Sport and the City

As even a casual observer may recognize, the phenomenon of contemporary sports bears little resemblance to that of the fairly recent past. At the turn of the twentieth century, sports were occasional and unregulated events played by members of local sports clubs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, an individual’s association with sport might have been limited to participant, spectator, or consumer of sport news mainly through radio or newspaper. However, as sports became meaningful to more than just the people who played them, the emergence of crowds at local sport club contests provided the opportunity for risk taking entrepreneurs to turn games into profit making ventures. In a relatively short time, traditional agrarian pastimes became today’s urban commercial spectacles. Voluntary participation was replaced by binding contractual arrangements, and small hometown rivalries gave way to regional and international urban mega events produced for global television audiences.

Historians agree that the urbanizing landscapes and expanding capitalist economic system that transformed the societies of Europe and North America fueled the evolution of contemporary sport. The mass production of agricultural and material goods necessary to sustain and stimulate urban growth disrupted traditional patterns of work, leisure, and land use. In large cites such as London and New York, immigrants with widely diverse sporting backgrounds adjusted to the routine of congested urban industrial culture, which created both the demand and the means for the development and growth of sports. Cities were the sites of the dense populations, transportation networks, technological innovations, discretionary incomes, and entrepreneurial spirit necessary for the success of commercial sports. Additionally, cities were the focus of concerns for health, morality, and community, which continually served as rationales for promoting sports to urbanites. Through numerous case studies, sport historians have documented how the development of sport and the development of cites was intertwined. David Nasaw (1993), for example, shows how cities were not just the problems for which sports were an answer; only cities had the necessary conditions and elements to sustain the rapid growth of sports. Other scholars, including Melvin Adelman and Steven Hardy, considered sports as both cause and effect in the development of physical structures, social organizations, and ideologies in Boston and New York between 1820 and 1915.

A dominant theme in the social science literature on sports and the contemporary city is an examination of the ways sports have come to be valued not for their own sake, but as a means to some other desirable end. City governments, for example, support inner city ‘‘midnight basket ball’’ leagues in an effort to reduce crime rates. In many cities, sport is advertised as a way to generate a sense of civic pride or to create a civic identity. In cities around the globe, sport stadium and infrastructure construction is promoted to have both tangible and intangible benefits for city residents. The tangible benefits are connected to urban regeneration through the belief that sport facilities will attract elite sport teams and events that stimulate the local economy and create jobs. In turn, this investment in sport related construction is thought to enhance the quality of life for urban community residents. However, many social scientists view with deep caution any notion that sports can act as a solution to general urban problems. While sports may create a sense of attachment that is important at an interpersonal level, these scholars point out that sports does not significantly change the economic, social, and political realities of every day urban life. Many scholars who study sport related urban development, for example, refute the claim that this type of civic investment provides real benefits for the city as a whole. Empirical evidence shows that while some groups in a city may profit, others are actually burdened. As has been the case since the rise of sport in an urban industrial context, ethnic assimilation, class conflict, control of urban space, and race and gender relations are inseparable from the promotion of contemporary sports.


  1. Adelman, M. (1986) A Sporting Time: New York and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820-1870. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
  2. Bale, J. (2001) Sport, Space and the City. Routledge, New York.
  3. Gratton, C. & Henry, I. P. (Eds.) (2001) Sport in the City: The Role of Sport in Economic and Social Regeneration. Routledge, New York.
  4. Hardy, S. (1982) How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community 1865-1915. Northeastern University Press, Boston.
  5. Hardy, S. (1997) Sport in Urbanizing America: A Historical Review. Journal of Urban History 23(6): 675-708.
  6. Nasaw, D. (1993) Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. Basic Books, New York.
  7. Riess, S. (1989) City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Culture and the Rise of Sport. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

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