We’re now on the eve, almost, of the nation’s biggest sports event, the Superbowl. By tradition we number these in the Roman style—hence once a year I have to spend five minutes figuring out what structures like XLVIII mean. That comes to 48. (Maddening, really, these traditional ways of doing things. Logically XL should either mean 500 or 60—not 40, but I digress.)
The other day some announcement alerted us to the growing popularity of soccer among American women and girls, and we got to talking about the “other sports.” This then led to wondering what the big traditional sports of India and China might once have been. And had they survived? These days getting a quick look at such things is easy. What became clear is that among individual sports for males, wrestling is universal, for females dancing in some form certainly is. Among team sports what we call soccer had as big a footprint in China in ancient times as it now has in the Western world; the U.S. is the only major country that treats “football” with benign neglect. The Chinese cuju goes back to the second or third centuries BC—so that is pretty old. After a while we also remembered that Native Americans had also had a sport; it was (and is) played with a ball moved about by using a basket mounted on the end of a stick. I describe the game that way because, for the life of us, we couldn’t think of the sport’s name.
Well, today—here is that vast weather of endless associations swirling in the collective mental air—came a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “Team Sports Don’t Make The Cut With American Kids.” The upshot of this story is that of six popular sports played by youths up to age 18, four have lost participation between 2008 and 2012: tackle football, soccer, baseball, and basketball; basketball is the biggest loser, having lost 8.3 percent of participation. Two sports have gained following: ice hockey, 64 percent, and lacrosse—a stunning 158.3 percent.
Will such shifts in popularity have any impact on the Superbowl? Of course not. Or, come to think of it, maybe. Superbowl Sunday is also undergoing transformations. Every year it has less and less to do with football and is more and more becoming the greatest religious holiday of Modernity, the Day of Advertising.