The Future of American Sports

Sports are outer models of our inner psychological lives.

Cultures express themselves through sports, which makes them essential to any well-functioning society. On a macro scale, they unite communities, and family and friends on a micro one. 

There is a direct relationship between sports and the nature of work. When our working lives change, so do the sports we play. As a result, three eras define the last century of American history: baseball and the factory, football and the corporation, and basketball and the independent professional. 

How do these societal shifts begin? 

Shifts in society begin with shifts in media. Baseball became popular after the radio was invented, football grew with the popularity of television, and today, social media is boosting the popularity of basketball. 

Baseball was once the social center of American life, and as a result, people aptly call it “America’s pastime.” In baseball, one thing happens at a time. Like a factory, players have fixed positions and delegated, specialist jobs (pitchers, right fielders, shortstops, etc.). Order is central to the game. At baseball’s peak, American work was defined by mass production. Efficient factories propelled America’s emergence as a world power. Furthermore, baseball’s lenient pace was perfect for the radio era — play-by-play announcers served as background noise for tedious work days, and radio gave Americans a tight, tribal-like bond.

But the rise of television in the 50s and 60s initiated baseball’s decline. Baseball was too slow for television. But football’s fast-paced and dynamic nature was ideal for it. Football evolved with television technologies including instant replay, slow motion, and graphics — all of which enhanced the game.

The nature of work changed during football’s post World War II rise to prominence. America had proven its capabilities as a military authority during the war, and cemented its position afterwards with the expansion of multinational corporations.

As William Whyte argues in The Organization Man, American values shifted — away from individualism, and towards collectivism — to meet the demands of the corporations that employed them. Corporate work was generally more dynamic than factory work, and office workers were less constrained than they were in the factory. Like the corporation, football is a game of constant movement and synchronization, and players plan their movements before each play and conform to their role. 

American culture changed as well. Television gave America an outlet to export its culture and expand its global dominance. America had become a superpower and needed a new national sport to reflect its position as a global force. As David Walker observed, football was representative of American exceptionalism, its power on the global stage, and its cultural indifference towards delicacy. 

Fantasy football further propelled football’s dominance. By drafting players and “owning” them for a season, fans had a reason to watch every game, even when their favorite team wasn’t playing. But modern culture — defined by the rise of social media — rewards individuality, which the football helmet hinders.

As the helmet foreshadows, cultural and technological shifts will contribute to football’s decline in the coming decades. The helmet, which transforms athletes into gladiators, is indicative of football’s Achilles heel, and Cris Collinsworth said it best on a recent Sunday Night Football broadcast: “it’s easy to look at these guys like they’re robots.” Since Millennials overwhelmingly support humanism, football’s violence and the brain problems induced by it, have become a disadvantage. Furthermore, the attentional shift from television to social media will hurt football, and propel another sport — basketball. 

Like social media, basketball is all about the individual. The NBA thrives on strong personalities and the best players transcend their teams: Michael Jordan and the Bulls; LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Sneaker culture highlights the influence of these loud personalities. In 1984, Nike and Michael Jordan launched the Air Jordan I sneaker, and since then, Jordan Brand has gained stature in American culture. Because of the internet, personality-centric brand collaborations will become more popular. Today, Big Baller Brand is pioneering a new kind of basketball centric, social media native brand. 

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Basketball, like the future of work, demands a diversity of skills. As an independent professional, I wear a variety of hats — I write, create videos, interview professionals, produce podcasts with them, and consult. I embrace serendipity, and most of my planning is short-term. Basketball players are similar. They move freely between positions (they “switch”) and contribute on both offense and defense. Since the game changes quickly, it requires optionality and real-time decision making. 

The NBA has become the barometer for how American sports leagues should operate. Commissioner Adam Silver has embraced numerous cultural trends, including globalization, technology, social media, the pro-diversity movement, and even the rise of direct-to-consumer business models. The NBA’s rise may still be in its infancy, but these secular trends will propel its growth.

Basketball reflects the future of work, culture, and society. As we enter a hyper-digital world, bet on the NBA.  

Cover photo: Tim Shelby, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons