As an avid sports fan/weekend warrior, I hate to see sports readily dismissed in Serious Talk about what can make for meaning, stronger communities and a stronger country.
One reason, as Helen Toner mentions, is that Serious Intellectuals don’t take sports seriously.
I think another reason sports don’t figure prominently into 21st century meaning-making is that major sports are very “top-down.” They’re not very friendly to individual meaning-making or even local community identity. Major pro teams were started/are owned by leagues and…owners, more than fans. They “address” large metropolitan areas; they’re built for scale.
Compare this to places in the U.S. with strong Friday Night Lights culture, or soccer in Europe…very “bottom-up” in comparison. Small towns and even individual neighborhoods have their own team, sometimes multiple. Many European soccer teams were often started by non-professionals - as clubs, rather than as entertainment for broader consumption. An ethos of local pride and fan “ownership” persists even amidst global branding and marketing.
I think there’s a hunger for local/community sports institutions. The same way there was a hunger for independent/craft beers and spirits. The analogy with alcohol also helps to explain the challenge: it’s harder to start a local sports team than it is to brew beer independently.
However, I think there are some cool things happening under the umbrella of “craft sports,” if you will. Away Days - a soccer-focused apparel brand - showcases the jerseys of smaller US teams that I’d never have heard of otherwise.
I also detect a growing interest in more systematic, ritualized physical culture that we can participate in without being athletes worth watching on TV. Search volume for Brazilian jiu-jitsu has steadily increased in the last several years. Starting Strength looks ready to open a slew of gyms across the country in the next few years. These are not anonymous globo-gyms; they’re relatively small and intimate.
If I were granted one wish to super charge bottom-up sports, it’d be the introduction of promotion/relegation. This makes starting a team a more attractive proposition, because you stand a chance of making it to the big leagues (national visibility/TV $$$). (Without this, the ceiling on your investment is lower.)
And then, up-and-coming talent start to have more options other than working for free for the NCAA/university system. Plus, they’d have more opportunities to represent their hometowns, which fuels mutual affection and pride.
I thank Alexey Guzey for bringing Helen’s tweet to my attention via his fabulous Best of Twitter newsletter.