Every sport has its premier event. For reasons that need no explanation, the biggest sports seem to have the biggest events: the NFL has its Super Bowl, baseball has its World Series, wrestling has its Wrestlemania.
But what has always been a source of intrigue for me are those sports that have a monstrous gap between the audiences on an average day and an audience on the day of their big event, whether that event lasts two weeks or two minutes.
This subject intrigues to the point where I’m about 99 percent certain that I’ve written about it or discussed this topic on a podcast in the past, but frankly, I don’t care.
Our regular Top 7 expert, Jason Major, is out this week and so I’ve got free reign to talk about whatever gives me an opportunity to mention the Kentucky Derby.
So this week we look at the Top 7 fringe sporting events that offer up the largest deviation from their standard audience…or something like that.
The Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest has taken on far more significance since Kobayashi took the world of competitive eating by storm a few years back by mowing down a freakish 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in 2001.
For the next five years he proceeded to break his own record until American Joey Chestnut came along and supplanted him as the top eater of tubed meat products in the world.
The record of 66 hot dogs (and buns) belongs to Chestnut in what has now become a battle of not just Kobayashi and Chestnut, but of the USA vs. Japan.
According to Wikipedia, the 2006 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was watched by 1.46 million viewers on ESPN.
Meanwhile, how many people do you think showed up to watch the IFOCE’s World Catfish Eating Championship that took place in March? My guess is not many.
6. World Cup
More than any other entry on this list, the World Cup interest level is only applicable to Americans.
As has been well documented, Americans don’t exactly get fired up for “the beautiful game.” I feel like I personally am a fine example of the power of the World Cup in our country:
I’m hardly a soccer fanatic, yet I recently downloaded the World Cup 2010 app for my phone so that I could track every game time, rosters, news, etc., I started making plans for where I will watch the US-England opener on June 12 about three months in advance and I still have an Italia scarf prominently displayed in my house that was a direct result of Roberto Baggio (and his braided ponytail) making a brief appearance in the “Josh Bacott Favorite Athletes Power Rankings” back in 1994.
All that said, I haven’t watched an MLS game in probably three years and haven’t the slightest idea who won the MLS Cup last year.
The minute the World Cup is over, I will go right back to not really caring about soccer along with 90 percent of the other people in this country.
Golf is hardly a fringe sport, as it gets regular coverage throughout the traditional means of sports coverage in this country: TV, web, newspaper, etc.
But no one can deny that interest in the PGA is ramped up to whole new level when we start hearing that Masters music and the sooth tones of Jim Nantz telling us how its a “tradition unlike any other.”
This year’s Masters took on even more significance because it featured the dramatic return of Tiger Woods from his hiatus spent curing his addiction to piping chicks.
The other majors are hit-or-miss with the buzz they create outside of the core group of PGA fans, but The Masters is a bankable big-time event that annually holds its own in the competition with MLB Opening Day and the Final Four for the title of signature sporting event of the spring.
4. Little League World Series
If someone offered me $50 and a free lunch at Jack in the Box to sit and watch a Little League game in person at the local ball field and my other alternative was getting paid nothing to lay on the couch and watch TV, I would have to give it some serious thought.
Either I just really dig my couch, or that’s how much someone like me gives a crap about an average Little League baseball game.
Yet somehow this becomes a national event that pulls multiple hours of TV time each year and has the ability to turn a name like Danny Almonte into one most sports fans know.
That the Little League World Series goes from having absolutely no audience, to having even a minimal one is a miracle.
3. Olympic Figure Skating
It’s reasonable to consider the entire Olympic Games as the ultimate Fringe Sporting Event seeing as though millions of people suddenly care about gymnastics or figure skating.
But the excuse here is similar to the World Cup: we can always lean on the patriotism as the explanation.
If these girls (and guys) didn’t have an American flag besides their name, it’s unlikely that anyone would give a crap when the world’s best got together and competed against one another every four years.
2. Indianapolis 500
Back in the days before the rise of NASCAR when names like Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Bobby Rahal were heard on a regular basis, the Indy 500 was just the biggest event in an otherwise successful sport.
Since NASCAR blew up around the same time that open-wheel racing became fractured by a battle between CART and IRL for control, the Memorial Day tradition that is the Indianapolis 500 devolved into a single-race responsible for propping up an otherwise dying sport.
Thousands of people who couldn’t even name another race in the IRL circuit, will head to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to participate in an event that can host upwards of 400,000 people throughout the grandstands and the infield, making it the largest sporting event in the world in any given year.
The fact that they let you bring your own booze into the infield doesn’t hurt in attracting a crowd either.
1. The Kentucky Derby
Don’t act surprised that the Kentucky Derby checks in at No. 1 on this list although in reality, it may be more appropriate to list the entire Triple Crown series here depending on the year.
It’s nearly impossible to define horse racing as anything other than a fringe sport in America these days.
It’s mainstream TV exposure is minimal, it’s lack of a centralized governing body makes it difficult for even people who enjoy the sport to follow and without the legalized gambling aspect, it probably wouldn’t be a sport at all.
All of this makes it even more shocking that the Kentucky Derby continues to be an event that annually draws over 100,000 people to Churchill Downs and commands the sporting spotlight for at least a few days in early May.
Most people who watch the Derby will go into it having no idea of the horses participating, no clue about the humans that are connected to the horses and two minutes after it starts, the majority of the people watching will go back to being completely indifferent about the world of horse racing.
The most ironic thing about the Kentucky Derby is that, while its status as the premier “event” in the horse racing industry is unquestioned, it’s widely viewed within the industry as a subpar race.
With a bloated field full of many horses who are unworthy of even the opportunity to have their names etched on the Mint Julep glasses next to names like Secretariat and Citation, it’s essentially a crapshoot.
The Breeders Cup has supplanted it as the true competition to determine the best horses in training.
Despite that, the 100 years of tradition, the big hats, seersucker suits, the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” the hundreds of clowns populating the infield; all of it is enough to make this the one race that is relevant in the sports world…for at least two minutes, anyway.