Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
This week in cities across North America another baseball season is commencing. Known as “America’s pastime,” baseball has, in reality, seen its cultural influence decline with the rise of other professional sports, including football.
According to PRRI’s January 2013 Religion & Politics Tracking Survey, among the 63% of Americans who reportedly watch college or professional sports at least a few times a year, just 7% say that baseball is the sport that they follow most closely. By contrast, 6-in-10 Americans report that professional (48%) and college (12%) football is the sport that they follow most closely.
When asked if football has replaced baseball as America’s national sport, a majority (55%) of Americans said yes while over one-third (36%) said no.
Three-quarters of a century ago, Gallup reported that about one-third (34%) of Americans said baseball was their favorite sport while football ranked second (23%). These numbers were virtually unchanged nearly a quarter of a century later when Gallup poll in 1960 showed a similar advantage for baseball (34%) over football (21%). By the end of the 1960s, however, baseball and football were roughly equally popular with the American public, and just a decade later professional football had surged into the lead. A Gallup poll conducted in 1981 found that Americans were more than twice as likely to say football (41%) rather than baseball (17%) was their favorite sport.
While most Americans agree that football has replaced baseball as the national pastime, there are significant differences in opinion by race, age and region. Nearly half (47%) of Northeasterners disagree that football has replaced baseball as America’s national sport while 63% of southerners agree that it has.
There are also significant racial and ethnic divisions. While nearly 7-in-10 (69%) black Americans and a majority (54%) of non-Hispanic whites agree that football has replaced baseball as the national sport, only 46% of Hispanics agree.
Finally, young people are much more likely to believe that football has replaced baseball than their grandparents. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Millennials (age 18-29) believe that football has replaced baseball as America’s national sport, compared to less than half (47%) of seniors (age 65 and up). More than 4-in-10 (41%) seniors say that it has not.
In a way, football is perhaps the last distinctly American sport. As the other American-born sports, baseball and basketball, have developed significant international followings, football remains a uniquely American affair. This may also explain why soccer, the world’s most popular sport, was mentioned by just 4% of American sports fans.