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The Importance of Sports in Society

People who don’t understand or appreciate sports may say, “It’s just a game.” But whether the sport is football, baseball, tennis, the Indy 500, Welsh shin kicking or Finnish wife carrying (yes, these are sports too), we are talking about a phenomenon with a profound societal influence. Sports are a telling reflection of a society’s values, and they are a significant contributor as well, especially in the United States. Sports impact our culture, our other sources of entertainment and our economy.


Sports have always had a monumental impact on culture and values in the United States. Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball was a catalyst for long-overdue improvements in civil rights for African Americans. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were more than just tennis greats; they were pioneers in the acceptance of the LGBT community in America. Muhammad Ali may or may not have been the greatest boxer of all time, but he was certainly one of the most storied legends in sports, and an icon for standing up for one’s deeply held convictions, despite the consequences.

Today, the sports world finds itself in the spotlight of cultural attitude shifts. The #MeToo movement and sexual offenses against women in the sports world, including the Larry Nasser scandal, helped to bring light to a problem that had been underexposed and had been allowed to exist for too long. Similarly, the recent Colin Kaepernick controversy, in which he led a movement of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, raised awareness of police brutality against African Americans, and led to the NFL agreeing to devote substantial funds to help reverse the trend in cities across America.


The sports market in North America has increased in size from $60.5 billion in 2014 to a projected total of $73.5 billion in 2019, according to Forbes. Media rights deals are expected to surpass gate revenues as the largest economic driver, rising from $14.6 billion in 2014 to $20.6 billion by 2019. It is no wonder that we have seen star athletes across the major sports, both team and individual, earning exponentially more than their predecessors from just two or three decades ago. The categories of sponsorship and licensed merchandise have continued to skyrocket in revenue generation as well, driven by the popularity of items like NFL jerseys, endorsed sporting equipment and video games. This revenue is expected to rise to $18.3 billion in 2019, up from $14.7 billion in 2014.

The sports betting industry is a slice of the overall sports industry, and it alone is estimated to have an international market capitalization of $250 billion. Wherever there is economic prosperity, this industry also thrives, including in countries in the Far East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the U.S.

Football predominates in the betting world (the European kind is #1 and the American kind is #2, globally). Licensed online sportsbooks account for approximately $39.7 billion of this revenue and the rest is split among venues including casinos and horse tracks. The United States is one of the largest and fastest growing sports betting markets, with a present market capitalization of $60-73 billion.

Measuring the revenue generation of specific sports industry segments alone does little to capture the overall economic value of sports teams to the geographic regions they play in and represent. Think of all of the ancillary industries built around sports stadiums, from restaurants and hotels to ballpark and street vendors. In any given city, many of these businesses would quickly fail if the team left.

Lebron James is the most valuable free agent in the history of sports, and a great example of this concept. When he moved from Miami to Cleveland in 2010, the Miami Heat’s franchise value dropped from $476 million to $355 million in a single year. During that same time, downtown Cleveland came alive, with companies relocating to Cleveland and the downtown area, internationally known chefs opening restaurants, and conference venues that were unpopular destinations becoming overnight successes.


Movies about sports have generated millions of dollars at the box office and become cultural phenomena in their own right. The Blind Side, about an adopted child who went on to become an NFL player, generated $256 million, and Adam Sandler’s flick, The Waterboy grossed $161.5 million. Talladega Nights, a comedic take on NASCAR, generated $148.2 million, and the list goes on.

The cultural impact of sports movies is arguably even greater than the economic impact. What American who has visited the City of Brotherly Love has not taken the chance to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to personally experience the triumph of Rocky. And who does not know the references from Karate Kid of “wax on, wax off”? Name a sport you love, and there is an iconic movie that has elevated its cultural influence — from Bull Durham (baseball) and Caddyshack (golf) to The Mighty Ducks (hockey) and Warrior (UFC).

Indeed, sports are far more than just a game. The professionals running sports organizations and programs behind the scenes are key contributors to the importance of sports in society. You could soon find yourself in the middle of the action as a graduate of Arkansas State University’s online Master of Science program in Sport Administration.

Learn more about A-State’s Master of Science in Sport Administration online program.


Street & Smiths Sports Business Journal: Measuring What Counts: The Impact of Sport on Society

Bleacher Report: The 10 Absolute Craziest Sports on the Planet

SBD: The Size and Increase of the Global Sports Betting Market

Deloitte: 2019 Sports Industry Game-Changers

Forbes: Sports Industry to Reach $73.5 Billion by 2019

ESPN: Lebron James is Worth Hundreds of Millions to the Cavs and Cleveland

SBJ: Sports Movies With the Biggest Box Office Since 1998

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