Real ruler is the NFL, despite American Pharoah’s Triple Crown transcendence
Roger Goodell’s omnipotent empire dominates, while other sports rely heavily on charismatic performers
If one year is a lifetime, then 37 years would be an eternity. It most certainly is in horse years. One year ago, American Pharoah was preparing to end horse racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought. He had captured the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and all eyes were on him as he entered the starting gate at New York’s Belmont Park.
In an event, and a sport, that had seemingly been withering in significance on the national consciousness, it was an opportunity to reassert itself. Not since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown in 1978 had the mythical title been achieved and for many the ponderous gap had signalled a death knell for big stake races, at least in terms of popular culture folklore. But like so much these days, perception often trumps reality.
If you want to blame anything or anyone for the diminishing grandeur of the Triple Crown, then blame the late Pete Rozelle. The visionary commissioner of the NFL made his game’s brand so omnipresent that it has basically suffocated much of the American sporting landscape.
In the 1960s, Rozelle took a downtrodden league and transformed it into a cultural phenomenon by institutionalising the significance of his sport. America is first and foremost a football nation, which is probably the only thing the entire country can agree on.
Granted, the corporate hubris and greed of current commissioner Roger Goodell and his feckless minions could still spell eminent doom for the game. But, for now at least, the NFL dominates viewing ratings across the board.
In 1973, it was a different story. Super Bowl VII was a lacklustre affair with the Miami Dolphins beating the Washington Redskins 14-7. TV ratings were very good for an event that was only starting to gain traction.
However, the Kentucky Derby was every bit the must see event that the Super Bowl was and by the time the 1973 Belmont Stakes came around, TV ratings were going through the roof and the reason was simple: Secretariat.
Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, Secretariat was all that and more. “Big Red” was arguably the most transcendent sporting performer of the 20th century. When he captured the first Triple Crown in 25 years, he set records in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes that still stand today, 43 years later. Charismatic, powerful, majestic and innate, there simply will never be another Secretariat.
Of course, there will never be another Ali either and those of us of a certain vintage can recall a time when absolutely everybody knew who the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the heavyweight champion of the world was.
In hindsight though, that was more to do with Secretariat and Ali than global love for horse racing or boxing.
Fans are fans, those with an emotional attachment and historical affinity for certain teams are going to watch regardless. But modern sports are a wildly competitive, ravenous revenue beast now and as such is still largely personality driven with marketing and TV execs openly lusting after the crossover demographic that the truly charismatic performers can deliver.
The NBA may be a global brand but take LeBron James and Steph Curry out of the finals and see what happens to the ratings.
Again, the NFL is the only sport that seems impervious to trends. When he won the 2015 Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in the modern media age. As such he has his own website, Facebook and Twitter page and recently sat down for a 10-minute profile on CNN.
Of course, none of those institutions existed back in 1973 so luckily all Secretariat had to do was be great to sell his sport. Times change and so do horses, at least what we know about them.
American Pharoah is “super intelligent, a great kind horse but yet an alpha type of individual, never aggressive but always in the forefront”, according to one of his handlers.
He is also “very fertile and has taken to his new job well.” That job is impregnating mares to the tune of US$200,000, uhm, a pop. No wonder he is so well adjusted. And luckily for us he still has time to tweet and congratulated Nyquist for winning this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Surely he will find some spare time to watch this week’s Belmont and he certainly has done all he could to keep the Triple Crown, at least partially, in the spotlight.
But don’t blame the dwindling profile of the event on the horse or the sport. Blame it on the omnipotent empire that is the NFL. For now, at least.