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Boxing and Horse Racing Aren’t Ever Coming Back

Thursday, April 30, 2015


This sports Saturday is headlined nationally by the Kentucky Derby and the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight.

Horse racing and boxing? Nice distractions perhaps after the Trail Blazers season ended with a whimper this past Wednesday. But what is this, 1965?

The so-called “–ing” sports (that category in this area once included greyhound racing, which on a warm summer night could attract more than 10,000 spectators to the Wood Village track) once crowded out pro football, basketball and hockey in U.S. sports headlines.

In this world gone by, sportswriters actually coveted these boxing and horse racing beats. Fans cared and both sports abounded in colorful characters who provided plenty of copy, albeit much of it lionized in purple prose. 

Huge spotlight on Saturday’s Derby and well-publicized Pacquiao-Mayweather megafight aside, those days are long past even for hipsters trying to re-create some ironic ode to the Rat Pack era. That’s not to lament their passing, but it’s instructive in today’s sports world to identify the main culprit for the demise of each once-popular sport as a way to predict future trends in U.S. sports.

The major culprit when it comes to horse racing is the proliferation of legal gambling. The notion of regularly attending Portland Meadows, waiting in line to place a bet and then waiting another 15-20 minutes for each race is a quaint notion even with simulcasting from other tracks. 

Keno and video poker options in bars, a myriad of offshore online gambling websites and of course now-legal state lotteries have all cut in to the one-time legal monopoly of wagering on horses.

And current pro sports, bluenose moralizing notwithstanding about betting lines, realize they don’t want to get left behind at the lucrative betting window. They too want a piece of the action. 

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made news last fall when he proposed that states be allowed to legalize gambling on pro sports. And any concerns over pro sports becoming somehow tainted if played in Las Vegas have disappeared with the NBA playing its All-Star Game in Vegas (even though an actual NBA city like Portland has never hosted the event) and steady talk of  Las Vegas one day having an NHL franchise. 

A corollary to the differences between gambling on horses and at a video poker machine is pace, an obvious concern for baseball as it looks for ways to bring the average time of a game below three hours. But baseball also does something no other sport does – provide 162 days and nights of anchor programming for local cable sports channels.

The main culprit when it comes to boxing is its obvious violence. Yes, MMA is worse. But boxing once attracted top young athletes such as a Muhammad Ali or a Sugar Ray Leonard whose following would begin in the Olympics. Today, an athlete like Ali would be much more likely to gravitate toward basketball, a Leonard to baseball or soccer where the risk of serious injury is so much less and the financial rewards greater than for all but boxing’s top echelon.

In the 1976 Summer Olympics, for example, Leonard was one of five U.S. boxers to win gold medals. In the 2012 Olympics, not one U.S. man won a single medal.

So the question arises: If changing attitudes toward violence helped to squelch interest in boxing, is the same fate likely for football with increased attention to concussions and the early retirement of pro players such as Chris Borland before they suffer injuries for a lifetime? Highly unlikely.

Unlike boxing which even in its heyday depended on individuals for its popularity, team sports such as football enjoy huge built-in advantages. Financially, they drive revenue through a dizzying proliferation of merchandise. Any doubters need only attend a Ducks, Beavers or Seahawks game to witness the endless permutations of team caps and sweatshirts that non-team sports can never tap (another interesting exercise is to watch film of any game –football, basketball, baseball or hockey—from say the 1960s and see how little team gear fans wore then).  

At the college level, players come and go regularly but decades of traditions and rivalries insulate football from any true threat. Those factors are even more true at the pro level.

So by all means this weekend, gather around the TV to catch the Derby, which truly ranks near the top of any list for the “best two minutes in sports,” then split the pay-per-view cost with a few buddies to watch what’s still one of sports’ most exciting sensations -- the feel of a top prizefight.

Just don’t expect to make it a regular habit.  Because while baseball may be struggling with its pace, football may be battling its brutality and all sports try to deal with gambling, boxing and horse racing aren’t ever coming back. 

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.


Related Slideshow: Oregon’s Most Devastating Sports Injuries

Here is GoLocalPDX's list of Oregon's most devastating injuries that have occured within the past 10 years.

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Greg Oden

Sept. 2007 — Micro fracture surgery on right knee

Dec. 2009 — Fractured left patella 

Nov. 2010 — Micro fracture surgery on left knee

Dec. 2011 — Arthroscopic surgery on right knee

Unfortunately, Trail Blazer fans everywhere already know how drafting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant worked out for their team. After being be the #1 selection in the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden was never able to play a full season due to ongoing knee injuries. The team eventually waived him in March of 2012.

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Dennis Dixon

Nov. 2007 — Torn left ACL

During the 2007 season Dixon had the Oregon Ducks as the #2 team in the country. That was until he suffered a torn ACL against Arizona State and attempted to play on it the following week against Arizona. After Dixon went down for the season the Ducks lost their remaining two regular season games. Fortunately, they were able to end their season on a high note with a victory over South Florida in the 2007 Sun Bowl.

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Brandon Roy

Sept. 2008 — Cartilage removed from left knee

April 2010 — Meniscus tear in right knee

Jan. 2011 — Arthroscopic surgery on both knees

Brandon Roy is perhaps one of the most beloved Trail Blazers in the history of the franchise. After being drafted in 2006, and leading the team out of the "Jail-Blazer" era, he had to make the tough decision to retire at the young age of 28. His degenerative knees prevented Rip City from seeing their superstar ever play to his full potential.

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Jacquizz Rodgers

Nov. 2008 — Grade II separation of the acromioclavicular joint

During the second to last game in 2008 Jacquizz Rodgers suffered a separated shoulder that ended his season. Unfortunately, this meant that he wasn't able to play in the Civil War, which was perhaps the biggest game of the year for the Beavers. If the Beavers had been able to defeat the Ducks they would've been able to book their tickets to play in the Rose Bowl. Instead, they went to the Sun Bowl where they defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers.

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James Rodgers

Oct. 2009 — Torn left ACL

After participating in only 4 games during the 2009 season Rodgers went down with a torn ACL while playing against #9 Arizona. This couldn't have come at a worse time for Rodgers considering he was expected to have a breakout season. Rodgers, who was a senior at the time, was able to end his career at Oregon State as the career leader in all-purpose yards.

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Joel Pryzbilla

Dec. 2009 — Ruptured right patella tendon and dislocated patella

In December of 2009 the Trail Blazers' backup center, Joel Pryzbilla, was lost for the season with a ruptured and dislocated patella. This was a huge blow to the Trailblazers' frontcourt because they had already lost Oden for the season a few weeks before. Pryzbilla was also the team's defensive anchor who provided an inside presence. "The Vanilla Gorilla" was sorely missed for the rest of the year.

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LaMichael James

Oct. 2011 — Dislocated right elbow

The 2011 season couldn't have started any better for LaMichael James. After the first game James became Oregon's career rushing leader, surpassing Derek Loville. During the second game he rushed for over 200 yards against Missouri State. Unfortunately, James' year was slowed by a dislocated elbow suffered against Cal. Luckily for Duck fans he was able to return to end the season.

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Nate Costa

Nov. 2010 —Torn Right ACL

After suffering a multitude of knee injuries throughout his career at Oregon Costa was forced to officially retire from football after tearing his ACL for the third time in agame against Washington. Although Costa's career was hobbled by injuries many of his teammates looked to him as their leader. Oregon's coaching staff referred to Costa as the "heart and soul" of the 2010 team that won the Rose Bowl.

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Sean Mannion

Oct. 2012 — Torn Left Meniscus

During the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, Sean Mannion was enjoying one of his best as a Beaver. Unfortunately, he tore his left meniscus against Washington State that resulted in him missing around half the season. With Mannion leading the way the Beavers had the Pac-12's fourth rated offense, averaging 459.5 yeards per game. With Mannion sidelined Cody Vaz became the starting quarterback

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Marcus Mariota

Oct. 2013 — Partial MCL Tear

Marcus Mariota is widely regarded as one of the greatest Oregon Duck quarterbacks to ever play at Autzen. Unfortunately a knee injury hobbled his sophomore season. After Mariota suffered a partial MCL tear against UCLA he conintued to play the remainder of the season. With Mariota's knee not allowing him to be as mobile as he was accustomed to teams were able to take advantage. In the weeks following the injury the Ducks suffered losses to Stanford and Arizona. Duck fans everywhere would like to know what that season woud've loked like if Mariota had stayed healthy.

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CJ McCollum

Oct. 2013 — Broken fifth Metatarsal In Left Foot

After being taken 10th overall during the 2013 NBA Draft the shooting guard out of Lehigh wasn't able to start his career the way many had hoped. After breaking the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot the rookie wasn't able to take the court until January of 2014. Before the injury McCollum was in consideration for playing time behind Lillard. 

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Alex Morgan

Oct. 2013 — Stress reaction in talus bone

During the 2013 season Morgan suffered an injury that doctors misdiagnosed as a mildly sprained ankle. After a few additional tests were performed it turned out that Morgan had suffered a far more serious injury. She actually suffered a stress reaction in the talus bone that put her immediate future with Team USA in question. After rehabbing for 7 months Morgan was able to make a full recovery.

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Bralon Addison

April 2014 — Torn left ACL

After exceeding expectations as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Oregon Addison was expecting big things from his junior year. Unfortunately, Addison suffered a torn ACL during last year's spring practice that kept him sidelined the entire year. Without Addison in the lineup the receiving core never lived up to their full potential. If he had been able to play this season the National Championship may have wielded a different outcome.

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Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Dec. 2014 — Torn ACL

In preparation for the first ever college football playoffs Ekpre-Olomu ended up tearing his ACL during a routine practice. This was a huge blow to the Ducks considering Ekpre-Olomu was one of the team's better defenders. He was also one of the best corners in the country who many analysists expected to be selected as high as the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

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Wesley Matthews

March 2015 — Torn left achilles

Just 2 months before Matthews suffered a torn achilles he had become the Trailblazers' all-time leader in 3-point field goals made. It looked as though the Trailblazers were poised to make a deep playoff run. Things took a drastic turn when Matthews was lost for the season. With the team in a 0-2 hole against the Memphis Grizzlies it doesn't look as though they will be making it to the second round of the playoffs this year.

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