irrelevant sports are going to be on the calendar the weekend of Aug. 16-17.

Think about this: On Friday night there will be the first professional boxing event at a Chicago baseball stadium since Sonny Liston fought Floyd Patterson on Sept. 25, 1962 at the old Comiskey Park. And on Saturday, Arlington Park Racecourse is hosting its annual International Festival of Racing.

Horse racing. Boxing. Baseball.

There is a connection here between these three sports that used to be the trifecta of popularity in this country at one time — about 100 years ago — when men still wore suits and fedoras to baseball games, horse racing grandstands were packed and there was never a shortage of the “Next Big Fighter.”

The three boxing matches at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, are part of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” series. And former White Sox stud Ron Kittle is going to be part of the telecast, too.

Boxing hasn’t had much of a following for a while. It’s struggled with ratings and in trying to make itself seem relevant in this 21st century social media sportscape. So I think it’s fitting that a dying sport like boxing is going to be at a venue where another somewhat dying sport lives: baseball. Certainly where a dying team lives.

It’s said that MMA (mixed martial arts) is taking over as the favorite of combative sports, surpassing boxing in popularity. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the largest MMA promotion company in the world and ratings for those fights are higher than those for boxing. It seems that no one cares about boxing anymore — it’s all UFC all the time.

I wasn’t a boxing fan growing up but I remember the big names: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Hector “Macho” Camacho, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Larry Holmes and even Gerry Cooney.

Now? Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. That’s it. Try naming another boxer.


Baseball is one of those old-time sports that is also struggling to keep people’s interest and retain its fan base. With the recent drug scandal that saw 13 players suspended — including MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers and the New York Yankees’ embattled star Alex Rodriguez — the sport is taking another hit to its popularity and is making people ask, “Why should I care?”

In Chicago, attendance at the Cell is way down. Suffice it to say, that it would have been down anyway even if the White Sox had put a winning product on the field, which they obviously didn’t.

Even when the White Sox were winning and made their World Series run in 2005, they still had lower than expected attendance figures and couldn’t match other teams in the city for popularity.

Baseball is slow. Football and basketball are fast paced, have polarizing personalities and have taken over as the two most popular sports in the U.S., especially football. The NFL will always run over absolutely everything it goes up against.

Baseball = page view death. White Sox baseball = especially painful page view death.

Baseball and boxing = ratings and fan interest death.

So I think it’s fitting that two dying sports are cross-pollinating Friday night on the South Side.

The third sport on Chicago’s Weekend Docket of Sports Nostalgia is the Arlington Million on Saturday. Horse racing isn’t as cache as it once was, and people don’t really pay attention to it other than during the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness and the Belmont Stakes don’t really get that same kind of attention that the Derby does, either.

Horse racing has been struggling for years. In Illinois, the Senate passed a gaming bill in May that will allow slot machines at the state’s racetracks, in hopes of increasing revenue for a dying sport. If visitors to these Illinois tracks spend money betting on the races, then they are also likely to spend money playing slots, or so goes the rationale.

An article in Time magazine on May 3 points out a lot of the negative parts of the sport, from drug use in both the horses and jockeys to the nearly empty grandstands at tracks around the country. The sport is hanging on in a lot of areas because of the tax dollars these horse tracks bring to those towns and the jobs the tracks create — from the concession workers to ushers to front-office people to those working in the stables.

It’s coincidence that the sporting troika which ruled the roost and dominated coverage from the 1910s-1930s are all fading away now at the same time.

If you look at the demographic dominating the fan bases of horse racing, baseball (or as it was known in its hey day base ball) and boxing, you’ll see it’s aging white males. None of the triad are resonating with younger audiences in the social media age.

And there’s a chance that if these sports lose the small young fan base they may already have, they’ll never get it back.

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