Kragthorpe: Sports need Tiger, LeBron, Dale Jr. to succeed
By Kurt Kragthorpe
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Jun 20 2012 01:27PM
LeBron James and the Miami Heat have taken command of the NBA Finals, after a weekend when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a NASCAR race for the first time in four years and Tiger Woods shared the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, only to fade.
This convergence of big names surfacing at their top of their games, if only temporarily, may be just a coincidence. Or is it a sign of how much their sports need them?
Tony Stewart is probably the wrong person to ask. "It’s not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said after his runner-up finish in the Quicken Loans 400 at Brooklyn, Mich.
Yet clearly, Earnhardt drives interest in auto racing like few other figures. NASCAR’s marketing largely is based on loyalty to drivers, creating a collective following of the sport. Earnhardt is not comparable to Tiger or LeBron in terms of achievements in his sport, but his popularity definitely brings him into this conversation.
Woods is the only PGA Tour player who functions as a brand name, like a NASCAR driver. So when he’s in contention in any tournament, and even more so in a major championship, television ratings spike.
I’d like to believe the U.S. Open has enough tradition and cachet that it sells itself, regardless of who wins or even comes close. But the reality is that Woods adds a whole other dynamic to the event when he’s in the hunt.
Same with James. Woods pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles creates a for-or-against effect, and so does LeBron’s chase of his first NBA championship. Ratings are high for the Miami-Oklahoma City series. Apparently, whether you love or hate LeBron, you’re watching.
That’s not to say the NBA needs Miami to win this series, just that having a team like the Heat competing for a title makes it all more intriguing. In the U.S. Open, Webb Simpson’s victory would have become more dramatic if Tiger had finished above a tie for 21st place.
Woods has not won a major tournament in four years, but Earnhardt’s 143-race winless streak in the same time frame is over. NASCAR needs Dale Jr. to win once in a while. Golf and the NBA just need Tiger and LeBron to come close - the more often, the better.