Measuring Sports With Arts’ Yardstick

For a long time there has been a sort antagonistic undercurrent between the arts and sports, more on the part of the arts than sports. Personally, I think it can be traced back to high school where artistic and athletic pursuits both competed for after school program funding, but that is just my theory. (Borne out by those humiliating wedgies and locker stuffings the jocks carried out on the drama kids. Not me, mind you. Just something I have heard.)

But you see signs of it all the time. Arts organizations will pull out stats that show more people spent more money on their events than on sports. Folks in the arts bemoan the loss of reviewers in newspapers while the sport section expands.

Things seem to be shifting a little bit though. There was the Minnesota law that combines arts support with funding for outdoor sport hunting and fishing.

I came across a less beneficial pairing of art and sport today in an editorial about increasing student activities fees to support college sports.

“On the revenue side, even the most popular sports are perennial money losers, weighed down by staggering travel costs and erratic attendance. Just like the Honolulu Symphony, everybody loves the idea of a collegiate men’s basketball team, but not enough people turn out to support it.”

It is tough to know where to begin. The paper does the symphony no favors by reminding people of it’s woes. There is also the idea that only things that make money are worth having around. That is an argument the whole non-profit funding system exists to refute in some degree. In this case, the situation is not the same because the core purpose of the not for profit university is theoretically to educate, not necessarily to support ancillary athletic programs. I will leave it at that so as not to become embroiled in debates about the value of athletics to learning and the monies collegiate programs bring to schools.

There has always been a bit of an assumption that sports were getting all the funding to the detriment of the arts, especially in high schools where the arts are cut but sports often aren’t. But it is starting to look like colleges and universities are no longer willing to support sports teams any longer. In the last year, both Hofstra and Northeastern Universities shutdown their football teams (though 13 new football programs were announced as being in development) because the schools were no longer willing to make their funding a priority.

My first impulse was to follow this observation with a “there but for the grace of God…” statement noting that if the arts’ traditional opposite is threatened, wither stands the future of the arts? But that plays back into the whole concept that the arts are of lesser value than sports. Honestly, I can’t see that arts programs at schools are in any more danger of being cut than they usually are.

If anything, I would say the standards long applied to the arts are being applied in other areas. It isn’t just sports. In education as a whole, the intrinsic value of learning is being displaced by the what degree pursuits are of practical use and financial value upon graduation. This isn’t a matter of what majors student are choosing to pursue, it is also a discussion educational institutions and government officials are having over what degrees are worth offering.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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