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Baseball, basketball creep up on America's most unwanted list
Popularity polls come and go. As the baseball playoffs begin, the NFL is boasting that one poll shows it is more than twice as popular as the national pastime.
For a deeper insight into the American psyche, consider the sports that are loathed the most.
No. 1 on the list, by far, is dogfighting, hated or disliked a lot by 81 percent of the public, according to a poll conducted by the Sports Marketing Group in Atlanta. Makes you wonder what the other 19 percent were thinking.
No. 2 is pro wrestling, legal but farcical and more than a little trashy. That's also its appeal to those who love it, though more than half the nation can't stand the sight of steroid-pumped madmen slamming each other around the ring -- fake or not.
No. 3 is bullfighting, a sport that Americans who haven't been to Spain or Mexico or read Hemingway don't get, never see and, apparently, don't want.
Then there's pro boxing at No. 4, loathed by 31.3 percent of the public. Need we say more than Mike Tyson and Don King?
No real surprises there, considering the violence of those sports and the aversion toward them, especially by women. But this is where the list gets interesting, with class, race and age figuring into the findings.
The genteel PGA Tour is the No. 5 most hated and disliked sport (30.4 percent), followed by the PGA seniors' Champions Tour (29.9), the LPGA Tour (29.2), NASCAR (27.9), Major League Soccer (27.6) and the ATP men's tennis tour (26.5). That's a lot of people who hate or dislike events that sponsors are backing with billions of bucks.
All those sports, to be sure, have their share of passionate fans who love them or like them a lot but the level of antipathy toward them is astonishing. That's almost as many people as those who hate politicians.
Golf, even in the age of Tiger Woods, still turns off many Americans with its snooty and sexist country club image. The image may not fit reality -- there are plenty of public courses played by middle-class golfers -- but perception is everything in polls.
Three times as many black fans -- 13.4 percent -- say they love or like the PGA Tour now compared to 1993, doubtlessly because of Woods. But that hasn't put much of a dent in the number of people who still can't stand the sport. Ten years ago the hate/dislike figures on the PGA Tour were roughly the same -- 31.9 percent.
NASCAR turns off almost as many with the opposite image: red, white and blue -- or as some see it, redneck, blue collar and white skin -- even if it is has broadened its appeal to millions who don't fit that description.
Soccer still seems like a foreign film with subtitles to many Americans, and men's tennis has lacked a few small essentials: stars, diversity and compelling rivalries.
They are all held in lower regard by more people than the NHL, the Arena Football League, the Indy Racing League, women's college basketball and the WNBA.
But the big story in this list of sports Americans hate most -- based on a telephone poll of 1,000 respondents that is a prelude to a larger study later this year -- is what comes next: the NBA, with 19.7 percent of the country hating or disliking it, and Major League Baseball, with 17.5 percent strongly against it.
For most of the sports, with the exception of NASCAR, which has grown both in popularity and unpopularity with increased exposure on television, there was little change from the Sports Marketing Group's study that asked the same questions 10 years ago.
For the NBA, though, the hate/dislike responses increased sharply from 11.9 percent a decade ago, while baseball's negative numbers nearly doubled from 9.9 percent.
Baseball isn't quite as bad off as the NFL is claiming from a Harris Poll that says pro football is more than twice as popular as baseball. In the Sports Marketing Group poll, the NFL was loved or liked a lot by 42.8 percent of Americans, while baseball's popularity number was 31.8 percent.
"In the NBA, there are underlying racial issues and resentment about how the players act, how many get arrested and how much they're paid," said Sports Marketing Group managing director Nye Lavalle. "In baseball, the labor disputes, the huge salaries, the perception of players on steroids and their perceived arrogance are factors."
Ten years ago, only 12.5 percent of white Americans had strong feelings against the NBA. In the poll this year, that soared to 21.1 percent of whites who hated or disliked the NBA. The number of black respondents who felt that way stayed virtually unchanged at under 3 percent.
"There's been a seismic shift in the fan base of the NBA," Lavalle said. "If the league keeps going in the same direction, it's going to be in deep trouble. Baseball is on the decline and it could be dying if it doesn't change the way it's structured."
In other words, both sports may be going to the dogs.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.