Has Our Sports Culture Gone Overboard?

I have been a competitive athlete and sports fan all my life; however, upon reflection in emerging adulthood, my consumption and participation began to rapidly evolve.

For humans to flourish, we must grow intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Through a myriad of educational and cultural opportunities, the avenues for self-growth and societal contribution seem endless. Why then does a sports entertainment culture that seems mindless dominate so much of the average American's time and commitment?

To be sure, great benefits can be found in athletic participation: physical fitness and wellness, social connection, the release of stress and healthy leisure, among other things -- but what is the limit to expenses on stadium tickets or hours spent in front of the TV? Of course, sports statistics can teach math skills, but surely there are far more economical ways to learn math? Thinking broadly about this subject, how can our time be better utilized, and how can our funds be more responsibly allocated?

Aging Baby Boomers can probably conjure up memories of a time when sports were a more modest pursuit. Televisions were black-and-white, there were only three major networks and a few local networks available in most viewing areas, as sports were more of an occasional presence on television, with limited reach. By far, baseball was the most popular spectator sport, the national pastime, and largely a regional activity. As late as 1957, of the 16 Major League Baseball teams, three were from New York City, and most were in the Northeast. The western-most team was in Kansas City, Missouri. Football was also a much smaller entity. Indeed, 50 years ago, there were 14 National Football League (NFL) teams playing only a handful of regular season games, with one playoff game at the conclusion of the season in late December.

Today, it's a different picture as the demand and supply have exploded. There are now 30 major league teams, with five on the west coast and five in the south, and a lengthy playoff schedule added to the original World Series to conclude the season. Major League Baseball attendance in 2014 for regular season non-playoff games ranged from 37 million for Los Angeles (Dodgers) to about 1.4 million for Tampa Bay, with a total attendance of 73 million. In an even greater expansion, there are now 32 national football teams playing 16 games, with 11 playoff games ending in the Super Bowl, which now takes place as late as February. NFL attendance in 2013 (eight games per city) ranged from 704,345 in Dallas to 403,556 in Oakland.

While these live attendance figures are daunting (although it should be noted that they are often exaggerated, reflecting tickets sold versus people who are actually present), they are only a small factor in the expansion of sports viewing. Apart from merchandising, which is considerable, television ad revenue has spurred drastic expansion. In addition to hi-definition flat screen technology and sports camera techniques that allow extreme close-ups at every conceivable angle along with replays and "highlights" that even dominate local news programming, the creation of cable TV has created a bonanza for sports, especially football. One large cable provider has sports packages that include access to 20 sports channels, and up to 160 baseball, basketball and hockey games a week (needless to say, it would take you several weeks to watch all these games).

The extent of this domination is staggering. In January 2014, the NFL issued a press release noting that 34 of the 35 most-watched TV programs in the Fall 2013 period were NFL games, led by a Thanksgiving game that was viewed by 31.7 million viewers. In all, the NFL estimated that 70 percent of all American TV viewers had watched at least one football game during this period. In addition, the NFL Super Bowl, which has long been the most watched show in America, attracted an estimated 111.5 million viewers in 2014. In contrast, in October 2012, a total of 67 million Americans watched the first televised Presidential debate on the numerous networks that televised it. How did we get to a place where watching physical brutality now trumps learning about the state of our nation?

The confluence of all these factors adds up to upended corporate power over average media consumers. As of 2014, the average NFL team was worth more than $1.4 billion, a gain of 23 percent since 2013. This is nearly double what the average baseball team is worth ($811 million), and more than twice the $634 million average value of NBA (basketball) teams. The richest NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, took in $560 million in 2013 and is now worth $3.2 billion. Thanks to plush TV deals, the NFL will earn $250 million annually by 2018, and a deal to televise Thursday night football will add an additional $275 million. Is it any wonder that a Google search of the term "football widow," a woman whose husband spends all his time in front of a TV watching football, produces nearly 9 million results? Wives and children deserve better than having husbands and fathers who take sports entertainment more seriously than quality family time.

Furthermore, college sports have also become big revenue producers. In the NCAA football division, the University of Texas, reportedly the most successful team, brought in more than $95 million in 2011. In basketball, the NCAA made $912 million in 2012-2013, of which $681 million came from a CBS contract to televise the 3-week Division I men's basketball tournament. In turn, the 2013 tournament generated $1.15 billion in television advertising. Obviously, these revenue generators have enormous influence on college campuses nationwide. It's not only in college that the booming sports industry has become so pervasive. A Houston-area suburb just voted to build a $58 million high school football stadium. This comes at a time when we now know that teens playing competitive football almost inevitably end up with measurable abnormalities similar to the effects seen in mild traumatic brain injuries.

Oddly, sports events have long drawn sponsors seemingly at odds with their activities, namely alcohol and tobacco products. For decades, beer companies have been a ubiquitous presence at sports events and in commercials for sport events. During one of the most fervent times of support for the New York Yankees in the 1950s and early 1960s, television broadcasts featured the jingle "Baseball and Ballantine," linking baseball to Ballantine beer as the "perfect combination." (Not to be outdone, tobacco companies hired baseball stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays to appear in their cigarette and cigar ads. Even when cigarette advertising was banned on television in 1971, tobacco companies shifted to placing ads in places that were likely to be seen by spectators or in various camera views at sports events, especially racing. This is understandable, because the sporting events with the highest attendance annually are the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR Brickyard 400 races, which draw approximately 300,000 each in the same venue. From 1995-1999, tobacco companies spent more than $226 million in advertising at such sporting events.

In addition to beer and tobacco, one only has to look at local supermarket ads to see the effect of sports viewing on eating. Around the time of the Super Bowl, there are numerous ads for catering platters featuring fat- and sodium-laden cold cuts, barbecue chicken wings and ribs, nacho chips with cheese, and other foods that are more likely to give one a myocardial infarction than motivate the viewer to exercise and participate in the sport itself.

Rather than blaming corporations for meeting increasing demand, we must take personal responsibility for using our leisure time responsibly. Each of us must consider the impact our engagement in sports entertainment takes upon our personal health and our family's wellbeing.

The Sages of the Talmud taught that it was generally forbidden to go to stadiums to watch events but that one could attend only if they might be able to save a victim (Avodah Zara 18b). "Sports" were life-death issues in their time (gladiator events) in a way they are not today. But the message is clear: One should only go to a place of intellectual and spiritual defilement if they feel they can bring light and added benefit there.

As the reading of books and the participation in civic engagement continue to dwindle, the participation in sports entertainment continues to rise. Perhaps in an increasingly more complex world, many don't feel equipped to address the challenges our new realties present us. Sports, like most entertainment, can be an escape from the complexity of our world. Perhaps we need to look more closely at those difficult realties and put ourselves in the penalty box.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of six books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."