Golden age for sports? It sure is

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There's a lot of negativity in the sports world today. We read and hear about it daily. Seems like there's a new scandal every month, be it drugs or cheating. Heroes such as Roger Clemens turn out to be bums. Coaches who wrap themselves in integrity turn out to be phonies who are only after the money.

It's a sordid mess, but that doesn't alter this remarkable fact: We are living in nothing less than a golden age of sports.

No amount of scandal or poor behavior can turn off the appetite of the fan base. Nor, in these economic hard times, can the price of tickets. No matter how fast prices rise, not only do people keep buying, often they're standing in line to do so.

People are so hungry for competition fishing even draws an audience.

Never in the history of this country or any other has there been such a keen interest in sports. Sadly, in some cases, this interest borders on an unhealthy obsession. Mostly, though, sports are a healthy outlet for people and one they can't get enough.

Every one of the four major sports leagues is enjoying enormous prosperity despite all the negativity that sometimes surrounds them.

The National Hockey League often is portrayed as down, nearly out and not even worthy of mention in the same sentence with the NFL, NBA and MLB. You'd never guess that judging from the number of people flocking to pro hockey games all over the country.

Around here, the Penguins are considered a white-hot item, and understandably so. They sell out every game. But because of the comparatively small size of Mellon Arena, the Penguins rank 16th in total attendance in the NHL.

But here's what's noteworthy about the NHL: Although the Penguins play to 100.7 percent of capacity at home, that's only good enough to rank eighth best in the NHL. Ahead of them are Calgary, Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto, Anaheim, Minnesota and Vancouver. In all, 11 NHL teams play at 100 percent of capacity or more. The leaders are Calgary and Buffalo, at 112.4 and 111.4 percent, respectively.

And it's not just in Canada and the northeast and midwest of this country where hockey is thriving. Anaheim is playing to 103 percent of capacity in laid-back California. The Tampa Bay Lightning is eighth in total attendance and playing to 95 percent of capacity in sunny Florida.

Baseball often is portrayed as a dying sport, able to draw only an older generation of fans because of its slow pace. It's true, baseball has a tight relationship with the over-50 crowd, but it clearly is drawing more than seniors. MLB sets attendance records every year.

Because it plays on consecutive days against the same opponent, MLB never will fill up its facilities like the NHL and NFL. But one team, the Boston Red Sox, played to more than 100 percent capacity and seven others played to more than 90 percent capacity for 81 home games.

Forty years ago, 1 million was considered attendance success. That figure today represents abject failure. Even 2 million is not a sign of great success. Last year, the New York Yankees drew more than 4 million and nine other teams more than 3 million.

The NBA set an attendance record for the third consecutive season last year and is close to that number this year. The league has rebounded from the loss of Michael Jordan and is enjoying an era of great prosperity. Six teams are playing to 100 percent of capacity or better. Ten more play to better than 90 percent capacity.

The NFL is a national passion. Some critics call it the No Fun League, but they simply don't get it. Most fans prefer leagues that enforce the rules, even to the point of actually making uniforms uniform.

As nuts as people in this region are over the Steelers, they're 29th, ahead of only Detroit, Oakland and Indianapolis, in total attendance. As is the case with the Penguins, some of that has to do with the size of their facility, Heinz Field. But even when percentage of capacity is tabulated, the Steelers are only 24th, averaging 62,084.

There are 14 NFL teams playing at 100 percent capacity or better. The leaders are Green Bay at 116.5 percent and Washington at 110 percent. Sixteen more are playing between 91 and 99 percent. At the bottom are Jacksonville and Buffalo, both playing to 88 percent of capacity.

If you're not convinced this is a golden age of sports consider this: On Saturday, in miserable weather, the line to buy Pirates single-game tickets stretched from the corner of Federal and west General Robinson to the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Even with the Pirates, losers for 15 consecutive seasons, there's a demand for tickets. If the team ever wins, and that's not to say it will, Pirates tickets almost will be as hard to come by as those of the Steelers and Penguins.

That will truly be the golden age of sports.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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