The historical roots of "stick to sports"

Louisa Thomas, writing last week in The New Yorker on Dan LeBatard and ESPN:

The idea that sports can be a unifying force in American life—that they bring together different generations, races, genders, and classes, and broadly shape our understanding of competition and fair play—is an old one, and true. Many of the fans Pitaro referred to when describing ESPN’s policy last year do, I’m sure, sincerely view sports as an escape, and want sports to be walled off from the rest of the world.

This is a common refrain in the stick-to-sports discussion, and it’s got strong roots in the history of sports journalism.

One of the reasons sports journalism emerged as a distinct and important genre around the turn of the 20th century was that it was an economic engine for newspapers. The economic model we are all familiar with - attract the largest possible audience, in order to be valuable to commercial advertisers - emerged by the 1920s. And one way to do that, newspaper publishers found at the time, was increased sports coverage.

But why sports?

Michael Schudson wrote extensively about this in his 1989 chapter, “Media Made Sport.” Schudson found three reasons why sports became so important to newspapers in this era:

  • Sports coverage had standardized content, which allowed publishers to cut costs.
  • Sports coverage emphasized escapist, sensational fare in an attempt to lure readers.
  • Most important to our discussion, sports was seen as less partisan. “Sports was safe, ideologically,” Schudson wrote. Sports coverage did not offend readers. The idea here was that whether you were pro-business or pro-labor, Republican or Democrat, you would come together and cheer for the local team. Sports coverage was tied to civic boosterism, Schudson found, and it was a contribution to the community. Sports provided cohesiveness to the community.

With these ideas as the roots of sports journalism, it’s no wonder “stick to sports” has become such a dominant point of view, and has taken so long to erode.