Our Life in The Arts

Questions, reality, and musings on a life of joy and wonder

Vol. 2, No. 3

March 10, 2022

Sports and Arts

By Rich Holly

Readers of my blog posts know that I frequently share arts-related ideas, tips, and advice, based on my experiences or the successes of others. This month’s post might include some ideas, but really hones in on the questions and musings part of the series’ subtitle.

The recent Super Bowl and the start of basketball’s March Madness got me to thinking that I should write down some of my thoughts and questions about sports and arts.

For many years – probably 20 or more – I’ve found myself frequently thinking about the sports world vs. the arts world. Not “vs.” in a competitive sense, but “vs.” in the sense that they are different, and how do they differ? Or, how are they the same? Okay, maybe there’s a bit of competitiveness in there, too.

I started playing Little League baseball when I was 9 years old, and I was a three-sport jock for 5 years in junior and senior high school, playing football, basketball, and baseball. The wrestling coaches and track and field coaches fairly often reached out to me, asking me to switch from basketball and baseball to their sports, but I never did. In my high school of approximately 1100 students per grade, I won the Presidential Physical Fitness Test for sit-ups. As a linebacker, I made the all-county football team (which New York Newsday determined and printed but there were no games attached to the honor). So, I guess I was decent at sports.

Rich, no. 21, sacking another quarterback. Photo credit: Fred Healy.

During that same time period I was extremely active in music – primarily percussion, but also singing and learning piano, guitar, and bass during those years. We all know which path I pursued after high school. And what interests me is that in all those formative years I don’t recall even once ever thinking about sports vs. arts, or sports and arts. I was interested in both, so I did both. It was that simple.

Here’s where I get into the questions and musings, and I would love to hear from any and all of you about your thoughts on the subject of sports and arts.

The more I’ve been involved in arts advocacy (there’s that 20 or so year time frame again), the more I try to learn from other business and recreation models. After all, some people see the arts as recreation, yet in order for the arts to survive they must also be a business. I think I latch onto sports most frequently because in order for a person to be a successful sportsball (apologies to Stephen Colbert) player, you have to spend thousands of hours honing your skills and training your body. The same is true for professional artists. In order for professional sports organizations to succeed, they must be a successful business, the same as the arts. In order for either of these professions to thrive, they must attract paying audiences.

Take a few minutes to enjoy this classic mashup of sports and arts, by the inimitable PDQ Bach:

Here are a few items that make me go “Huh?”:

  • Funding provided for a new esports facility at my campus (when we already have scores of both on- and off-campus organizations each year seeking the use of our performing spaces and we have to politely tell them all our spaces are booked) (here)
  • How sports can make you a better business leader (why not the arts? You learn at least this much and more through the arts) (here)
  • The crazy ticket prices for Mike Ksheshevski Krshekshev Coach K’s final home game at Duke (here) (I wonder what the ticket price was for Leonard Bernstein’s final conducting performance?)
  • Speaking of the Super Bowl, why don’t the halftime performers get paid? (I think it’s disgraceful and every performer should turn down the opportunity until the NFL ponies up adequate pay) (here)

Here are a few things I find interesting, combining sports and arts:

  • Visual artist Leroy Neiman’s works (here)
  • World-renowned bass player Leland Sklar, talking about baseball great Bernie Williams and Bernie’s post-baseball transformation to a professional jazz musician (here)
  • An Olympic athlete describing his mission as an athlete and artist (here)

I have questions, and very few answers:

  • I’d love to see a comparison of arts attendees vs. sports attendees by decade, going back to the 1920s. Has anyone ever seen such a thing?
  • Has anyone seen data on the actual number of different people attending sports or arts events? Too often I see “total” attendance. For instance, while total attendance at NFL games is over 17 million a year, average game attendance is 67,000. There are 272 total games in a season, and with “bye” weeks rotating through the teams there are 16 games each week. So how do we know the 17 million isn’t actually the same 1.07 million fans week after week after week?
  • I have Google alerts set up for every university I’ve attended and every university I’ve worked at. Time and time again the daily list of articles and press releases is dominated by sports stories, including “this high school senior just signed with that university to play a sport next year.” Do any arts organizations send out those kinds of press releases but we just don’t see them?
  • What else can the arts learn (and adopt) from sports marketing? What has sports marketing done over the past, say, 60 years that arts marketing has not done, or not done well?
  • Based on youth sport and youth arts participation numbers, I would expect many more families with children living at home to attend both sports and arts events and to encourage their own children to participate in both, but the numbers don’t bear that out. Why do parents, many of whom (as a child) participated in both sports and arts, choose to be a “sports” family OR an “arts” family, when they could be both?

Okay, here’s a nugget of advice, and while I wish I could say it comes from me, I honestly don’t know where this originated. But I like it a lot:

I believe sports can learn a great deal from the arts, and the arts can learn a great deal from sports. I’m not aware of any organizations working to bring the two together and if you know of one, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be counting my lucky stars, knowing full well that my sports participation taught me lessons that have served me well throughout this marvelous adventure I’m on in the arts.

Rich Holly serves Arts NC State and the NC State University community as the Executive Director for the Arts.

All posts in the “Our Life in the Arts” series are available here.