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How we got to now: The connection between standard time and sports leagues

A brief interlude as I write about how the need for standardized time led to train schedules, mass produced watches, and sports leagues.

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There's a new series on PBS called How We Got to Now, hosted by and based on the book by Steven Johnson. The book follows in the great tradition of pop-history books, six elements of modern life [it's always six in these books] which I can't get enough of. Not understanding why we do what we do makes it almost impossible to understand the now or what might happen in the future.

A one sentence blip in the section about time mentions that standardized time has a direct link to the rise of sports leagues. It's something that caught my interest, as much of the neurosis that comes with being a soccer fan is the uncertainly of existing ten or twenty years down the line. There's an established Big Four, and it can feel like they've been around forever while MLS is just one of many leagues started in recent history that won't ever fully catch on.

I don't think I can come up with the argument to explain why MLS will have a fiftieth anniversary, but I did want to expand upon the link between standardized time, schedules, and professional sports. We take everyone being on the same time for granted, but it's really an invention just over 150 years old.

Unsurprisingly, it was the railroads that got everyone on the same page. Before the railroads, towns had local time, which could vary greatly from town to town in the same region. Solar time between New York and Boston differs by eight minutes because of the difference in longitude. Every degree of longitude differs by four minutes (this system, by the way, allowed Europeans to navigate across the Atlantic). Trains operated on the time of the town the route started from, but synchronizing that with the local time of various stops was a hassle.

The word schedule enters English as a noun in the 14th century, but it's more of a list attached to a document like an appendix. The specific meaning of a printed timetable comes into English in 1863 as part of the railway system. When you think about it, the most important thing a league does outside of pay for trophies is set a schedule. Such a thing is a purely modern invention.

Britain got on board with standardized time earlier than we did in the states, establishing Greenwich Mean Time in 1855. Unsurprisingly the FA was ready to be formed in 1863, the same year railway schedules became a thing. It took until 1883 for the US to get on board with standard time, which is around the same time the National League stabalized and added the teams that still exist as the Giants and Phillies.

Standard time is what allows for ease of scheduling teams to travel around the country, something we take for granted now. That's one piece of the puzzle, but for a league to grow fans need to be able to know when to show up to games. That side of the equation was taken care of by cheap, mass produced watches.

Before the interchangeable parts factory system reduced the price of owning a watch in 1861 (there are those pesky 1860s again), watches were a luxury item owned by only a few. If everyone has a timepiece in their home, then fans can look at the schedule and be on time for first pitch. Before cheap watches, we couldn't have had a standardized set of rules governing how long a soccer game should last.

Baseball was the first sport to organize in this new US with railroads and standard time and watches. The second? Why that would be soccer with the American Football Association in 1884. Soccer's biggest problem was getting organized on a national level and expanding past regional differences. It did eventually, but the depression and the war made it difficult for multiple recreational leagues to survive.

By the way, the first use of league to refer to a sports association came in 1879, an extension of the use of league to refer to a political association, itself an extension from leagues of nations.

We have sports leagues because we have schedules and watches, things which we have because railroads exposed the flaw in local time which itself was an invention of maritime exploration. The efficiency of industrialisation created leisure time, and we've chosen to fill it with sport ever since.