Another image more recently is that sports fans are thuggish lower-class hooligan types, and that sports are provided (on the taxpayer's dime) as a form of bread and circus to distract and anesthetize the working class or underclass.
As it turns out, though, sports fans are largely members of the elite. From a 2011 article on the demographics of fans of various pro sports:
According to league data, the average household income (HHI) for NHL fans is $104,000, highest of the four major sports with Major League Baseball ($96,200), the NBA ($96,000), and the NFL ($94,500). Sixty-eight percent of NHL fans have attended college, more than the other three sports (ranging 60.4 percent to 63.6 percent). And 64 percent of NHL fans hold full-time jobs, also more than the others (57-58.1 percent).
Household incomes of $95-100K puts them in the top 20-25% of the household income distribution. Mega-earners could be pulling up the average (the median was not reported). Household income also depends on how many earners there are -- and a married couple will earn more than a single-earner household. But those possibilities could not explain their higher rates of having a college degree or a full-time job. Roughly 30% of Americans have a degree, making sports fans more likely to be college-educated. And about 45% of Americans have a full-time job, making sports fans about 30% more likely to be working full-time.
The simplest explanation for all these differences is that sports fans are higher up the class pyramid than working class folks. Well above the median, too, more like what we would call upper-middle class.
How can this picture be reconciled with the two prevailing mainstream views of who sports fans are? There are two different sources of disconnect behind the two views. The "sports fan as honest, salt of the earth type" view dates from the Great Compression, when inequality was low and narrowing. I don't see much of a role for greater income equality per se -- how expensive is it to follow sports? If you've got a TV, newspaper, or a nearby sports bar to hang out at, you're all set.
Instead I think it came from both sides of the class spectrum trying to find common ground and get along, so that working-class men would've adopted some of the norms, hobbies, and cultural interests of the upper-middle class. Beginning in the 1920s and '30s, the elite agreed to rein in their rapaciousness of the Gilded Age and Robber Baron era, making an honest display of this contrition by choking off immigration during the '20s, which prevented a further downward slide of workmen's wages (labor supply down, wages up). And the working class agreed to end their violent labor agitation that reached a fever pitch in the years after World War I.
However, we are now about 35 years into a period of rising inequality and dog-eat-dog status striving, and the fragile trust that held the classes together during the Great Compression has come undone. Why bother trying to ape the interests of the upper-middle class, if they aren't going to accept us? What does being a sports fan mean to them anyway?
They could care less about the sport itself. It's just another source of status striving, trying to lord their team's awesomeness over the fans of other teams. In an effort to please status-striving fans, sportsmanship has unraveled and drugs are now the norm (also due to dog-eat-dog behavior within the sports industry). Whatever it takes to give our fans a team they can brag about in some lame status contest. How the game is played is incidental to "OUR TEAM WON! SUCK IT, BITCHES!"
So what about the disconnect behind the view that sports fans are all mouth-breathing thugs? Well that's good old liberal snobs for ya. Sports fans are not just elites, but Republican-voting elites. Democrat-voting elites don't enjoy sports as much. In the status contest between red-state vs. blue-state elites, the Democrats need a way to put down the sports-loving elites. Well, if the whole point is to jockey for status, then why not simply imply that sports-loving elites are actually just a bunch of proletarian scum? America's version of soccer hooligans.
This would put sports in the same place as religion in the culture wars. Andrew Gelman and colleagues wrote a book about how the culture wars play out by income and by state (Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State). They found that within a state, richer people were more likely to go to church than poor people. However, that difference was flatter in rich states like Connecticut and steeper in poorer states like Mississippi. Liberal political views were the same -- the richer, the more conservative, but this climb is steeper in red states than in blue states.
When you compare classes, though, poor people across all states were pretty similar to each other for religious attendance and liberal voting, while the rich varied a lot across states. Hence, the culture wars are largely fought between elite factions in different states, not between classes.
Sports looks to be part of this general pattern. Working-class folks have totally tuned out of pro sports over the past several decades, while a large gap and bitter culture war has been fought between elite liberals and elite conservatives about whether sports are crucial or pointless to one's group identity, and how much they should count in calculating and comparing one's status level.
"Our football team kicked your football team's ass!"
"Oh yeah, well that's just bread-and-circus fodder for mouth-breathing proles!"
"Please, you're just jealous that you pansies can't throw a spiral!"
"Whatever, you're just jealous that you don't have any world-class museums like we do!"
Et ceteraaaaa..... For someone below the median of the class pyramid, this is all just sound and fury among self-aggrandizing elites.
In a period of rising inequality, such as the Gilded Age or today, lower-class culture drifts toward vice -- saloons, gambling rooms, brothels, sometimes all in the same building. ("That's right gentlemen, step right up to the one-stop shop for all your sinful desires!") We're unaware of how pervasive this culture was in the Gilded Age and early 20th century, but we're indirectly aware of it from our knowledge of the Temperance movement.
Today the saloon is the liquor store, the cigarette vendor, and the drug dealer; the gambling room is a convenience store that sells lottery tickets; and the brothel is a strip club and internet porn. It's a drop-out culture.
Being a sports fan requires too much investment in a community setting, so don't expect drop-outs to show much interest. With the bonds of trust severed between classes, and with the elite pursuing ever-more vainglorious hobbies and group activities, why bother trying to join them? Might as well buy a lottery ticket, rub one out to some internet porn, and smoke a cigarette or two before repeating the process over again tomorrow.