America may have been one of the last to embrace the sport, but this year’s record-breaking viewership of the World Cup is proof enough: Soccer/football has found a place among America’s favorite obsessions. Each of the three U.S. team’s matches in the 2014 World Cup have shattered American viewing records. The second game—a Sunday primetime match against Portugal—brought in the most, with 18.22 million on ESPN and an additional 6.5 million viewers on the Spanish language channel, Univision. While that 24.7 million is still far short of the 111.5 million who watched the 2014 Super Bowl, it does beat out viewership for last year’s NBA finals (15.5 million) and the World Series (14.9 million).
Nothing draws an American (or global) crowd quite like sports. But is that a good thing? Have sports become too important? And what about the constant controversies surrounding the industry, from concussions to salaries to ongoing prejudice? In a new Barna study, we look at Americans’ views on this favorite of pastimes.
Putting Sports in Its Place
Friday night lights.
Any given Sunday.
Sports and the culture surrounding them are a pervasive part of the American experience. Last year, Barna found that Americans believe athletes have a greater influence than any faith leaders. And in a new 2014 study, more than four in 10 adults (43%) strongly agree that sports are an important part of American culture; when you factor in those who also “somewhat agree”—an additional 46% of adults—it’s nearly nine out of ten Americans (89%).
Those who are more likely than average to strongly agree that sports are an important part of American culture include men (46%), those in the Boomer generation (48%) and practicing Christians (55%). Groups least likely to agree include younger Americans—those in the Millennial generation—at only 38%, and downscale Americans—those with a household income of $20,000 or less a year and who have no college experience—at just one-third (33%). Women (41%), Gen-Xers (42%), Elders (43%) and upscale Americans (44%)—those with at least a $70,000 annual income and who have a four-year degree or higher—are all about on par with the average in their views on the importance of sports in American culture.
But do Americans care too much about sports? Has an enjoyable pastime turned into an unhealthy obsession? When the most valuable media company in the world is ESPN; when profits from fantasy football outpace profits from real football; when the highest-paid public employee in most states is a college coach, it’s a reasonable question to ask—and nearly two out of three adults (67%) believe, firmly or somewhat, that Americans place too high a priority on sports.
While men make up a larger viewing audience for sports and are more likely to play than women, they are also more likely to believe Americans care too much about sports: 72% of men believe so, compared to only 61% of women. Millennials are the most likely generation to say Americans care too much about sports (75% vs. 65% of Gen-Xers, 61% of Boomers and 70% of Elders). Downscale Americans (58%) are less likely than upscale Americans (68%) to think American’s over-prioritize sports. Practicing Christians, at 69%, are in line with the average adult.
The Losing Side of Sports
From Donald Sterling to Oscar Pistorius to the ongoing concussion debates in the NFL and FIFA, professional sports have their share of scandal. While this year’s World Cup plays itself out, the death count among construction workers preparing for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar continues to mount. At least 185 were killed in 2013 and it’s estimated that, by the time the tournament actually happens, 4,000 workers will have given their lives to prepare the facilities.
Americans are not naive to the darker side of sports. More than six in 10 adults (62%) believe professional sports in America are “very corrupt.” Nearly nine in 10 (86%) say professional athletes are paid too much, and 62% assert that sports distract us from more important events happening in the world.
America’s Favorite Sports
While soccer is certainly enjoying its day in the sun during the 2014 World Cup, it is still well behind other “traditional” American sports in terms of how many people watch and play it. American football garners the most viewers, with 53% of adults saying they watch the game regularly. Basketball and baseball each pull in about one-third of Americans regularly (33% for both), while just over one in 10 adults (11%) watch golf and soccer regularly. Just under one in 10 (9%) are regular tennis viewers.
Fewer Americans have played or have children playing American football, presumably because it is a sport generally played by only males—just three in 10 adults have played and only 18% of parents have children who play American-style football. More Americans have played baseball than the other sports (41%), with basketball trailing closely (39%). About one in five adults (22%) say their children play baseball and the same percentage have children playing basketball. More Americans play soccer than watch it, with 20% having personally played and 16% saying their kids play. Millennials are much more likely to have played soccer than any other generation (35% vs. 23% of Gen-Xers, 10% of Boomers and 5% of Elders). Tennis and golf come in lower—17% have played tennis and 7% say their kids do; 13% have played golf and 7% of people’s kids play. Additional sports polled include volleyball (23% of adults have played), hockey (7%) and other (25%).
What the Research Means
“There’s a reason the apostle Paul used sport references in his epistles,” says Clint Jenkin, a vice president at Barna Group. “Every culture that has progressed beyond subsistence has developed recreational competitions, and become passionate about them. However, American sports are unique in history when it comes to their size, scope and financial resources. The scale of American sports have been made possible by the combination of fans’ disposable income and mass media such as radio, TV and now Internet.”
Soccer has been traditionally weak in the U.S. compared to other countries—in part, Jenkin says, because it faces so much competition: “Other sports are competing for our best athletes and for viewership numbers.” He goes on to point out a few trends that are lending to its increase in popularity. “First, as the U.S. Hispanic population grows (and currently accounts almost entirely for overall U.S. population growth), soccer is becoming more popular. Hispanic Americans are more likely to have played soccer than other ethnic groups—35% vs. 16% of white Americans, 18% of black Americans and 28% of non-white Americans.
“Second, Millennials are more likely to have grown up playing soccer and also have a more global outlook on life, so many are naturally drawn to soccer as a truly global sport.
“Third, soccer is becoming more popular at the recreational level. I suspect this popularity will only increase as concussion awareness in football is on the rise.
“Finally, as the big money sports such as the NFL and NBA make decisions seemingly more about the bottom line than about the fans and the sports themselves, there is room for a smaller, fan-friendly league such as MLS to steal away viewers.”
Growing concerns surrounding the ethics of sports will likely drive continued changes within larger sports institutions as well, says Jenkin. “The popularity of sports has become intertwined with issues of safety, sustainability, income inequality and social consciousness. The larger sports are already facing a tipping point where they are expected to justify themselves in the context of these issues. How they deal with these expectations will determine what the next generation of sports look like in America and around the world.”
About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 20 to February 25, 2014. The survey included 1,156 adults 18 and over. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
People are identified as having a “practicing” faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.
The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.
Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2014