Basketball is the sport of the future.
In the 1970's, the five most popular spectator sports were in no particular order baseball, football, basketball, horse racing and boxing (and I could be wrong, as auto racing might have been better attended than basketball despite a mostly regional appeal because the salary wars between the NBA and ABA were diluting the quality of play and bankrupting teams). Horse racing at the time was the only place you could place a legal bet; fast forward to today and you have lotteries, casinos and places to make legal bets all over the place. Boxing had its day, and there were some awesome fighters back then, so much so that when you watched the summer Olympics, you cared most about the US men's basketball team, the US track teams, the swimmers and the boxers, and, again, not in that order. I would submit that in '76 we cared as much about the fate of Sugar Ray Leonard as anyone on the US Olympic team. But too many shady deals, bad decisions and the brutality of it all have caused boxing to drop way down on the list (although MMA is up).
Fast forward to today. I don't know what the top five are, but it stands to reason that football, baseball and basketball are among the top five, and I would suggest that on a global basis so is soccer (and soccer might be #1 because of how widespread it is played). Hockey fans will scream, kick and shout, and while I appreciate their passion I still doubt how widespread the appeal is. Football has major issues, and it stands to reason that the game that is played 10 years from now will be dramatically different from the one that is played today, much more like flag football, lacrosse or Greco-Roman wrestling. The hitting will be all but gone, and the sport will be different. And, if it were to become like flag football, will it be watchable. I would submit, and have to incur many howlers, that lacrosse in its present state is not all that watchable. The reasons are specialization, that you cannot see the players faces, and that there is an exaggerated importance on the faceoff. A lot of the plays that end up in goals just look the same. The average age of a baseball fan is 55, and the MLB game is not moving any faster. I went to minor league games over the past couple of seasons that took a couple of hours to play; sadly, MLB games take over three hours to play, with too much time between at-bats, pitches, innings, you name it.
That leaves professional basketball. The purists will argue with some merit that it is more entertainment than high art, and they will try to wax eloquent about the joys of the college game. The problem right now with the college game is that teams with the most talent (which include players who will leave after a single season) aren't seasoned enough normally to win a national title. Plus, there are timeouts every four minutes, as it the key strategy sessions held during the timeouts will fundamentally change the way the game is played. As Charles Barkley said yesterday, everyone on a pro team is a very good player. The talent is amazing, you can see the players faces, and the scoring opportunities -- while not as varied and dramatic as in soccer -- are still compelling. The game appeals to fans of all ages and races; by far the most diverse crowds attend professional basketball games. Put simply, basketball is fun to watch, it moves, there is a lot of scoring, and there numerous stars. Quod erat demonstratum.
Unless, of course, you were to look globally. Soccer is king and should continue to be so for a while. Basketball is popular, no doubt, and could gain in popularity should it attempt to go more global (the NBA that is; there are many leagues in many countries other than the United States). People play pick-up soccer anywhere, and it seems that each town in every European country has a team in some sort of league. I just don't think that basketball will overtake soccer in terms of popularity, although basketball's popularity might grow at a rate faster than soccer's. Creating a champions-league concept like they have in soccer might help the NBA's international appeal. That would be quite compelling.
All that said, Kareem is onto something. And if people are angry with what he said, it's because they are in denial and do not want to admit that it has a good chance of happening.