Sports is, then, both symptom and cause of a much larger sociocultural shift, as the highly localized cultural practices of spatially fixed settlements such as villages and small towns have become concentrated in large urban centers, only for sports to be redispersed in mediated form through their dissemination as images and sounds.
This symbolic sports communication, in turn, has become a pivotal means by which national cultural identity can be constructed through the sports press, and public service and commercial broadcasting.
In broad sociological terms, sports can be conceived as the social institution developed out of the rationalization and commercialization of physical game contests that has occurred since the mid nineteenth century (notably, first, in Britain), and culture as the shifting ensemble of symbols, signifying practices, and texts that give expression and meaning to the social world of which sports is an increasingly significant part.
The twin focus of this entry, then, is on the place and influence of sports within the wider sociocultural sphere, and on the specific, rapidly developing characteristics of sports as a ‘‘subset’’ of society and culture as a whole.
In this regard, sports, by a series of measures, can be seen to be a pivotal element of contemporary society and culture.
Its raw popularity as spectacle alone makes it so – for example, it has been estimated that the cumulative audience for the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup of association football was 28.8 billion viewers; that 9 out of 10 people in the world with access to television watched some part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games; and that there was 35,000 hours of dedicated broadcast coverage of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games among 220 countries.
The analysis of sports in traditional macro sociological terms can still be productive, but a culturalist approach, appropriately informed by social theory, is able to draw on a richer, more contingent theoretical repertoire as well as a more intimate, ethnographic insight into how sports culture is ‘‘lived’’ as everyday practice.
This intellectual project does not necessitate the abandonment of formative sociological questions of structure, agency, and power, but helps to ‘‘rehabilitate’’ and extend them into hitherto neglected areas of growing prominence.
Thus, professional athletes represent the alluring face of contemporary sports, behind which lies the ‘‘industrial’’ engine that produces it – including sponsors, advertisers, media companies, sports agencies, peak sports organizations, management, equipment and clothing manufacturers, privately and publicly funded sports educators, administrative and training bodies, and research scientists.
Systematic planning, design, and operation are central to contemporary sports, while retaining a crucial symbolic element of a spontaneous culture of play.