Sportswriter John Tunis identified what he called The Great Sports Myth in his book $port$: Heroics and Hysterics. Tunis pointed out that the idea that if only you worked hard enough and practiced that you could be selected to join a professional sports team was absurd because for every Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, there were literally millions of aspiring professional baseball players. Even if you were a phenomenal player, the odds were very much stacked against you, and you were much more likely to live your adult life only being able to recall how good you were as a child. Tunis, I should point out, chose Ruth and Cobb as examples for a straight-forward enough reason: he wrote his book in 1928.
As media outlets became more prolific, they started poking some hold in the Myth. Viewers could see on television just how many people were showing up for try-outs, and just how good so many of them really were. They could also see just how much farther removed pro athletes were becoming from most people, their wealth and fame becoming ever more visual. TV adoption increased rapidly in the early 1950s, and color television in the 1960s, both corresponding with an increase in the use of the term “sports fan.” While the relationship is not necessarily causal in nature, it is interesting to see that as the public increasingly sees how rarified their opportunities to become a professional athlete really are, the notion of sports fandom starts taking off.
In 1956, authors Francis X. Sutton, Seymour Edwin, Harris Carl Kaysen, and James Tobin suggested that one of the reasons people gravitated towards sports fandom was because of the work environment. They were increasingly seeing that promotions and job prospects were not as merit-based as they had been led to believe and that sports was a venue where that was still valid. And while their chances for professional activities were minimal, they could still participate by proxy via sports fandom. Sports remained merit-based (“May the best team win!”) and it provided an ongoing validation of the notion of a meritocracy.
(It should be noted that they didn’t say that was the only reason people became sports fans, just that it was a contributing factor.)
But even The Sports Fan Myth breaks down over time. While fan credibility can be, in part, determined by the knowledge of trivia about your favorite sport or team, marketers have siezed on and done a great deal to commercialize the fandoms. It becomes less about having intimate knowledge and understanding of the sport, and more about having the most officially licensed products and seeing the most games, which have in large part have moved towards subscription online and television packages. Marketers have successfully tied the notion of fan identity to merchandise and consumerism, somewhat ironically in contrast to the meritocracy that the notion of sports espouses.
Now, to be sure, sports is not the only venue that does this. It’s also seen, to varying degrees, in just about every other form of entertainment. But what does it say that the ostensibly most meritocritous avenue out there encourages a fan base that increasingly isn’t?