As a Christian and firm believer in God, I must say that I was immediately disturbed by the idea that sports had surpassed religion and become more prevalent and popular in this country. With this said, there are definitive and undeniable parallels between the two that simply cannot be ignored.
For me, Sundays growing up in my family always meant waking up early, dressing up, and going to church. With this routine also came the continuous hope that my pastor would end his sermon early enough so service would be over in time for me to see the Eagles play at 1 o’clock. Though I was young and watching my favorite team was a lot more important to me than sitting in what I deemed a boring church service, I know I wasn’t the only one watching the clock as time inched closer to 1pm on Sundays.
Research referenced in this ABC News article claims that number of Americans attending church is on the decline while the number of young Americans that consider themselves as having “no religion” is on an extreme climb. The bigger picture with all of this is that while this is happening, the participation and popularity in sports continues to be on the rise. Fandom for the most popular leagues in America are only growing, making more money, and becoming more and more of a cornerstone in American culture.
Sundays for the average American seem to not be associated with church nearly as much as they are with football and cheering on your favorite team. The fact that Super Bowl Sunday stands alongside Christmas (and various other holidays) as one of the biggest and most anticipated days of the year speaks volumes in terms of how tied to our culture sports has become. As a billion dollar industry that gains great exposure and reverence all year round, some of our most known celebrities and influential people in this country are athletes, and there’s something to be said about that.
Dr. Nigel Barber, of Psychology Today, hits on some even further key points surrounding this topic. In viewing this through a psychological lens, we see that both sport fandom and religion have very similar effects on spectators.
The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. This is especially apparent when considering the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.
In previous centuries, religion and the practice of going to church was considered to be a form of “entertainment” for people, as things like theater, art, and sports didn’t exist like they do today. Now when we think of entertainment, sports has a definitive spot as one of the top and most pervasive forms.
In many ways we worship the teams we have allegiance to, and dress up in our favorite jerseys while doing so (similar to getting dressed up for church or wearing our “Sunday best”). For me there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the way I was “born into” being a Christian and the way my undying allegiance to the Philadelphia Eagles was passed down to me at birth. With the various rituals involved and the large community impact that each one has, it’s not hard to see how closely sport fandom and religion actually compare. While churches around the country are struggling with their attendance numbers, multiple arenas, stadiums, and ballparks around the country have no problem selling out crowds of 50,000 plus people (a grave comparison considering that going to church is essentially free while tickets for sports events are notoriously pricy).
It’s fairly obvious in this day and age that sports is very tied to our culture, and this is especially visible when comparing the fandom of sport to that of religion. Though sports fandom doesn’t quite have the power to start wars or strike political debates like religion continues to do, that isn’t where the conversation ends. Regardless of your stance on the prevalence of sports compared to religion (or if the two can even be compared) the growing popularity of sports at a time when religion is steadily declining serves as an important marker in the state of our society and culture.