Sports are an old part of human culture and new part of the economy. Culture evolves and economies evolve—two more or less incontrovertible propositions in the social sciences these days—so it shouldn’t really be such a leap to suggest that sports also evolve.
Yet here we are, without a clear sense of what that might even mean. There is not much around that we might recognize as an evolutionary sports economics. So let us take some steps toward establishing that new field right here, in this very essay.
There are two basic ways to develop a Darwinian approach to sports. One way is to look for evolutionary explanations for the characteristics of sports in terms of the observation that the players and spectators are all shaped by evolutionary forces. That is to trace evolution through the players into the sports. There are a lot of interesting angles on this, particularly around individual displays of fitness, sexual selection, understanding the limits of sports performance, and as a site for testing multi-level selection theory.
An evolutionary focus on sports gives us insight into human nature. Biologist Michael Lombardo observes that “despite the fact that sport is a human universal, participation and spectatorship is male-biased.” He develops a theory in which sports “developed to act primarily as a lek (an instinctive animal behavior to show off fitness) where athletes display and male spectators evaluate the qualities of potential allies and rivals.” Lombardo’s theory also makes predictions about how sports evolve as “men invent new sporting events to avoid competing at sports where they are likely to lose.” So that approach gives us evolutionary insight into how sports themselves develop. Useful.
But another way, and the way we favor here, is to conceive of sports themselves as evolving.