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Deciding America’s No. 1 sport becomes a game itself

Which American sport can lay claim to being No. 1 in America and with me? Millions of people attend Major League Baseball games and the chroniclers of the game claim it still deserves to be called the national pastime. They cite the total attendance recorded for the 2008 regular season at 78.5 million. Very impressive.

I remember attending my first baseball game when I was 5. My brother, Larry, took me to venerable, now−defunct Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn to watch Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers play the St. Louis Cardinals. A bunch of runs were scored and a bench−emptying brawl electrified the crowd. The Dodgers won the game. The thrill of seeing my first baseball game made baseball No. 1 with me — until the Dodgers packed up their bats and moved to Los Angeles.

Then along came basketball. Basketball theorists assert their rightful supremacy is determined by how many fans watch the sport in arenas and on TV and the number of people who play the game during leisure time. In America, 25.9 million people, men and women, including President Barack Obama, play basketball, according to the most recent survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Very impressive.

I remember when I was 12 I played on my community center’s basketball team. I played everywhere: settlement houses, school yards, playgrounds. With my team’s name — “Sioux” — emblazoned across my chest, I was king of the world, especially when I scored the winning basket in the championship game against a heated rival. For me, basketball was certainly supreme — until football, and the Giants, entered my life.

Almost as many Americans watched the 2009 Super Bowl — 97.6 million, or about one−third of the nation — than voted in the 2008 presidential election (125 million). That is quite a statistic. Does that alone make football our No. 1 sport?

As you know, I am the No. 1 Giants football fan in all eternity. And, being an impartial observer, I say, “Yes.” No other sport can beat the exuberance of a football game. This was especially true on Feb. 1, 2008, when my New York Giants upset “the greatest NFL team ever assembled,” the New England Patriots, in Super Bowl XLII.

Every year, the Harris Interactive survey asks Americans to name their favorite sport. The National Football League won each of the last 43 surveys. Last year, 30 percent of Americans chose football as their favorite sport, compared to 15 percent for baseball and 4 percent for basketball. Very impressive.

I remember the first football game I ever saw. It was 1958, and the Baltimore Colts were playing the New York Giants for the championship game at Yankee Stadium. Although the Giants lost, that game brought football to the forefront. From that day forward, I was hooked. For me, football stands alone in the entire world of sports.

The admirers of baseball, however, contend their sport is still the national pastime. After accumulating an impressive 78.5 million regular season attendance figure — not counting the millions more who follow it on TV and radio — there’s no denying baseball is No. 1.

Basketball aficionados argue the vast number of people who shoot hoops and growing attendances at NBA and college games make basketball king of the hill. Not to be outdone, football fanatics claim the 17 most−watched programs in TV history have all been Super Bowl games. That fact alone makes football “numero uno.”

Hmm! Which sport is truly America’s No. 1?

I decided to find answers to this elusive enigma. I consulted four experts whose impeccable credentials were the most unimpeachable known to mankind: my grandchildren.

Since it was the holiday season, I bought each a different sports gift. For Aaron, 8, I bought a baseball glove. Wrong! He plays soccer. For Justin, 15, I bought a basketball. Wrong! He plays lacrosse. For Brendan, 14, I bought a football. Wrong! He plays electronic games. And for Keri, 9, I bought a tennis racket. Wrong! She likes to dance.

When you add hockey, tennis, golf, car racing, jai alai and bocce to the mix, which sport is America’s favorite? After much thought, I came to the simple conclusion that the answer lies in the eye of the beholder.

Reach Alex Berger at news@timesledger.com.

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