Since 1989, the NFL's revenues have grown by more than 6X, to over $6 billion a year. Major League Baseball and the NBA have also steadily grown, fueling in turn a sports reporting and analysis industry that has benefited companies like ESPN, Fox Sports, and the major networks.
What has driven demand for sports? I think it's obvious that we're wired to want "us vs. them" situations - to take a side in a conflict. We want something visceral, something engaging, something that smacks of violence and tribal warfare. The problem is, in a world increasingly global where former enemies (or at least those we didn't care about) are now trading partners, there is a dwindling opportunity for such situations to arise in the natural world. Gone are the days before the birth of agriculture when 15% of the population could expect to die in physical conflict. Such situations are gone, but the genes that helped us to survive this period are not.
Into this void of the modern age stepped professional sports, offering us a fix for our tribal impulse. We have an us vs. them. We have conflict. We have clear winners and clear losers. And, thanks to stadiums and broadcasting, the experience of a few can be shared by many, the vicarious thrill and frustration packaged for easy consumption by those of us whose daily lives are not the sites of any great drama or such clear rules and score keeping.
In an age when abstract, global dynamics define our lives, and vague goals define success or failure, professional sports gives us a means to feed those parts of our psyche that felt most at home in kilts or loin clothes, a time of tribal chiefs and the ability to see one's community around a single camp fire. 15 to 40 men on the field or bench, success clearly defined and important, outcomes decided in the space of hours rather than decades. It's a chance to feed one's inner warrior without the risk of blood shed. It's modern sports.
Professional sports - making the world safer for primal impulses.