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Cornhole And Other Less Traditional Sports Gather More Attention

Jul 24, 2019
Originally published on July 24, 2019 9:16 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Basketball, football and baseball may draw big crowds and score prime-time television spots, but niche sports are attracting some interest and money - sports like cornhole and ax-throwing and even professional arm-wrestling. So get ready, elbow on the table, get a good grip - here are Stacey Vanek Smith and Sally Herships from NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: What is it about these less traditional sports that's attractive to sponsors, like Johnsonville sausages? And, I mean, nothing against cornhole or ax-throwing - what about, you know, basketball...

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Right?

HERSHIPS: ...Or hockey? Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Like, sports people know about...

HERSHIPS: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...And that don't - you don't play at, like, 8-year-old birthday parties.

HERSHIPS: Or risk cutting off a limb. And finally, how do these sports get on TV - in this case, ESPN?

SCOTT ROSNER: You know, I think you have to remember that the E in ESPN stands for entertainment.

HERSHIPS: Scott Rosner is academic director of the Sports Management Program at Columbia.

ROSNER: So just because it's on ESPN doesn't make it a sport. To wit, poker has been a fixture of their efforts for a very long time.

VANEK SMITH: But that lack of popularity can actually represent an unusual perk for a broadcaster. Just over 3.5 billion viewers watched the World Cup in 2018. For comparison, the World Axe Throwing League says its world championship got hundreds of thousands of viewers last year on TV. That makes ax-throwing what they call an evergreen property, meaning that you can put it on the air anytime you have a gap in your scheduling. But there's also another possibly more important reason that these sports are getting on ESPN.

ROSNER: You're not paying them if you're ESPN. They're paying you.

HERSHIPS: That is true. Many new sports buy time on the airwaves because there are profits to be made. The American Cornhole Organization had been streaming its videos on Facebook, but it hit almost 2 million views, and it decided the time was ripe, and it launched its own digital streaming network last year, which brings us to another question - what is it about these sports that's attractive to sponsors?

ROSNER: The companies that are sponsoring are looking for a really, highly targeted audience.

VANEK SMITH: This is also an opportunity for smaller companies, the kinds who can't afford to advertise during an NBA game or during the Super Bowl. But in order for a starter sport to get big enough to cut a deal to get on TV, that sport needs financial backing to begin with. And the question - why would you want to buy a team who played cornhole or threw axes? Scott says buying a team, even a small one in a more obscure sport, can have some perks as well, including just being, you know - straight up - a really good financial investment.

ROSNER: They all have a dream. They all have the dream that they can be the next - so NBA or Major League Baseball or National Football League, Major League Soccer - that they can all be the next one.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: NPR News.

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INSKEEP: They report for NPR's daily podcast about money, work and human behavior, The Indicator From Planet Money. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.