By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Feb 12, 2008 at 5:18 AM Photography: Allen Fredrickson

The people at Harris Interactive polling have been sampling the American pulse longer than I've been alive. So, when Harris speaks, America listens.

The most recent Harris poll is an annual one, designed to determine America's favorite sport.

I must confess I'm not surprised by the results, except one for which I have no answer.

Pro football is America's favorite sport, with 30 percent proclaiming it so. Baseball was second with 15 percent. In the 20 years of the poll, football has gained and baseball has lost about the same number, indicating that football's growth in popularity came at baseball's expense.

After baseball came college football (12 percent) , auto racing (10 percent), hockey (5 percent) and then pro basketball, college basketball and golf were tied at 4 percent.

I guess I'm not surprised by many of those results, with the possible exception of hockey. Professional basketball is the one that really floors me and leaves me searching for an explanation.

Ten years ago this same poll found that 13 percent of American sports fans considered pro basketball their favorite sport. In 10 years, that figure has dropped 10 points. Pro hoops is now equal to the popularity of golf, for God's sake.

I don't understand what happened.

First of all, I think professional basketball players are the best athletes in the world. They need size, stamina, strength, speed and hand-eye coordination. Everything.

Watch Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or LeBron James perform their craft. There is no athlete in any other sport that can match them.

Pro basketball offers fans the best and closest look at the athletes. In football, players are hidden beneath uniforms, pads and helmets. By comparison, basketball players are nearly naked. You can see both their athletic moves and the expression on their faces. It is often dramatic theater.

The speed of the pro game is breathtaking and the grace and power of the players is evocative of world-class dance. It can leave your eyes wide with wonder.

Then how come basketball is so far down the popularity list? Why does it trail auto racing?

One thing I hope is that it's not because basketball has a reputation as a "black" sport. In a country where the chance of electing a black president is a real thing, I can't believe sports fans would let the color of athletes dictate preference.

Perhaps it's salaries, along with the perception of worth. I continue to hear people complain that NBA players just loaf until the final quarter and here they are, the highest paid players in professional sports.

I can't even begin to calculate how many professional basketball games I've seen. And I have great trouble remembering any game when the players just mailed it in. Maybe some have given up at the end of a hopelessly lost game. But as for loafing and dogging it, I just don't that often.

It's surely not entertainment value. Go to a Bucks game. With music, cheerleaders, tumblers and gymnasts consuming most breaks, there is entertainment from the beginning of the game, through timeouts and halftime, until the game comes to an end. I don't know why the game has slipped so far. But, I assume I am not alone in my wonder and NBA executives see the handwriting on the wall.

They've got to figure out some way to reverse this trend. Or the next time Harris takes a poll, pro basketball might have trouble beating men's tennis or speed skating for favoritism. And that would be a shame. 

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.