> Looking up
One of the debates during the 130-day lockout was whether fans would give the NFL the cold shoulder when the lockout ended. Fans get turned off listening to millionaires fight with billionaires over how to split billions of dollars. But unlike the 1994 baseball strike, the NFL likely won't be hurt at all by its contentious labor dispute. Because, in the end, fans will not miss any games.
Each year, the NFL grows more popular, with 111 million people in this country alone watching last season's Super Bowl. The NFL, by far, is the most popular sport in the country and, by far, more popular now than any league has ever been in the United States.
> Looking down
For much of this season, attendance was down compared to last season. Lousy weather plagued the Northeast for much of the spring, forcing more postponements in the first six weeks than all of last season. Slowly, attendance has rebounded and, as of last week, the average attendance for a game was 29,893, slightly ahead of last year's attendance on the same date (29,853). So, by season's end, expect attendance to be up again.
But, interestingly, television numbers for this year's All-Star Game were the lowest since ratings for the game started being kept in 1967. It was the third year in a row that All-Star Game TV numbers decreased from the previous season.
In general, baseball is thriving in the big markets and struggling in smaller markets.
The good news? Fans seem convinced that widespread steroid use has been driven from the game. The bad? Fans continue to be turned off by the unfair gap between big-market and small-market teams.
> Looking way down
For starters, its most recognizable and, perhaps, best player is the most despised athlete on the planet. Whether he is a good guy or bad, misunderstood or treated unfairly, the perception is LeBron James is the epitome of the modern athlete: spoiled, arrogant and a self-promoter.
Outside of Miami, the Heat star is loathed because of his national television special to announce his leaving his hometown Cavaliers for glitzy South Beach. The Dallas Mavericks never had so many fans as they did when they played the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Meantime, the NBA appears headed for a lengthy lockout. One would think the country's reaction to such a labor dispute would be more like the NHL's lockout in 2004-05 than the NFL's lockout of the past few months. In other words, will anyone care?
> Looking up … slightly
It has been a while since anyone could say this, but the NHL appears to be on the upswing. Losing the 2004-05 season was a devastating blow to a league that was already struggling to be a part of the sports landscape. The decision to give the U.S. television contract to Versus instead of ESPN seemed like a bad idea at the time, but it now seems like a lucky break since Versus is now partners with NBC, which has given the league more exposure than any major network ever has. TV numbers are up.
Other post-lockout moves, such as the salary cap, the outdoor game and rules to open up the game, have worked out well, and the league's only headache now (quite literally) is the issue of concussions. But, overall, the league appears healthier than it has in years.
> Looking up
Soccer is never going to be as popular in the United States as it is in the rest of the world. This country's soccer audience always will be sliced into thirds: those who think it's the greatest sport on earth, those who pay attention for big events, and those who wouldn't watch a World Cup match if it was in their back yard and their kid was in it.
Every so often, a team or tournament comes along that is supposed to finally put soccer on par with, say, the NBA in this country — like the 1999 women's World Cup team or the 1994 men's World Cup that was hosted by the United States. But as soon as the buzz reaches its zenith, the matches end and soccer fades into being a minor sport.
Having said all that, there really is a reason for soccer fans to be optimistic about the future. The U.S. women garnered plenty of attention for their run to the World Cup final, and it should continue being a dominant team on the world pitch. Meantime, there is cautious optimism for the men after Friday's announcement that longtime coach Bob Bradley was fired and replaced by Juergen Klinsmann.
> Looking up … slightly
For the past three years, NASCAR's TV ratings decreased and everyone wondered why NASCAR, at the height of its popularity, suddenly started losing its momentum. Was it Jimmie Johnson's dominance? Was it the format of the Chase for the Championship? Did NASCAR take the personality out of the drivers?
Then something strange happened. NASCAR made a comeback. No, it hasn't reached the level of the popularity it had a few years ago, but television numbers are up this year. Fox averaged 8.6 million viewers for the first third of the season, up from the 7.8 million it averaged last year.
> Holding steady
Scandal has rocked the college football world, especially the shenanigans at Ohio State, the mess at Southern Cal a couple of years back and constant questions (though no proven allegations) surrounding last year's Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn. Television ratings for last season's Bowl Championship Series games were down dramatically. It could have been, in part, because the games were exclusively on cable (ESPN) instead of network TV for the first time. It could have been because of undesirable matchups. It could have been just an odd year. We'll find out this year. College football seems more popular than ever. The question now is whether it can get any more popular.
Meantime, college basketball continues to be hurt by players leaving early for the NBA, yet the NCAA Tournament did well by making sure every game could be seen from tipoff to final buzzer by splitting the coverage among CBS and Turner Sports.
> Up and down
It all comes down to Tiger Woods. When he plays, TV ratings are strong and there's major interest. When he doesn't, TV ratings plummet. Woods comes back this week. If he can stay healthy and competitive, the sports is in good shape. If he is sidelined again or can't rediscover his game, golf will struggle. And for those who love tennis, has the sport ever been less popular in the United States? Aside from the oft-injured Williams sisters, Americans barely make a blip in the major events.
What is the current state of each of the major sports? Each sport has endured its series of challenges, from steroids to personal scandals, from labor disputes to rampant cheating. Here is our take on each of the big sports and whether things are looking up or down:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.