I want you to imagine something. Imagine huge crowds of people filing into a special venue to witness a display by professionals working at the highest tiers of their field. The tickets were expensive, the seats aren’t quite comfortable, the drink prices are outrageous. Specialized, high-powered lights illuminate the playing area and loud music fills the air. The professionals emerge, dressed in specialized clothing and equipment, and begin their hours-long display. The action is intense, sometimes exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, and about halfway through, there is a break for everyone to recover and chat. When it’s all over, the crowd will cheer for a job well done and grumble if their expectations weren’t met, but they’ll probably go to a similar event in the future. Those same fans will gather around their televisions once a year in a celebration of the best of the best, usually with friends, food and drinks at the ready.
Now, here’s my question: did you picture a Broadway show, or a sporting event?
Growing up, I wasn’t much of the athletic type, but I found a great deal of joy in artistic pursuits. I know there are many people like me, and many people who had the opposite experience. There are even people I know who managed to do both. My high school drama teacher played lacrosse, one of my college classmates was a collegiate tennis player, and my older brother had a lead in his high-school play every year while also running varsity track. Some people even experience the highest level of both (Tiki Barber in Kinky Boots, anyone?).
Sports and the arts (especially theatre) require many of the same things of their participants. Physical training, coordination, teamwork, leadership, pattern recognition, adaptability, self-control, and a lot of discipline and practice. They’re even more similar on the highest levels. Both draw large crowds (especially in New York). Both have major star power (for fun, ask a sports fan who Richard Rodgers is, and ask a music theatre fan who Hank Aaron is). Both are large subcultures with well-known hubs, fanbases and superstitions. Most of all, both sports and the arts have thousands of wide-eyed hopeful youths looking to join the ranks.
So, why is it that one of these pursuits is generally favored by the American public?
There is no denying that one has a larger fanbase and more money (Broadway made 1.8 billion in 2018*, while the New York Giants ALONE are worth 3.1 billion**).
The Super Bowl will probably always get much higher ratings than the Tony Awards. Athletes can and do make millions of dollars a season, while even Broadway actors may not work for months or years at a time. The economic differences go on and on, but I believe the differences in our cultural mindset are what really set them apart.
If a promising young athlete gets injured, there is the lament of “they could’ve gone pro”. If a promising young artist stops pursuing their craft, they’ve “grown out of it”. Many school boards balk at paying for the annual musical, but think nothing of throwing money at sports teams (while private donors may factor in, 70 million dollars for a high school football stadium*** is preposterous). What is it that set up this massive difference? I have a theory, and it might be somewhat controversial:
Athletes, even at the highest levels, are performers who do what they do for the entertainment of the public.
I’m not sure why it is that sports have become more valued than the arts (especially for young men, but that’s a story for another day). Perhaps it’s a matter of tradition, or loyalty, or maybe there are deeper cultural or socioeconomic factors at work. The answer is complex, but the solution is straightforward. Regardless of the presentation, sports and the arts serve the same purpose in our culture: to entertain us. Perhaps when we as a society recognize this, things will look up for artists who struggle for funding or athletes who want to be more well-rounded without being shunned. If we’re all trying to do the same thing by showing the public a good time, maybe we can be a little more equitable and generous about it.
*: Statistics- Broadway in NYC, broadwayleague.com
**: NFL Team Valuations, forbes.com
***: “70 Million Dallas high school football stadium opens, but it’s not the most expensive one”, www.chron.com