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An Idol Threat To Sports

March 13, 2006
March 13, 2006

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March 13, 2006

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An Idol Threat To Sports

As recently as twoyears ago, when Shaquille O'Neal fell off the court during the NBA All-StarGame and into the only lap large enough to accommodate him--that of the secondAmerican Idol, Ruben Studdard--it was still possible to wonder which behemothwas bigger: sports or American Idol.

This is an article from the March 13, 2006 issue

Immediately afterthat game in Los Angeles, when Shaq said of Studdard, "He grabbed my assand wouldn't let go," it wasn't yet clear who had been clinging to whom forattention. But today the answer is obvious. America has chosen its favorite AI,and it isn't Allen Iverson.

When reigning IdolCarrie Underwood performed at halftime of this year's NBA All-Star Game, shedidn't need the gig. The gig needed her.

That's becauseIdol has become the national pastime, America's favorite form of competition,our Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday Night Football. (With 35.5 million viewersfor this season's debut, it outdrew every televised sporting event save theSuper Bowl.)

Last month Idolput the Olympics in a crippling full Nielsen, dominating NBC among 18- to49-year-old viewers. The Peacock eventually had to air the marquee names in thewomen's figure skating final from Turin after--but not during--AI. Now whensports and Idol collide, sports is the one holding the hug a little too long.And why not? Last week, the San Francisco Giants entertained Cactus League fanswith a team version of Idol. Jeff Fassero (as Simon Cowell), Ray Durham (asRandy Jackson) and Omar Vizquel (as Ryan Seacrest) sat in judgment of pitcherBrian Wilson, who sadly spurned the Beach Boys for Billy Idol's White Wedding.ESPN is airing Knight School, in which Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knightchannels Cowell, selecting a Red Raiders walk-on from among 16 fresh-facedcandidates eager to endure the baleful glares and withering criticism that havebecome Knight's--and Cowell's--lucrative shtick.

Now it's time forthe rest of sports to imitate Idol. After all, every AI contestant arrives inour homes unhyped and unheard-of, unlike the unfortunate Bode Miller, whoarrived at the Olympics having already appeared on 60 Minutes, in Rolling Stoneand on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Outside and--if memoryserves--Bovine Veterinarian. He was also the unavoidable ammo in a confetticannon of Nike ads. By the time Miller had earned skiing's Golden Sombrero,going an Olympic 0 for 5, he and his audience were wishing him Godspeed to aquick and merciful oblivion.

Lesson: It's funto see an unknown about to become a star, less fun to see a star about tobecome unknown.

Idol is collegebasketball circa 1982, when you'd never heard of Michael Jordan until hisfreshman year at North Carolina, then watched him go from stranger to star overthe course of a season, culminating with the nightly, single-elimination,Idol-like climax of March Madness.

Whereas todaysports fans have been following next season's freshman basketball star, OhioState--bound Greg Oden, since his sophomore year in high school. He could beconsidered an overnight sensation only at Neptune's North Pole, where a seasonlasts for 40 years.

On Idol it isgenuinely difficult to make the playoffs. In the NHL and the NBA 53% of teamsreach the postseason. In the NFL 38% do. In baseball 27% advance. But onIdol--where 100,000 audition for 12 spots in the finals--that figure is aludicrous .012%. It's a number too tiny for a sports fan to process, neither abatting average nor a Breathalyzer result.

On Idol, too, thevery worst competitors also make prime time. Idol reject William Hung's versionof She Bangs was far more memorable (and only marginally more ludicrous) thanRicky Martin's original. In 2004 it became a lucky anthem for the St. LouisCardinals, who hung Hung's poster in the clubhouse en route to the NationalLeague pennant. Of course, sports has its own laughingstocks, such as the NewYork Knicks, who play a karaoke version of professional basketball. But theyare still sold as serious entertainment, not marketed as a comedic tour deforce.

Idol isn'tperfect. Only 16- to 28-year-olds are allowed, age limits that would leave thesports world with no one younger than Michelle Wie or older than Chad Johnson.And sports seems to have gotten it right by not wiring the Laker Girls forsound, as former Laker Girl Paula Abdul demonstrates with every New Ageutterance.

But Idol is,otherwise, eminently worth emulating. Imagine: With sufficient phone calls to atoll-free number, sports fans could vote anyone out of their living roomsforever. (Ta-ta, TO.) Now that would be an American idyll.

> if you havea comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Every new American Idol contestant is unhyped andunheard of, unlike Bode Miller. Lesson: It's fun to see an unknown become astar, less fun to see a star become unknown.
PHOTOSIMON BRUTY