By George W. Cornell, AP Religion Writer
June 1994 – The facts don’t seem to fit. They appear incompatible. As measured by attendance and money, Americans show much greater interest in religion than sports, but it receives far less attention from the news media. This curious tilt has been borne out statistically.
“It’s a strange disparity considering the importance religion has in American life,” said noted sociologist Robert N. Bellah of the University of California in Berkeley, California.
He said the media seem to assume that religion, except in cases of scandal, is largely a private matter. “This is a very bizarre idea, but it’s part of the ideology,” he said, noting religion’s persistent social impact.
Nevertheless, newly gathered comparative statistics in the 1990s on two key yardsticks of human interest – financial and personal involvement – show religion ahead of sports.
Yet religion gets only a tiny fraction of media notice compared to the huge volume of attention lavished on sports.
Giving exceeds $56 billion
The latest comparative figures collected on religion and sports finds that money contributed to religion totaled $56.7 billion in 1992, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel. That is about 14 times the $4 billion spent on the three biggest sports—major league baseball, football and basketball.
The major sports leagues don’t disclose gate receipts, but totals were obtained through league public relations sources who asked not to be named. Financial World magazine reported similar figures for 1992.
Major religious organizations make public annual financial reports.
In attendance, religion totaled 5.6 billion in 1993, based on annual Gallup Polls. That is about 55 times greater than the 103-million total attendance reported by the three main professional sports leagues.
Worshipers top 5.2 billion
The latest tally of overall attendance at all U.S. sporting events, gathered in 1990 by the Daily Racing Form, totaled 388 million including both professional and college football, baseball, basketball and hockey, and also boxing, tennis, soccer, wrestling, harness, automobile and dog racing.
In comparison, religion attendance of 5.2 billion in 1990 was about 13 times the overall sports total. More people turned out for worship in one month – about 433 million – than the 388-million total all year at all sporting events.
Past comparisons of such statistics – initially in 1973 and again in 1980 – found the same striking contrasts as currently in which religion far exceeded sports in attracting people’s time and money.
John L. Seigenthaler, longtime Nashville, Tennessee, newspaper executive and head of a national study center which examined press coverage of religion, said the press “is not doing the job. It’s not meeting the need and demand for it.”
“Religion gets short shrift,” he added. “So do the readers interested in religion. Anything else whether it’s politics, sports, health care or whatever is given primacy over the religion beat.”
Religion put ‘off limits’
Seigenthaler retired in 1992 from The Tennessean after 43 years as a reporter, editor and publisher-president. He is now chairman of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.
“There are more people interested in religion than in any other beat covered. It doesn’t make sense that the religion beat is given the second-class status to which it has been relegated.”
A study backed by the center found that newsroom personnel are not particularly irreligious, but did find that the media mostly shuns religion.
Religion is mainly “off limits to editors who do not take the time to read their mail or listen to complaints,” Seigenthaler said. “There’s a nervousness and hypersensitivity about invading this no man’s land.”
He said many editors have a “badly flawed perception” that religion is private. This is “a cop-out,” he said, adding that many public issues involve religious elements, both now and through history.
Religion too ‘predictable’
Religion historian Harry S. Stout of Yale University suggested sports may get so much more media attention because it has the excitement of winning or losing, while religion is more regular and predictable.
Sociologist Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia said the media have “disseminated a pattern” that religion doesn’t belong.
“Others pick up that policy in what has been a trickle-down process,” he said.
But despite religion being downplayed, he said “religion is one of the most interesting subjects in life. It is still shaping history as much in the late 20th century as it did in previous centuries.”