Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Culture: On Commercial Sports

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've always had mixed emotions about commercial sports (I prefer that term to "professional" sports, as few sports besides the "major" leagues actually allow people to earn their living from the sport, but a lot of money goes into commercial sponsorship of minor-league and other seasonal sports such as powerboat racing). At times, I've considered them a complete waste of money and a sign of the misplaced priorities of North American culture, and at other times I've been considerably more sympathetic to the community-building nature of commercial sports. There are only two subjects that are safe to talk about with a stranger on public transit--the weather, and the local sports team.

The Christian Science Monitor seems to be equally conflicted. In a recent article, they tried to explore whether an emphasis on sports was a "great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities." I'm not sure the article actually made any progress, but some of the statistics they brought up surprised me.

$2.5 billion is bet on March Madness brackets by 30 million Americans. Basically, ten percent of the population spends money, much of it technically illegal, on a basketball tournament in which supposedly-amateur athletes compete. Try to tell me that NCAA basketball isn't a commercial sport.

6.4 million Americans play participatory soccer. That's as many as play touch football. If there were ever a marketing gap, it's between soccer and the established "major league" sports in the United States. People ought to be able to get excited about the commercial version of a sport they actually play, yet the soccer leagues can't seem to find a way to tap into that enthusiasm.

41% of all sports television viewing in the United States is of football (American football, that is), four times greater than baseball despite baseball having about ten times as many games. It's hard for baseball or basketball (much less hockey or NASCAR) to claim to be the American sport in the face of that kind of statistic, and not hard to see why advertisers emphasize football.

$114.10 is the average ticket price for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Only the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots have higher average ticket prices in the "big four" sports. Canada can't claim to be immune from this discussion.

What do any of these statistics mean with respect to what should be done with commercial sports in North America? I ultimately agree with the implicit position of the Christian Science Monitor that there are two ways of looking at the situation that have some validity. Ultimately, if we decide that commercial sports have any benefit at all, then the only way to maintain that benefit is to let them be commercial, which seems to have been the default position in all of North America for generations. It probably will remain that way, so all we can do is try to get what community benefit we can. Keep asking strangers about your favorite team, I guess.

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