April 14th, 2011
By Gus Kaeding
News flash, cross country skiing is not a good sport to watch. Maybe you, I or anyone reading this likes to watch skiing but 99% of America would disagree with us. So what does cross country skiing need to capture the American public? There is one word which seems to draw rabid interest no matter how obscure the sport. Phenom. United States cross country skiing needs a phenom.
Chess, golf, and tennis. Three activities that were on the last page of the sports section buried by the likes of the NFL, MLB, NBA, among others. Bobby Fischer, Tiger Woods, and Andre Agassi. Three athletes respectively from each sport. At one point in their careers, each of these three men fit the phenom tag.
Bobby Fischer won the US National Chess Championship at the age of 14 vaulting chess into the national spotlight. While chess can hardly be considered a sport, the phenom argument rings true regardless. In 1972 with Fischer then in the peak of his career, he beat the Russian Boris Spassky in what is still considered to be the greatest chess match ever played.
In 1989 at the age of 13, Tiger Woods played tour professional John Daly in a head to head match. Daly had to birdie three of the final four holes to beat Woods by one stroke. Since then, Tiger has won everything at every level to become arguably the greatest golfer ever. Before Tiger, golf was watched but, rarely with the same intensity. Currently, when Tiger is in contention the final day of a tournament, ratings go up by as much as 50%. Simply put, golf needs Tiger Woods.
Andre Agassi became a professional tennis player at the age of 16. He won his first professional tournament by the age of 17. Over the next two decades he went on to win every major tennis tournament completing the “career grand slam” which has only been achieved by only four other players. On the court, Andre was often very eye catching and played with a fun enthusiasm which drew the attention of the viewer. For a sport which, from time to time has lacked viewers he brought a definite “buzz.”
Ok, here comes the catch. All three of these men were phenoms, yes but all three of them can also be described as controversial, polarizing, and even hated. Fischer was a well known anti-Semite despite being Jewish himself. Agassi was an admitted drug user and proclaimed that he “hated tennis.” Wood’s marital indiscretions are well documented. He might be the most loathed athlete in sports today. To be a phenom alone will not be enough. For cross country skiing to reach the upper echelon of interest level, we need a young phenom who people love to hate. I’m not saying he should rant on religion, do drugs, or cheat on his wife but, there are plenty of ways to become disliked.
Observe Petter Northug, he fits this example perfectly. Everyone has an opinion on him and his antics. Some love him. Some despise him. Either way, people pay attention to him. Something like 70% of Howard Stern’s listeners tuned in because they didn’t like him and yet, they wanted to see what he’d say next. Ratings don’t care about like or hate and thus, Stern was the king of radio.
So if you’re keeping track, we need an outspoken, polarizing 14 yr old who wins world cups for US cross country skiing to become nationally relevant. Hmmmm that shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? I’ve got my fingers crossed because let’s face it, Cork and I would look good on Sportscenter.