Now, I know I’m not the most neutral source here. I grew up watching and talking sports. I have a very hard time wrapping my head around people who just don’t care. It just seems so unnatural to me. I suppose if I had grown up in a different household, I would feel the same way about somebody like me. I understand that sports don’t “matter” the same way, say, the economy or something along those lines matters. Whether or not Wabash has the Bell doesn’t change the livelihood of the general public.
That is not to say, though, that it doesn’t have an impact on the culture. The argument I’ve come down to is much like the argument Paul Lukas has over at Uni Watch about why advertising on uniforms is bad form. Professional sports* are a business, yes. But, all sports, even from youth leagues up to the majors, are a cultural touchstone. Maybe that culture is a pretty small subset in the case of your local little league, or it could be (inter)national in the case of the NFL, MLB, etc. Either way, it’s a commonality for a community to come together, enjoy, discuss, and bond over.
*And increasingly college sports, as noted earlier this week.
That cultural element is what makes sports a civic institution. The Colts may be owned by Jim Irsay, but they are woven into the fabric of Indianapolis and Indiana. Look at how Baltimore still cries over the team moving. That move happened nearly twenty years ago, and it still brings up some pretty fresh memories in Maryland.* They matter to this area, they bring the city and state together and give complete strangers something to bond over instead of sitting in silence. And it’s a damn sight more interesting than the weather.
*For the curious, March 29, 2014 will be the twentieth anniversary of the Mayflower trucks making their infamous trip. In a maybe ironic twist, Mayflower has been advertising quite a bit lately on ESPN 1070, boasting about how the Colts chose them to bring them to Indy. I’m not sure how much the rest of the nation, or Indiana, for that matter, really fondly recalls how the Colts left Baltimore. I wouldn’t think it would be boasting material for your ads.
I bring this up because I’ve seen this in action at my new job. I started at Alcoa on July 23rd. That means when Christmas rolls around, I’ll have been here five months. That’s not too long.* I came in here not really knowing a soul, and I’ve already made some pretty good connections. And those happened over sports. At Watchfire, I made one truly good friend,** and we first really bonded because I noticed he was reading Uni Watch one day. It actually happened just today. I was replacing a computer for one our accountant types downstairs. I’d never met him before, but we had a solid conversation over the hour or so I was working on his computer because he was a Purdue alum and cared deeply about the basketball team and all the Mackey stuff I wrote about the other day.
*Frankly, I’m a little surprised I got a first-time home loan for as long as I’ve been here. Not complaining, but I thought that was going to be a pretty big stumbling block.
**How’s it going, Jonathan? I’m hoping you’re still reading. Congrats on the new car, by the way.
And that’s why sports matter. Should we necessarily be spending all this public money on new stadiums? Maybe not, or at least not to the level it has happened.* But, I think it should factor in, and teams should have more loyalty than they do when it comes to sticking around in town. Not to say teams should never move. Making the Atlanta Thrashers into the Winnipeg Jets was way overdue. I would say moving the Coyotes out of Arizona is as well. But, in general, these teams matter deeply to their regions. They give cities reasons to bond and come together, through good times and bad. Isn’t that worth something?
*Here’s looking at you, Miami Marlins.
If it wasn’t sports, sure, there would likely be something else to fill that vacuum. But sports are particularly well-suited for this role. For one, they are standardized. The NFL plays the same game in San Francisco as it does in Boston. Baseball is played the same way in Seattle as it is in Miami.* There is a whole lot less apples-and-oranges arguments in sports as there are in, say, music. Musical tastes are so personalized, it makes forming a coherent community so much harder than coming together over a team. Not impossible, not by a longshot. But certainly harder. By giving us the structure and limitations of sports, and for many, the common experience of having played these same sports on some level, it gives everybody reason to take part in the conversation and tighten the screws on society to just that comfortable closeness.
*DH excepted. You get the point, though.
And to paraphrase an old ESPN commercial, without sports, I might have ended up marrying an IU girl, and that is just an ugly thought.