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Archive for June 15, 2013

June 15, 2013 — Professional sports, true to form?

Today, there is going to be a follow-on competition at Bucknell University to last weekend’s Harrow Cup, which was a first step at professionalizing field hockey in the United States. And it’s true field hockey; only a couple of rules have been changed: no video referrals and 18 on a roster instead of 16.

Over the last few years, there have been attempts at professionalizing many sports in the U.S. outside of the so-called “big four” — football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey. Sometimes, there have been attempts at rules changes in order to make the sport more accessible to fans.

Soccer, by far, has grown the most in the United States since Major League Soccer’s debut in 1996. Even then, you had the countdown clock and an overtime or 35-yard shootout to break ties. The growth really shifted, however, when the rules changes were done away with around 1999. Nowadays, there are many professional teams in the United States in three leagues, plus a professional development league with 63 teams.

Volleyball has had many attempts at professionalization since the 1970s, to the point where even Wilt Chamberlain lent his name and skills to a domestic league. However, indoor volleyball has failed to get an audience here in the U.S., and many participants have decided to go to to the beach in order to seek their fortune as professionals.

The same goes for swimming; nobody has been able to figure out how to create the kind of competition that can be a professional showcase for a Michael Phelps or an Ian Thorpe or an Amy Van Dyken.

Softball has had a few different iterations since the Blaze and Storm barnstorming teams toured the United States before the 1995 Olympics and formed the basis for what is now National Professional Fastpitch. Given the barnstorming nature of the 1995 tour, rules had to be changed given the lack of infrastructure. At the minor-league stadia where the Blaze and Storm played, organizers would lay down a rubber landing patch in front of the apron of the pitching mound for the pitchers, put in temporary outfield fencing, and play on a grass infield rather than the usual hard-packed dirt.

Recently in Bethlehem, Pa., they held something called the Pro Gymnastics Challenge, a competition which resembled a game of HORSE. In a “game within a game” format, two teams of gymnasts dueled each other on various skills, including the reintroduction of the rope climb, which has not been an Olympic discipline in many decades. It was not a strictly judged competition, but a competitive exhibition which may form the basis of a professional circuit one day.

A number of promoters have resorted to similar changes in the very format of their rules to make their competition more exciting. Major League Lacrosse, in its 12th season, has used a 60-second shot clock and a two-point goal since its inception.

That being said, I’m glad that Alli Tanner and the folks at Harrow have not resorted to changing the fundamental nature of field hockey in professionalizing it. I hope it succeeds on its own merits.