The next time you’re riding down the street, see how long it takes to identify a Chevrolet Impala, a Ford Fusion, a Toyota Camry and a Dodge Charger. It probably won’t be more than a few minutes.
I have no idea where all those cars are headed, but I do know they aren’t on their way to take the green flag in Sunday’s Daytona 500. That’s because the only similarities between the Impalas that will be driven by William Byron, Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott at the Daytona 500 share only a name with the vehicle next to you on Airport Boulevard.
It’s not news that stock car racing does not use stock cars. But that doesn’t deter Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Dodge from spending millions to have their name on the cars competing in the Monster Energy Drink Series. Sponsors know that fans maintain brand loyalty even if they aren’t driving the exact same car as their NASCAR heroes.
The same mindset should apply to other sports in order to improve the games we watch without taking away the value to sponsors.
This is particularly true in tennis and golf, where the games we play on the weekends now share almost nothing with the pros we watch on television.
I want to watch the pros play the same game as me — just much better.
When I was a teenager, I patterned my tennis game after John McEnroe. We played exactly the same way, except for the small fact that he was the best in the world and I was the second best in Chelsea, Alabama (home to about six tennis racquets at the time).
Today, I have no chance to play like my favorite player, John Isner, whose serve tops out at 157 mph. That speed means his points seldom last more than two or three shots.
McEnroe had touch and imagination and used incredible angles. Isner can hit the ball faster than a speeding car.
I don’t blame Isner or any of the other current top pro tennis players. They would be crazy not to take advantage of the racquet technology that allows them to hit the ball so much harder than the generation before them. Why develop an artistic drop shot when you can simply blast another winner through the court?
Those same racquets allow me to hit a serve 85 mph instead of 75 mph. I like that. I wouldn’t want to give up my new racquet. But I still have to play the game the way McEnroe did 40 years ago in order to win a point. For club players, the technology hasn’t fundamentally changed the sport into something it was never meant to be.
This problem is even more pronounced when it comes to golf. Do we really want the sport to evolve to the point that Augusta National is obsolete for the pros?
A January story in Sports Illustrated highlighted the problem facing the game and golf course designers and managers. The story points out that Jack Nicklaus first raised concerns about how far the modern golf ball travels in 1977.
The article details the dilemma facing Augusta National as it tries to challenge the new breed of long hitters led by the likes of Dustin Johnson. The 13th hole is a perfect risk-reward challenge. At least it used to be. In large part because of advancements in clubs and the golf ball, players now simply blow their drives past any potential trouble and turn the hole into a glorified drive and pitch hole.
Give credit to the players for being in better shape and taking advantage of the equipment they have at their disposal. But wouldn’t it make more sense for the U.S. Golf Association to make a concession the same way NASCAR does?
Fans don’t feel cheated that their Impala is not the one Jimmie Johnson is driving at Daytona.
Tennis players wouldn’t feel any less loyal to Wilson if they knew their racquets and strings were subject to different standards than those of Roger Federer.
Golf fans would still want to play with the Titleist ProV1x even if they knew the one Jordan Spieth was using had different specifications.
The sports of tennis and golf are still healthy. But they would both be more popular if we saw our superstars playing the same game as us, only at a much higher level.
What I see today when I watch Federer and Spieth are two spectacular athletes playing sports I don’t recognize. In the case of golf, we may soon see them playing on courses we don’t recognize because the world’s greatest old courses are no challenge for the new-age pros and their improved equipment. That can’t be good for the game.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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