answering the question “why do so many people watch sports” comes down to a few simple things. though there are many types of fans, i.e. the rabid paint-yourself-with-team-colors-and-go-shirtless-in-10-degree-weather fan, the armchair quarterback, etc., they all watch for some of the same basic reasons.
the first is admiration. for example, i kind of wish i could throw a football as far and as accurately as a professional quarterback, or skate as nimbly and gracefully as a professional hockey player manages, all the while dodging opponents and maneuvering a puck. this feeling of admiration of course begs the question, “why would you even want to have the ability to throw a ball or push a piece of rubber while ice skating?”, and that question can be best answered with a question, “why would you want to know how to stitch yarn together into a blanket?” or “why do you really need to know THAT much about african elephants and duck billed platypus’s?” or “why would you want to read hamlet 16 times?”.
another reason is camaraderie. not to digress, but i’ve personally noted that there seems to be no lack of excuses to get drunk in america. st patricks day, cinco de mayo, new years eve, birthdays, weddings, fridays, bar mitzvahs, etc. so getting together with some friends at a bar or in your living room to watch the game and drink a few beers, or just pig out on chicken wings, is a social thing, just another reason to come together.
then there is the actual strategy of the how the game is played. it isn’t just a bunch of sweaty men throwing a ball and hitting each other. there is an actual gameplan and split second decisions made based on events that occur outside of the plan. how is the defense going to line up against their offense, which is known to throw over the middle? their defense is known to stifle the run, how will they get around that?
yet another reason is local team spirit. being around others that are all rooting for the same team, the same names, week after week, pulls you into it. it’s comparable to a high school pep rally, you probably didn’t want to go to it, but the enthusiasm infects you and before you know it you’re right there rooting for the home team. think olympics.
and then of course there is the competition value, some people enjoy a good competition, regardless of the sport or the players. again, think olympics.
and lastly (at least as far as i can think of) is the gambling aspect. any time there is an unknown ending, you can bet (haha) that someone somewhere is holding an office pool or taking a chance with this months rent.
now, as for why the athletes make so much money, that is a matter of commercial politics. they make it because we pay for it. i’m no historical expert on sports by a long shot, but i’d imagine it all started when one team had one player that was just that much better than the others at what he did, and his team didn’t want to lose him, so they offered him more money to stay with them rather than go to another team. then came along the next best thing on another team and the other teams wooed him with higher paying contracts and perks. so on and so forth.
eventually, big business noticed how many people were tuned in watching sporting events and realized that they could reach tons and tons of people, particularly their target audience (18-36 year olds). enter larger and larger bids for commercial air time and bidding wars between the television stations for airing rights.
all of a sudden it was huge business pulling in untold billions of dollars.
i tend to agree with you about it being culturally comparable to strip mining, but the money is where the audience is. 10 times out of 10 the tv station will choose a sporting event that’s gone into overtime rather than laurence olivier in merchant of venice because they are reaching more people with their beer commercials (etc)during the game.
if i recall, there was mention about why so many people watch “survivor”. for that i think you have to look no further than a mall, or a park. people love people. ever sit on a bench and watch others? i guess there is a little bit of a psychoanalyst within all of us. watching the couple quietly argue in public, intuiting circumstances about their situation; recalling a pleasant time of your childhood as the family of four stroll by, children without a care in the world.
though i am not one of the many that do watch any of the so called “reality shows”, i can see some of the attraction from basic curiosity. everyone wonders what goes on behind closed doors. everyone wants someone to compare themselves to, to see if they are the only ones that feel that particular way or see things that specific way. that’s just human nature.
imho, there are better ways of doing these things, but the networks have tapped into societies desire for approval from its peers, and that need is drawing them to the shows.
well, that or they need a good laugh