With baseball players pointing a finger to the heavens after slugging a home run and athletes thanking God for their accomplishments, religion has become common in sports, but the Atlanta Braves has brought it to a whole new level. Atlanta is the first major league sports team to openly celebrate religion at its games, calling these celebrations Faith Days.
"[As athletes] we're put a little bit too high on a stage sometimes, and one thing that gets confusing for the young kids is that, when you see a celebrity or you see an athlete, they take advantage of the stage in the wrong way. What I hope to do is take advantage of it in the right way today and share with you my personal faith on Faith Day," said Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz at the Braves' first Faith Day event at Turner Field on July 27.
"I want to share with the young generation as well as your parent ... the fact that we have bought into some really, really bad principles throughout the world. I've heard, Oh, John, it's easy for you to share your faith, you got wealth, power, fame ... you got a family, you got a nice house. ... I'd be telling you that would be a lie. It is the hardest thing in the world to do, 'cause those are major distractions that we gravitate toward, having more money, more fame, more power. It doesn't satisfy," Smoltz said.
Braves pitcher Chris Reitsma and alum Sid Bream have also volunteered to share their most intimate, spiritual experiences with fans. Gospel Music Association Award winning Christian bands perform at these events.
The recent debut of Faith Days at the Major League baseball level has, however, raised the hackles of some critics.
Dave Zirin, sportswriter and author of "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States," said that Faith Days "mark a tremendous step backward for the sport because baseball has always been the great secular Americanizer for people of all nationalities. Religion belongs in Major League baseball about as much as fish belong on bicycles."
Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports and the mastermind behind these events, said that his challenge was "to get people to understand that this is not a Billy Graham crusade."
"This is a way to reach a new demographic of people," he said. "People think 'Bible in seats.' That's just not the case."
He said the notion that fans were ambushed at games was a misconception. The religious events always take place 30 minutes after the game ends, so fans have to make an intentional effort to hear the Christian bands and speakers, he said.
Genuine Faith or Greed?
The Faith Day movement started in minor league baseball at Nashville Sounds games, where the marketing of Faith Days helped double average attendance. Third Coast Sports' track record of increasing attendance and ticket sales has been the major draw for sports teams.
Derek Schiller, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Braves, said the prospect of increasing ticket sales was the main factor in his decision to have the Braves host the events at Turner Field.
"Our hope is that we have created an event that got those extra people coming to the game that wouldn't have otherwise come," he said.
"Club owners in Atlanta are not thinking about promoting any particular religion," said Chris Hodge Evans, co-editor of "The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture."
"Their ultimate goal is to get more people to come watch the Atlanta Braves," Evans said. "This will go on in Major League baseball if club owners make money. Religion is being used for economic means. This is a dangerous encroachment of religion in a realm in which it does not belong. The million-dollar question for club owners is about revenue. If the Braves were selling out, there would not be a Faith Day. It's just a way of enticing people."
Too Early to Tell
"In the off season we'll look at all the results to get a sense if this can continue to be a long-term marketing program for us," Schiller said.
The major league sports Faith Day movement is expanding beyond baseball. Brent High said he expects to announce deals with teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL.
"[Our goal] is to have a presence in every major league sports league that exists," he said.
"I don't think twice when I hear players or movie stars talk about their own personal faith," said Melissa Bosi, a 31 year-old Braves fan. "I could care less. They have their opinion; it won't sway me any way."
When asked if she would stay for the post-game Faith Day activities, she replied, "I would probably leave unless [John Smoltz] was gonna shake my hand or go out for a drink or something."