America's Pastime

In honor of the July 4th holiday, I thought about the relationship sports have had with America since its beginning and how important sports remains in our culture today. How do we like to pass the time in our daily lives? We watch, read, talk and play sports. This is at the core of where marketers and media outlets will want to find you. It’s been this way for a long time.

Here’s some history. For most Americans living today, the term “America’s pastime” is synonymous with baseball. Baseball is a game developed before we were born from a sport called rounders, played by our friends across the pond in Great Britain. At that time, baseball won out as the game to play over a sport called cricket (and that’s why Americans still don’t understand cricket). Baseball first took off in popularity in New York and in 1856 the New York Mercury newspaper coined the phrase “the national pastime.”

Baseball then became connected to politics during the Civil War. In the book Past Time: Baseball as History by Jules Tygiel, lithographers Currier and Ives in 1860 depicted the results of the most significant presidential election in America’s history. They represented the four leading contenders for the presidency -- including Abraham Lincoln -- as baseball players with Lincoln, the winner, shown holding a ball, with his foot on “home base.”  Currier and Ives titled this editorial cartoon: “The National Game. Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run.’” America was not yet “national” at the time, but Lincoln’s presidency changed that and the rest is now in America’s DNA. During the 19th and 20th centuries, baseball ballooned to become the most-played sport in America where it became known as America’s pastime. It was what we talked about at the dinner table and on Main Street. We were connected at all levels. It was literally how we passed the time. 

Yet our culture has advanced to the point where sports, which is all sports, are now the American pastime. Clearly, baseball remains in rare company as one of the most followed among American sports fans. And, baseball lingo is still used in everything from politics to business. Today, growth among all forms of sports in America is prevalent and diverse: football, basketball, hockey, motorsports, golf, Olympic games, soccer. There’s a sport for everyone. It could be UFC, lacrosse, tennis, fishing, sailing, billiards, or X-games. There are even a growing number of people that are pushing rugby and cricket!    

Look at last week’s announcement of a college football playoff. It took the past 10 years of debate amongst the powers that be on whether a playoff is necessary. And finally those powers spoke ... "College football's championship game is America's second most-watched sporting event and we're proud to build on our successes as we grow the sport and hear the voices of everyone who loves college football." There was an outcry among Americans that the game had been held back by the unfairness of the BCS. Not anymore. 

The undoubted king of all sports currently is the NFL, fans love it and sponsors love it even more. Is it possible for TV revenues to go any higher than they are already? The answer is yes. But issues are still present -- ticket sales to the actual games have flattened, but the NFL is working on solutions -- and it will find them. 

In late May, the NFL announced plans to bring broadband Wi-Fi into every stadium. A seemingly minor upgrade, it is huge for fans that have an insatiable appetite for NFL content and data. No sport can come close to doing what the NFL does, even while scandals on player bounties, concussion awareness and retired player issues keep surfacing. To steal the phrase from Wall Street, the league is literally “too big to fail.”

Let’s also consider the power of the NBA and how the sport’s best player, LeBron James, finally captured his first championship. Add in that it was in the top three most-viewed Finals since 2003 and LeBron’s never-ending media tour, The Decision, seems to be forgotten. Do you like him now? I do.  How about soccer? Seems crazy, but seeing how ESPN’s ratings for the Euro Cup have massively jumped since 2008, our country could be warming up to the “beautiful game”? It’s the second highest-rated sport amongst the 12-24 age group. This means our presidential candidates will need to start using terms like “on the pitch,” “feint,” “False-9,” or “trequartista” -- without the accent, of course. 

There’s also the NHL’s Stanley Cup with the newly crowned L.A. Kings -- it’s not just hockey fans who like these guys. That’s why the league posted its highest revenue ever. If your head’s not spinning, yet, Tiger Woods just won at the AT&T National and passed The Golden Bear for second on the all-time-wins list. And, Michael Phelps is in every possible commercial (with his mom), which tells you London 2012 Games are about to begin.

So, fire up the grill, watch some fireworks and enjoy some time with friends and family tomorrow, as we all pass the time -- with “sports.” And maybe in another 100 years, cricket will be America’s pastime.

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