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Can U.S. teams really be world champs without playing the sports world?


Later this month, two of the nation's best baseball teams will slug it out at the World Series. That event, of course, is between only U.S. teams, even though it has world in its name. And it's not just baseball. This year's NBA winner, the Denver Nuggets, was called the world champion, except where was the rest of the world? Meanwhile, two actual world sports competitions are going on right now, the Rugby World Cup and the men's Cricket World Cup. And the U.S. is nowhere to be found because our teams failed to qualify for either one. Jason Gay is a sports and humor columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and he's here to talk about this split screen in U.S. sports. Hi, Jason.

JASON GAY: Hey. How are you today?

PFEIFFER: I'm good. Why do we call ourselves world champions in events where no one in the world is competing against us?

GAY: Because we're the United States of America, Sacha, and we consider ourselves the end all and the be all of the sports world, even in sports where we're clearly not the end all and be all. Yes, you're absolutely right. And, you know, this is one of those arguments that have been around forever that someone's going to hoist a trophy in early November or late October claiming championship of the world, World Series champs. And yet, yes, there are wonderful baseball teams scattered across our universe now. And so to claim to be the actual champion of the world is a little bit of American hubris.

PFEIFFER: So then in a country obsessed with sports like we are, why aren't we more competitive in all sports on the global stage, like rugby and cricket?

GAY: Listen. You understand that half of us have to drive kids around to soccer practice, OK, all fall, all spring, all summer long. We can only commit to so many things, Sacha. If I have to send my children out to play cricket and rugby in order to make us compete on the world stage, I'm going to lose it, OK? I can only handle so much youth sports parenting at the same time. I mean, in all seriousness, we are a country with, you know, obviously a pretty diverse palette of sports. But at a global level, in terms of being the most competitive, we really turn to our big television sports, which are behemoth sports like football - and I mean North American football - basketball, hockey, baseball. We really only care about the things that are on television, which is ludicrous 'cause there's great competitions elsewhere in the world, and they're really at your fingertips now with the way that digital streaming works.

PFEIFFER: So how much do you think our lack of presence in other world competitions explains why we go so all in on the Olympics?

GAY: Let me get this straight. So you're basically saying because of our deficiencies in something like cricket or rugby, we load up and we try to win all the medals in gymnastics or track and field or certainly with a dream team in basketball. Is that what you're implying here?

PFEIFFER: Well, it's an interesting possible theory; isn't it?

GAY: Well, I think that we like the things that we're good at, right? I mean, that's a very American notion, too. We don't have much patience for even silvers and bronzes in this country. I think that this is changing. I think that Americans are getting good in lots of other sports. But the more important thing and the more exciting thing, Sacha - and we're seeing this happen in exciting ways - the world is catching up. The United States does not dominate basketball in a way it did a generation ago. It does not even dominate a sport like baseball in the way that it did a generation ago. The World Baseball Classic was won by Japan rather dramatically this year over the United States, Shohei Ohtani striking out Mike Trout to seal that championship. You know, there's really exciting competition elsewhere in the world, and I think that's actually the sort of story.

PFEIFFER: You know, I'm wondering if sports like cricket and rugby could get more visibility in the U.S. because, as you probably know, the U.S. is actually set to host next year's T20 World Cup for cricket and the 2031 men's Rugby World Cup and the 2033 Women's Rugby World Cup. Jason, do you see any future in which either rugby or cricket rise to the level of the NBA or the NFL?

GAY: These things take not years, not even generations but multiple generations. I think the thing that everyone's concerned about is that we're in a battle for our lives with attention spans versus these telephones. Now it's harder than ever to get somebody under the age of 30 to sit and watch a two-hour sporting event of any kind because our attention spans are just so atrophied. I think all these sports are in an existential battle. I don't know if we're going to have the kind of attention for NFL football that we have nowadays. So the idea that, somehow, we're going to go shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world on cricket and rugby - I don't see it short-term. Long-term, it would be a miraculous outcome. I'd love to see it.

PFEIFFER: And by the way, will you be tuning in to the rugby quarterfinals this weekend?

GAY: Of course I will. You know, I love rugby. I love people who love rugby. And I'll watch anything that's happening in France.

PFEIFFER: That's Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal. Jason, thank you.

GAY: I appreciate it. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLXT SONG, "PASSIONATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.