Call That a Sporting Event?


It’s great how cable gives airtime to niche sports events.

That conclusion came on my JetBlue flight home, after an exhausting week watching a pregnant Tori Spelling, booty-licous J. Lo and hilarious Sarah Silverman tout their respective new cable shows during the winter Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

I spent nearly half of my five-hour flight watching pro bowling, of all things, on ESPN. As an amateur bowler who, as a kid, dreamed of throwing a 300 game on national television, I got a kick out of watching the pros do their thing on the lanes.

Growing up in the ’70s, the only time I could watch any action on television was during ABC’s Pro Bowlers Tour on Saturday afternoons or during the silly, syndicated competition series Bowling for Dollars during early fringe hours.

But, thanks to ESPN Classic, I was able to watch a vintage pro bowling tournament. Then, to my surprise, bowling icon Walter Ray Williams was on ESPN taking on the Professional Bowlers Association’s latest phenom, Patrick Allen, in the tour’s most recent tournament.

Surely most sports fans would rather watch a Bill Parcells postgame press conference than a bowling match. But for keglers like myself, it’s great to be able to actually watch the sport on television, even if it is on a seven-inch screen while 3,000 miles in the air.

Fans of niche sports like track and field, figure skating or women’s softball — actually, any women’s sport — most likely feel the same way when they turn the cable dial to any of the ESPN channels, the Fox Sports Net regional networks, CSTV or even broadband video-based services like World Championship Sports Network to see their favorite events. That’s the beauty of cable.

But how niche is too niche? With thousands of hours a week to fill, between all the national and regional sports networks, cable is blurring the lines of what is considered sports competition. Poker? Darts? Dominoes? They all get prominent airtime on ESPN and FSN.

Call me old school, but my definition of an athletic sporting event is any endeavor that forces a person to exhibit some form of physical exertion to defeat his or her opponent. A competitor has to break a sweat. That generally means you have to be running, jumping, swinging, throwing, skating, rolling or dribbling. While no one will mistake a bowler’s physique with that of Barry Bonds, it still takes some athletic skill and strength to throw a 16-pound ball down a 60-foot lane.

Back in the day, neither poker nor dominoes would have been cleared to appear on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, infamous for airing such athletic pursuits as badminton and log rolling.

Poker — a “non-contact” sport — now gets more time on ESPN and ESPN Deportes than traditional Olympics sports like track and field. Sad but true.

ESPN and FSN, as well as entertainment-based networks like Travel Channel and Bravo, will argue that poker is arguably the most popular sport on television, outside of pro sports leagues.

And dominoes are so popular on Spanish-language ESPN Deportes that the network will televise events from the International Domino Federation for the next five years.

And these sports appeal to the advertiser-coveted 15-34 age group that will be tomorrow’s major spenders and event ticket buyers.

Given the trend, I guess it’s only a matter of time before I buckle up for an upcoming flight to California and tune into the World Championship of Tiddlywinks.

Or maybe the World Series of Video Games.

Oh, wait … CSTV is airing that this month.