Playing sports is good for the body and mind, especially for our sense of social connection. Watching sports can solidify communal bonds if it's mostly a local phenomenon -- local players, local rivalries, local stakes. There's a danger with the mass media, however, that spectator sports can transform into epic, winner-take-all battles between superpowers that the entire nation feels a misplaced emotional investment in.
This form of idolatry also requires a climate of worshiping competitiveness, which is likely why we didn't see such behavior from the '30s through the '60s, despite the well established mass media of daily newspapers, radio, and television, all of them providing sports coverage.
Back in 1960, when the Pirates won the World Series in dramatic fashion, folks who lived in the greater Pittsburgh region didn't collapse to the ground with tears streaming down their cheeks, as though this were a sign that their lives finally had meaning, and could now rest assured. They felt cheerful and excited, not lifted up into the Rapture. And Bill Mazeroski, whose 9th-inning home run in game 7 won the Series, was remembered as a local legend -- not as a god who would conquer outside sports teams for the benefit of the Yinzer tribe at home.
Not until the Me Generation in the middle of the '70s did spectator sports slowly begin turning into such a, well, spectacle. Any particular upwardly mobile Boomer was not going to win a major sports event -- but they could affiliate with a team that stood a good shot. Everyone realized that you couldn't enhance your status through display of your personal athleticism, but through being a rabid committed fan of a strong team. Hence, who won the Super Bowl became as important as who won the Presidential election.
This new turn toward individual competitiveness, rather than fitting in with the community, led to the erosion of traditional religious denominations, just as it led to the reaction of "yawn, losers are boring" when it came to the home team. Religious denomination and sports fandom used to be "ascribed" -- something you were more or less born into, by growing up in one community rather than another. After the Me Generation broke from these shackles in the pursuit of ever-increasing status levels, religious and sports following became "achieved" -- something that you actively committed to, after making a choice among alternatives.
Still, not all places across the country -- not even all major metropolitan regions -- have taken the plunge into the gladiatorial arena with equal enthusiasm. If our age's myriad status contests are all variations on the same theme, then we can look at just one of them to gain enough insight into the big picture.
Luckily, Wikipedia already has a list of American metro areas by how many pro sports teams they host. In the table, you can sort them by clicking on the "B4" column heading, which says how many teams the city has in the four major sports leagues -- football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. I'm weighting them in that order, based on how much fervor they generate among the American public, with hockey not counting for our purposes.
Note that any city that has a pro baseball team also has a pro team for either or both of the two other major sports, so we can ignore baseball and focus only on those that have just football, just basketball, or perhaps none at all.
So, which major cities are less obsessed with status contests than the norm?
Portland only has one major team, but it's in basketball, and the team has been around for awhile. Fellow hipster mecca for Western Whitopians, Salt Lake City, also has an NBA team that's been there for decades. A few other cities back toward the heart of flyover country, such as Oklahoma City and Memphis, have very recent basketball teams, but what about cities with no teams whatsoever?
Among major metro areas, only Columbus, OH, and Raleigh, NC, have no pro teams for football, basketball, or baseball. Both are recent entrants into pro hockey, but only hardcore hockey fans would know that. I've visited Columbus many times since they joined the NHL in 2000, and I've never heard anyone talk about the Blue Jackets. I'm guessing the reaction has been similar to the Hurricanes in Raleigh-Durham, although they probably found some fair-weather fans when they won the Stanley Cup in '06. Columbus also hosts a recent pro soccer team (aren't they all recent?), but that can't carry much weight in the overall assessment of sports obsession.
Both areas do have passionate fans of local college sports, of course. However, the fact that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is so intense among neighbors makes the sports culture there seem more like the Hatfields and the McCoys, jockeying for status at the neighborhood level. Buckeye football in the Columbus area ignites as much passion among fans, but it is all directed toward a real out-group (Michigan), rather than a close neighbor from the in-group.
I'm going to call this one in favor of Columbus, whose (relatively) minimal level of status-striving is even more striking when you consider that the metro area population is 50% larger than Raleigh-Durham (and ranks 36th in the nation), which ought to tilt it toward wanting a piece of the action in big-city contests.
I grew up in a suburb of Columbus during elementary school, and no matter how many times I visit back in the intervening 20-odd years, I've been struck by how (relatively) resistant the area has been to hipster / striver colonization. Not that the neighborhood mall hasn't been converted into a lifestyle center with a Whole Foods anchor and a nearby Peet's Coffee shop. And not that downtown looks as unpretentious as it did back in the '80s, when it served as the all-American setting for Family Ties.
But it's still remarkable how few hipsters you see preening around town, how relatively unobtrusive the faggot presence makes itself, and how plain-looking the customers are dressed even at trendy hot-spots like the Mongolian and Brazilian barbecue restaurants. Most decent-sized mom-and-pop grocers have long gone out of business, but Huffman's Market, across the street from my elementary school, is still drawing loyal customers despite the nearby Whole Foods. In that same shopping center, there is a real Midcentury diner (Chef-O-Nette) that has continued to pull a crowd since 1955, the local residents seeing no point in a pretentious, over-the-top fake '50s diner like you find in much of the rest of the country.
Does Columbus simply benefit from being located in Ohio / the Midwest rather than North Carolina / the Southeast? Somewhat, but not really. Columbus actually is distinct from the surrounding region in never having jumped on the status-striving bandwagons of one age or another, chanting we're #1 at ____! Nearby Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are all victims of the Rust Belt -- they all grew way too fast and specialized way too much in out-competing the other big cities, back in last heyday of competitiveness during the Gilded Age.
Columbus never drank the Kool-Aid about growing as big as possible, as fast as possible, and specializing as much as possible in some grand get-rich-quick scheme, whether it was manufacturing or high tech. As a result, it was never over-built, did not fall victim to the Rust Belt collapse, and right up through the current recession it has fared far better than the rest of Ohio and nearby metro areas.
Not surprisingly, the three big metro areas nearby also show a greater obsession with pro sports. Cleveland has teams in all of the big three leagues, while Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have football and baseball teams. (Pittsburgh also has a hockey team, though that's less important.)
And, strange as it sounds to link hipsters with pro sports fans, those other areas are much greater targets of hipster colonization. Cleveland, and the broader region including Akron, has long been home to arty bands such as Devo and the Waitresses, as well as Chryssie Hynde from the Pretenders. Pittsburgh has become a local mecca for hipsters -- was it the ironic tribute in the movie Wonder Boys that drew everyone's attention? (Or its sincere portrayal in My So-Called Life?) I can't say about Cincinnati for sure, but my sense is that it isn't quite as bad there (from what I hear / don't hear). Nearby Dayton is fairly hipster-free and pro sports-free, but it's much smaller.
Transient cultural one-uppers, just as well as folks who derive much of their group identity from affiliating with a pro sports team that is made up of outsider mercenaries, reflect a profound lack of communal bonds that stretch back into the past and will grow on into the future. The relative absence of such groups is a sign of a healthy, self-sustaining city. Looking into the sociology of folk culture not only helps us understand our history, it points us toward better choices regarding the future.