It’s March, which means it’s almost time for the NCAA Tournament — a 68-team college basketball competition that has become one of the most famous annual sporting events in the United States. Every year, “March Madness” saturates the media for its months-long cycle, but of course, this is nothing out of the ordinary for the sports world. The calendar is punctuated by blockbuster sports events — the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Olympics, the World Series — and to fans, they can be the most important events in the calendar year. Yet it’s not totally clear why sports have such a hold on us, and whether our obsession is justified.
At least 40 percent of children in the United States play a team sport on a regular basis. Past that age — and even for those who have never played a sport themselves — simply watching college-level, professional and international sports can become a critical part of life. Almost 112 million people watched Super Bowl 50 this February, and it’s predicted that 480,000 tourists will flood Rio for this summer’s Olympics. The sports market in North America alone was worth more than $60 billion in 2014 and is expected to reach $73 billion by 2019.
Studies have shown that for fans, being identified with a favorite team is more important than being identified with their work and social groups, and is as or more important to them as being identified with their religion. Sociologists have hypothesized that sports subcultures work as “totems,” serving as points of connection for communities and an outlet for ritual and religion in a time when actual religiosity continues to decline. Support for a certain team or club can serve as a point of identity and belonging, either crossing lines of age, race and background or reinforcing them.
The nigh-fanatical level of support people have for their teams continues to allow the sports industry to operate at a remarkable level of profit, even as its distinct undersides persist. Fandom wins out over the entrenched gender discrimination of the sports media, the predatory or criminal behavior of its top stars and the eventual injury and degradation of the athletes the fans cheer on.
To an outsider (confession: I’m not a sports fan), the amount of emotion invested in sports seems over the top. The superstitious, ritualistic and sometimes morally questionable traditions seem unwarranted given the situation isn’t life-or-death (and especially ridiculous when in service of teams that never win).
So why do people spend so much time, money and energy on sports? Where does our enduring love of certain teams or athletes come from, and what does it reveal about human nature? How have sports become such an important part of our society, and what are the repercussions of such fervent fandom?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:
Tim Bontemps, Washington Post NBA reporter.