Is sport a religion?

[notice]                 A monthly column by CRAIG DUFFIELD[/notice]

Over the last few weeks I have had this growing awareness of the sheer abundance of sports matches, tournaments and events taking place around the world daily.

Within the last week we have had the NBA Finals start and NHL Finals end, French Open has just concluded and already the Wimbledon warm tournament at Queens has begun, F1, Several boxing bouts, Rugby Junior World Championships, several IRB internationals, 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, golf, International friendlies, Euro 2012, cricket test matches, ODI’s, Twenty 20 Internationals, Rugby League, Field Hockey, WWE wrestling, NASCAR… need I go on?

Who played when? Who won? Who knows? Who remembers anyway?

As the one finishes so the next one begins and up to the minute, or should I say second, sports results have become BIG business.

So what is my point? Where am I going with this?  My question is simple: Has sport become a modern day “religion”?

How much is too much?
Now let me clarify, I am not opposed to sport, far from it – I love sport, I love the contest and am fascinated by human endeavour and its accomplishments in the midst of battle in the sporting cauldron. I love it! But how much is too much?

Our sports heroes and personalities are like modern day gladiators, “fighting” in state-of-the-art coliseums to the rapturous applause of adoring fans.

Super rugby started with 10 before expanding to 12, then 14 and now 15 teams and rumour has it that in 2015 it will be 18. Will that be it? Will that be enough?Will our appetite for sport be abated?

Daniel Wann, a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors state: “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”   (1)

How many people attend church weekly in our country? How many around the globe?

Live sports matches, of course, attract many, many more millions. It is estimated that a global TV viewership of between one and four billion people watched the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. Included in this figure is an estimated 842 million viewers who watched on host Chinese broadcaster China Central Television.

984 million verified viewers tuned in to watch the opening ceremony extravaganza at some stage of the proceedings, averaging 593 million throughout, while 778 million watched the closing ceremony.

The 2008 Summer Olympics holds the current record for a multi-day broadcast. Nielsen Media research estimated that up to 4.7 billion individual viewers (that is an astonishing 70% of the world’s population) watched some part of the Olympic coverage.  (2)

Some estimates suggest that more than 1 billion TV viewers worldwide watched the 2011 Cricket World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan.    (3)

Is sport anything like a religion?

The comparisons are quite easy and striking. Fans “worship” by singing their hearts out. They sing the various sporting anthems in these modern coliseums around the globe. Every weekend they sing. We wear our team colours with pride. We carry its flags or scarves, icons, banners and mascots.

In his article Is football becoming the religion of the masses?”  Jim Johnson observes: “It is also curious that as religious attendance rates have dropped off in recent decades, interest in sport spectatorship has soared.”    (4)

According to psychologist Dr Nigel Barber “Some scholars believe that fans are highly committed to their favoured stars and teams in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives.”    (5)

Being part of a live sports event can certainly be a transformative experience, one through which fans are temporarily able to escape the monotonous and mundane treadmill of life. Similarly, for many people, “religious experiences” help them to transcend their everyday existence.

I am acutely aware that volumes could be written on this subject and to expect to answer it within one article would certainly be unrealistic. Perhaps we could answer it as we journey forward together with this column.

At times not everyone will agree with my point of view. This stated, however, it is imperative you know that I love the Lord with all my heart and seek to honour Him with my life. I, like you, am on a journey of becoming more like Christ.

I believe, if we are truly seeking a restorative and transformative encounter – it is found in Jesus and in Jesus Christ alone!

In John 10: 10 Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is my hope that this column shares not only the highs, the lows, the joys, the sorrows, the frustrations, the disappointments and the ecstatic moments of sport but hopefully more than anything, the Life of Christ!

1)      Wann, D. L., Melznick, M. J., Russell, G. W., & Pease, D. G. (2001). Sport fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators .New York: Routledge, p. 198.

One Comment

  1. Humankind inclines towards idolatry to fill the God-shaped gap. I remember a pastor asking why we don’t worship God as exuberantly and fervently as people at a sports’ match/game. It seems that many play at their worship and worship their sport (there’s a similar saying that goes, “We worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship”). Either one’s work or one’s sport can become idols.