Skip to main content
Original Issue

Attendance Is Optional... ...But that doesn't keep fans from turning out in numbers that are simply staggering

Centuries from now, when historians look back on our
sports-addled society in the way that we now regard ancient
Rome--with wonder, alarm and pity--they will scarcely believe what
they read in these pages. Thus we shall confirm it for them: A
society in which the median annual income was $39,657 so esteemed
a 21-year-old bouncer of basketballs that he earned 335 times
that figure. When a writer from this magazine entered the
marble-foyered mansion of that young man, Magic forward Tracy
McGrady, he found the athlete tended to by two housekeepers, a
personal assistant and a personal chef. His uncle stood on the
billiard-table lawn supervising a staff of gardeners.

The professional basketballer purchased his estate, for $6.6
million, from the widow of a professional golfer. That golfer,
Payne Stewart, had installed a laser-equipped, motion-detecting
urinal in his individual master bath, so that he would not have
to flush his own toilet.

All these marvels were available to the professional athlete for
one simple reason: When it came to ball games of nearly every
description, we could not look away. For a record of this
society's obsession, historians need check no further than the
yellowed pages of this magazine. This Week's Sign of the
Apocalypse: As many copies of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED are sold in
little more than a month (13.2 million) as To Kill a Mockingbird
has sold since its publication in 1960. While we are grateful for
your business--and commend you for your good taste--the statistic
remains faintly unsettling, no?

Perhaps not. For some reason, the numbers don't seem to stagger
us now. But one day they will. Consider: The vast "multitudes"
who followed Christ in Matthew 15:30 ("And great multitudes came
unto him...") numbered 4,000. The multitudes that attended last
Friday night's Lakers game at Staples Center numbered 18,997. So:
The "flock" that was fed the loaves and fishes was a fraction of
that which saw Derek Fisher loaf.

Of course, as the earth's population grows--a billion new people
join us every 13 years--our notion of what constitutes a throng
escalates apace. But that can hardly explain this: The 150,000
souls who greeted Charles Lindbergh upon his landing at Le
Bourget airfield outside Paris would be insufficient to fill the
165,000 permanent seats at Daytona International Speedway, which
is packed every summer for the Pepsi 400.

Is that not remarkable? Forget about great spectacles like the
Super Bowl. We are talking about a typical American weekend: In
Week 12 the NFL drew 1,011,224 fans to its stadiums. (That
collective population would constitute the 10th largest city in
the U.S.--greater than Detroit, and slightly less than Dallas.)
That same weekend college football programs ranked in the AP Top
20 attracted 811,012 paying spectators. (That is greater than the
number of Americans killed in World War I, World War II, Korea
and Vietnam combined.) Still they are but a small fraction of
Americans who watched sports that ordinary weekend.

Some 304,298 people attended NBA games that Friday, Saturday and
Sunday. Likewise, 397,496 fans turned out for games of the
National Hockey League (a figure greater than the populations of
26 of the Earth's 191 independent nations). Thus, in a 72-hour
span, big-time football, basketball and hockey attracted
2,524,030 men, women and children to various colosseums in North
America. That is more Americans than visited France in all of
1997, despite the way-paving efforts of the Spirit of St. Louis,
which may explain why the late Flyer Pelle Lindbergh is more
familiar to you than the late flier Charles Lindbergh.

Because this is what civilization prizes right now, in numbers
too large to count, which is why I have excluded from the figure
above the attendances at NASCAR, golf, tennis, youth, high school
and college competitions of that weekend, and the tens of
millions of Americans who watched sports on television. We will
never know what the latent power of those sports fans might have
wrought. The great Egyptian pyramid of King Khufu required
100,000 men to build. Three Saturdays ago, 110,803 people
attended the Michigan-Penn State football game.

They drank lots of beer.