Jim O’Donnell: Caitlin Clark and women’s volleyball can’t save a tedious year in sports

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT, 2023 – the year in sports media – isn’t very far behind.

The passwords were: “banalities” and “redundant.”

Rights fees have never been higher. Broadcast originality has never been a more absent species. Technology far too frequently outkicks live human coverage.

Legalized sports gambling is the $200 billion elephant man holding the HD zapper. Fantasy sports is the NutraSweet of the ecosystem. It’s not a soft passageway for little boys in shorts pants.

Game after game, on-air sorts ranging in scope from ho-hum to certifiable Babbitt drone on. They are completely reliant on synthetic narratives that wouldn’t pass a first read at Tedium Publishing.

IN TRUTH, THE TWO MOST REFRESHING TALES of the sports media year centered on women. Is that a sign that 50 years of Title IX means something or that the once unbeatable Rut Pack of men’s basketball, football, baseball and hockey has never been more challenged in its quest for new followers?

Caitlin Clark of Iowa was a gift from the American gothics of Iowa. She should prove to be once again when the ides of March turn to tournament madness. The 2024 Paris Olympics loom as her global coming-out party. At comparable ages, she is Larry Bird with better hair.

Angel Reese of LSU remains perfectly positioned to be her Magic Johnson. That means a fiercely competitive foe who wants to take things higher. Among those things would be impressively increased financial portfolios via shared commercial endorsements, micro-influencing and macro capital gain.

Now all Reese needs is a personal tutor who can upgrade her game in the critical Barbie 2.0 compartments of “mainstream likeability” and “feigned affability.”

(As the ancient comic George Burns once said: “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”)

THE SECOND SPORTS LIFT-UP of a gray year was the perceptible rise in interest in women’s volleyball.

It’s happening. It’s been bubbling under for years. Those 92,003 fans who showed up for the match between host Nebraska and Nebraska-Omaha in August were not a cornhusking mirage.

To continue its growth, the game needs greater exposure, brand-name personalities and that nettlesome hurdle of connecting Ken Q. Public to its emotion, structure and record books.

(Here’s a statement for sports theorists to chomp on: The most important single thing any successful going sports entity owns is its record books. That was a critical reason that Phil Knight and Nike quickly dismissed discussion of a proposal for Michael Jordan to skip his NBA comeback in 1995 and instead barnstorm the world in a manufactured traveling showcase. Too much Ringling and not enough ring-a-ding within the framework of No. 23 vs. the legacied feats of Bill RussellJerry West, Bird, Johnson and all.)

NATIONALLY, THE INDISPUTABLE PHENOMENON as 2024 arrives is the pre-eminence of the National Football League as a social, civic and media powerhouse.

The games themselves are so organically flawed that it’s laughable. The unpredictability of outcomes is a towering essential to the league’s popularity. That’s why there are seven capable NFL agents on the field for every mini-drama. They see to it that all games, on any given Sunday — or Thursday, Saturday and Monday — are properly steered to port.

(Statement No. 2 for New Year’s Eve nibbling: Any professional officiating crew that can’t bring a game in on a dime — to a final that’s in all of the best interests of the league — shouldn’t be refereeing NFL games. And as has been written before, it’s generally penalties not called rather than penalties called that can directly frame the routcome of a game. The State Farm booboisie can continue to write that off as “human error” and “random chance.”)

AMERICA’S OTHER THREE MAJOR professional sports have devolved into secondary media presences. Major League Baseball’s primary fans are old enough to remember Carlton Fisk and “Whip Inflation Now” buttons.

The NBA features the potential for explosive athleticism cast against the backdrop of Adam Silver and associates forever chasing relevance, “game experience” and globalization.

The National Hockey League is a Tier-2B TV property that has far too few stars and fan bases that revel in their quirky determination to be die-hard devotees. In most NHL towns, it’s like professing to like escargot and a Jameson “green tea.”

FIVE DECADES FROM NOW, when the United States is or isn’t positioned to advance toward the celebration of its tricentennial, the chloroforming immersiveness of sports, sports media and sports gambling in the second two decades of the 21st century will be cited as a contributing distraction during the rise of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder.

It’s not a cheery thought, but a very real one.

Tonight, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan play Alabama and then Michael Penix Jr. and Washington drift down from Puget Sound to try and upset Texas.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot.

If it hasn’t already been, far too deeply.

Jim O’Donnell’s Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at [email protected]. All communications may be considered for publication.

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