Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sports Are On The Rise, While The Arts Are In Decline. Why?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..............."

I haven't been up to posting for awhile.  Apologies. 

Sports v. Arts:
Sports are on the rise, while the arts are in decline.  Why?

Sports and the arts are often lumped into the same box, as in treating them similarly in the context of school curriculum.  Both electives.  Both of value, but both often considered dispensable. Similarly, sports and arts are often linked in municipal agencies under the Parks and Recreation banner.

And while the Arts, in some respects, have made measurable gains in support, it is Sports (particularly professional sports) that has grown in public value, attendance, income, participatory  involvement, media attention and otherwise.

Why?  Certainly Sports have capitalized on America's penchant for contests and ultimately, winners.  Not to mention our all consuming involvement with the cult of "celebrity".  Sports has captured media attention and social platform time far more than have the Arts.  But I think there are other fundamental forces at play too.

I watched the Stanley Cup (Ice Hockey) Playoffs last month - mainly because the San Jose Sharks were in it for the first time ever, and San Jose is the local Bay Area team.  I admit I don't follow the game much, and don't even fully understand all the rules and the nuances of professional play.  And to be truthful I don't find it all that interesting.

I am not really a fan of ice hockey, nor of what we call soccer and the rest of the world calls, football.  I use to think the reason I didn't care much about these sports (whereas I have alway been an American football, basketball and baseball fan), was because they were kind of boring.  Not much scoring.  Tedious in a way.  But I've come to the conclusion that the real reason I don't much care about them is because I never played them as a kid. I had no experience with them, no legacy appreciation, no history of involvement.  We didn't play them in school. We didn't play them on the weekends.

I also watched the Warriors play for, but lose this year, the NBA Championship.  And because I played basketball as a kid and had an appreciation for the game, I was into the playoffs (and sports playoffs are always more fun if your team is playing).

When I was growing up kids played football, and baseball and basketball.  Not every kid of course, but perhaps most.  I'm not talking about being on the team and excelling.  I'm talking about on Saturday mornings or after-school afternoons or summer time - in the street, at the park or a playground, on someone's lawn.  By playing the sport we got to know the rules, the nuances of the game and could understand and appreciate what performing at a high level meant, even if that wasn't the level we performed at.  It gave us a foundation on which to watch professional football, basketball and baseball on television (or sometimes in person) and to understand the finer points of strategy, play calling and execution.  We had a local or regional team to root for, and we were glued to the tv when they played.   We were groomed to be lifelong supporters.

And then too, for most kids our fathers played a role in our love affair with sports, for playing catch or hoops with your father, or just watching games on television together was a sort of rite of passage and a bonding experience.  Then school gave you a chance to play on organized teams with structure and learn about the games.  And so a large portion of the male population grew to love sports - both as a diversion and escape from the daily grind, and as professions that had rigid and sophisticated structures within their ecosystems to respect.  And today, the sporting industries are big, big business with widespread support and public involvement.  Sports stars are celebrities, heroes and role models (even when they aren't). Kids dream of being like their sports idols.  And today, kids do play soccer on the weekends, and hence its growing popularity in America - though it will take another generation before soccer (football) takes a place along side American football, basketball and baseball.

There are other factors of course, including the competition, the challenges of winning and the jingoistic appeal of "my team" vs. "your team."  And while there is something simplistic and even banal about the competition between cities and the yearning to win, and not just win, but defeat somebody else, sports remain dear in the hearts of countless fans (men and women too); in ways which the Arts, unfortunately, do not.

But bottom line:  I think it has a lot to do with the fact that sports has succeeded in being part of kids lives to an extent that arts have not.

The heart of the sports complex support over the past fifty years has been the farm team system - and by that I mean that the audience for sports was created very early on in the lives of the fans - on playgrounds, in schools and in parks and streets - nurtured by parental involvement and camaraderie, and fanned by constant and widespread media coverage.  But at the core, was the reality that we played sports as kids.  And though we stopped playing not long thereafter, our interest kept growing.

Is there a lesson for us here?

Organized sports owes much of its success to unorganized sports kids play.

I think there is a similarity with the arts.  I think that for us to expand our fan base and support ecosystem to rival the benefits of the sports industrial complex, we too must provide the opportunity to kids at a young age to create in the arts.  It isn't enough that they have exposure and access to the arts, we have to provide the opportunities for them to make art - to dance, act, play make music, paint, sculpt, film and all the rest.  For fun, if not professionalism.  We have to use the schools to provide those opportunities, but we have to provide them outside the schools too - during after school hours, on weekends and during the summer. The goal is not for them all to become professional artists, but rather to have a history of art in their background which is valued. We need them to form a farm-system for arts support as it were.  And that won't happen even if the arts are firmly established in K-12 arts education, because that's just one part of the equation.

We also need parental involvement - side by side with their kids, particularly in the earliest stages of the creative process, and then as companion audience members as kids grow up.  It isn't the exposure to the arts that will make for future supporters and audiences, its the doing, the making of art and the parental sharing that will make the difference. Creativity -- parent and child together -- is key to the process of nurturing future arts supporters. While kids aspire to be sports celebrities, they also aspire to be music stars. We need to capture the spark behind the latter and make it applicable to all arts. And we need media coverage of some kind.  On a regular basis.

Kids who make art over time, and have parental involvement at the earliest stages, will arguably be like the sports fans later in their lives - interested, committed and supportive; not necessarily artists, but appreciative fans of the arts.  That's hardly new.  As a field we have known that for a long time.

Their are innumerable challenges to making that a reality, including the fact that while sports now enjoys a legacy of parental connection, as well as unparalleled media attention, the arts do not.  Thus it will be incumbent on us, as part of our strategy, to address how we get parents involved in the making of art early on - so as to complement our efforts in the schools.  We must also devise ways to make access to the making of art outside of, and in addition to, the school settings.  And perhaps the internet and technology have already solved that challenge, though we aren't likely maximizing its potential to help us in an overall strategy to develop future audiences and supporters.  And we have got to figure out how to capture some kind of sustained media attention that involves the public as an audience.  Art news, criticism, analysis and other coverage like sports news, analysis, and commentary is essential secondary coverage, but by itself it isn't the same as direct audiences for the performances - whether art or sports.

While the reality is that we haven't even yet got basic arts programs into all the K-12 schools, we are making progress as K-12 arts education is more, not less, prevalent than in the past.  But we have to now expand our big picture aspirations to encompass more than just getting arts in the schools. We have to make the arts and the process of creating available outside the schools and we have to get parental involvement at the early stages to complement media coverage.

Possible?  I don't know.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.


  1. Couldn't agree more, and we are trying to do something about it at:

  2. Right on, Barrie. Being an artist, former athlete, father and son, I can attest to the banality of not wanting to deal with reality, of just tossing a ball back n forth. Art makes us think too much, but if we don't think it will perish

  3. We run to sport to quell our hypocritical aggressions. We need art to heal

  4. Hi Barry, thank you for this. There are many K-12 parallels, but there are a few other factors at play that I'd like to point out based on my personal experience. I played a grand total of zero sports growing up, and in fact hated athletics of any kind. My parents were more than happy to let me be the nerd who hated gym class. In my late twenties I fell into endurance activities (marathons, trail running, triathlons, etc) and the difference between the informal support networks and recognition associated with those activities and the arts have long been fascinating to me. In my first year of running, I invested a grand total of $100 for a pair of running shoes. It took very little effort to find a free running club of welcoming and encouraging people of all abilities and backgrounds. Then there are big city marathons, which attract anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 entrants. They have a handful of elite, professional runners. There are other runners who are not professional but have a high level of natural speed and/or have been running there entire lives. Then there are those who may have recently made the decision to get in shape and are just hoping to cross the finish line in one piece. All amateur runners feel the energy and excitement of being near the pros, but they also feel supported in their efforts thanks in large part to spectators. Spectators stand there for hours - and sure, they ooh and aaah over the elites, but they scream their heads off for the fast amateurs, and they also stick around the scream their heads off for the people who take twice or three times as long to finish. There's recognition and admiration for people who have put in the time to train for a marathon, regardless of how fast they are at the end. That sense of spectator/audience support -- which is as high or even higher than it is for the pros -- is, I think, missing in the arts. The tide is turning on that front, but we still have a long way to go. In the meantime, I'd love for someone to come up with the arts equivalent of a big city marathon. Fun to imagine what that might look like, no? :)