The start of the year is a good time for American sports fans. The familiar contests follow one another in quick succession. The Super Bowl and March Madness, Opening Day and the Masters, the NBA and NHL playoffs. These old sporting friends come round each year with a pleasing regularity.
The Nobel-prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee is a big sports enthusiast. At one point in a published series of letters between him and Paul Auster (Here and Now 2013) he raises an interesting question. Why do no new sports get invented any more? Nearly every well-known sport had its rules codified in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since then, scarcely any new sports have emerged. So what blocks their creation?
In keeping with his day job as a professor of literature, Coetzee wonders whether the number of viable sporting forms is limited. Perhaps some deep structure of games allows only a restricted range of constructions from a universal sporting grammar.
I’d say that Coetzee’s suggestion is belied by the rich variety of sports that can be found in different parts of the world. There seems no limit to the arrangements that humans can devise to test their physical prowess. Rather, the real problem facing any newly invented sport is its lack of tradition.
History is an essential component of sports. All established sports can tell tales of past heroes and famous victories. This adds to the significance of athletic achievement. It is one thing to be good at hitting a leather ball with a big stick. It is another to follow in the footsteps of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, of Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio.
Intellectual commentators often bemoan cultural imperialism. Hollywood films and English-speaking TV are swamping the world, they complain, eliminating local traditions and turning everything into a homogenized cultural soup.
I wonder how many of these intellectual pessimists are sports fans. They might be right about some aspects of mass-market media—though if you ask me they would do well to get out more—but they are certainly wrong about sports. Each region of the world has its own sporting traditions, and there is little evidence that they are under any threat.
If you turn on the television on a winter’s Saturday morning in Melbourne, Australia, you are likely to see a group of large men engaged in earnest conversation. They are dissecting the afternoon’s upcoming “footy” matches, analyzing possible tactics, rating the players, measuring them against past titans like Ted Whitten, Bob Skilton, and Ron Barassi.
You would be hard put, given the gravity of their demeanor, to tell that the game of which they speak is little played outside their city. In Melbourne, “football” means Australian Rules Football, a very specific variety of the genus, played on a huge oval field with eighteen players a side. The main clubs take their names from Melbourne suburbs, and the annual Grand Final attracts a crowd of 100,000.
However, in Sydney, the nearest big city, and Brisbane, the next one north, “football” refers to a quite different game. Here it is Rugby League, a thirteen-a-side contest that is itself largely peculiar to the east coast of Australia and the north of England. It is not dissimilar to the more widespread fifteen-a-side Rugby Union code, but is distinguished by its history of professional players and working-class roots.
In Sydney, Aussie Rules is viewed as a quaint southern oddity, and it is the League heroes that obsess the media. In 2014 the League Grand Final between South Sydney “Rabbitohs” and the Canterbury “Bulldogs” filled the huge ANZ Stadium and attracted a TV audience of 4.6 million. The Rabbitohs’ victory was a triumph for their owner, film star Russell Crowe, whose backing had taken the struggling inner-city team to their first Final victory in 43 years.
And so it goes. The term “football” is itself a testament to the diversity of sporting traditions. Melbourne and Sydney are not the only places that attach their own meaning to the word. In much of the world, of course, it stands for the round-ball game technically designated as Association Football. But in Ireland it is generally understood as meaning Gaelic Football, in New Zealand it is traditionally used for Rugby Union, while in North America it refers to the gridiron version of the game.
Each region of the world has its own sporting traditions, and they are not easily dislodged. Evangelical sports entrepreneurs periodically try to export their home games to new markets, but their initiatives are typically ineffective. The American NFL plays some of its games in London each year, but few locals pay much attention. Similarly, Major League Baseball held the first game of the season in Australia for a while, but now seem to have given this up as a bad job.
In truth, sporting traditions reach too deep to be uprooted by marketing exercises. They are passed on from generation to generation, and command a loyalty that is central to many people’s identity. From an early age, youngsters acquire sporting heroes, team affiliations, and an ingrained sense of how their games should be played. These are not things that you can learn from an advertising campaign.
So it is no accident that that the American sporting calendar remains constant from year to year, featuring the same games in the same formats, with only minimal changes. The answer to Coetzee’s question is that modern sports command allegiance because of their histories. Back at the beginning of the industrial age, space on the sporting map was up for grabs, and it was still possible to devise new sporting disciplines. But that era is long gone. Each region of the world now has its own sporting traditions, and will not relinquish them lightly. For sports fans, the historical resonance of their local games adds meaning to their lives.