This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The U.S. Open Tennis Championships are nearing the end of their two-week run in New York at the moment and, off-hand, I can’t think of another sporting event whereby the gravitas of the event is so huge in so many measurable ways and yet the television audience is so minimal. Thanks to the 17-year-old Cinderella story out of Marietta, Georgia, the irrepressible fighter Melanie Oudin, the ratings this year have actually been elevated over recent, post-Andre Agassi years. Yet even Labor Day weekend topped out at a mere 1.6 million viewers for the matches of the biggest stars, the most outrageous upsets. 1.6 million viewers? When some 35 million tune into the Super Bowl and some 17 million watch the big Bowl games of college football, 1.6 million from all of America’s sports fans is a paltry number indeed. Even the events we are told are dead and barely shadows of their former popular selves, such as the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500, pull in more than 6 million at-home viewers.
Yet if you’re either a tennis fan or a New Yorker, or both, the U.S. Open appears to shine as the center of the universe this time of year. While the recession has eaten into ticket sales for just about every sport at every venue, the Open quickly sold all its 84 luxury suites, produced ticket sales in excess of 700,000 and has regularly set single-day attendance records this year of over 60,000. The $450 million that the tournament generates annually by visitors to The Big Apple is more than from the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined. When most other sports are struggling to either survive in a sponsor-strained economy or to make a mark in a crowded marketplace, the Open has doubled its revenue since 2000.
If the U.S. Open isn’t the center of the sports universe right about this time every year, Derek Jeter certainly is. As the tennis crowd was cheering on Melanie Oudin last night, with the eventually dashed hope that her magical run would continue, the Yankee crowd just a few miles away were nearly apoplectic when their captain tied Lou Gehrig for first on the Yankees all-time hit list.
A Sports Illustrated poll from last year interviewed 495 Major League Players. The question? Who is the most overrated player in baseball? The answer? Derek Jeter. Weak ammunition is offered up to back the theory that Jeter is more public relations darling than he is the real thing, but it seems to me there is deep envy and the ever-popular Yankee-bashing at play there. One anti-Yankees radical has enough free time to have compiled a textured list of “100 Reasons to Hate Derek Jeter”, including such sideways observations as the fact that the rookie Jeter was bold enough to ask for a single-digit number when he first joined the Yankees, meaning he early on envisioned himself on a level with Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and DiMaggio.
But the hits, the stolen bases, the consistency, the Gold Gloves…it’s an absurdity to doubt that this guy could already chisel Hall of Fame on his gravestone. For those who point to Jeter as P.R. hype, I ask you to compare him to the other greats of his era. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, A-Rod. Derek Jeter, even living out his entire career in the city where “if you make it there, you make it anywhere”, is as low-key, as self-effacing, as void of the me-me-me spotlight as any superstar in sports history.
By the way, there’s another players’ survey floating around. The question for that one is: If you could pick one current player to build a team around, who would it be? The overwhelming answer? Jeter. Tomorrow night, with a standing home crowd cheering him on, Jeter will likely crack that one hit to surpass Gehrig. But you don’t have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate Derek Jeter.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that’s The Score.
Banner image: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees hits a single in the 7th inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during yesterday's game at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Jeter's hit ties Lou Gehrig's all-time club record of 2,721 hits. Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images