The Promise of Spatial History for Sports Scholars

By Andrew McGregor

Spatial history has been slow to come to sport history. Although the spatial turn has been underway for several decades, changing how historians analyze, view, and present history, sports are often left out of major mapping projects. A quick look through the projects completed by the Stanford University Spatial History Project and the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab, two of the leading digital history producers, reveals a dearth of sport history content. Yet, maps can help sport historians, and sports offer a myriad of ways to develop mapping projects. In this post I want to think through those two ideas and offer a few examples of what sport history mapping projects might look like.

First, why maps, and how does spatial history help us understand the past? In his essay “What is spatial history?” historian Richard White argues that mapping is not a product but a process that helps us understand spatial elements of the world around us. He uses the examples of absolute distance (the fixed mileage to cover) and relational distance (the time and cost of travel) as reasons for different types of mapping as well as creating visual maps. For White, maps themselves are not all that interesting, rather it is the information extracted from a map. To be sure, this information is not only found in maps, but maps help document and display it. Spatial history, according to White, is more about motion and movement. Maps help us understand where things moved. Seeing the movement on a map, inspires more questions and allows us to think in different ways. Thus, maps help us present and analyze data in new ways. Adding geographic data — or geocoding — large databases of information can help us view that data in less abstract ways. Representing that data on maps allows us to see new patterns and make new arguments. This is one type of mapping. A type that requires lots of raw data that lends itself to geocoding and visual representations.

Another kind of mapping is much more simple. Creating maps by adding new points based on historic events or places serves as a kind of historical recording. Knowing where something happened is valuable. It allows us to view the landscape of the past, helping us to reconstruct events and better understand movement by achieving a more clear relational awareness of spaces and places. These maps can also help us juxtapose places from the past with the present.

Mapping people, places, and events from sport history can help us explore ideas, represent assumptions we might have, and document data points. At the Doing Sport History in the Digital Present workshop last May, Jennifer L. Schaefer and Jonathan Silverman presented two different sport history mapping projects that helped show the utility of spatial history to sports scholars. Schaefer’s project Mapping Politics into the Stadium: Political Demonstrations and Soccer Culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1973-1974,” involved mapping places to help her orient the stories of people on the landscape and reconstruct the events they were describing. It helped her compare different versions of the events and think through the veracity of their claims. Jonathan Silverman’s project, “Mapping the Past: A Geography of Racetracks,” accompanies a book project. The maps serve as historical recording to document the locations of racetracks, requiring remarkable research to locate them. They also help present different pieces of his argument about the popularity of horse racing relying on geographic location, relational proximity, etc.

Beyond these two examples, there are many more possibilities for sport historians. Maps can help us see and understand the travels of barnstorming teams, visualizing their journeys, the number of games they played, and more. Inspired by existing mapping projects such as “Visualizing Emancipation,” new sport history maps could help us explore the desegregation of college athletic teams. This hypothetical project may show the geographic trends as well as the time disparity between football and basketball when set into motion.

How does one go about making such a map? It requires compiling large amounts of data, such as newspaper articles on the desegregating of teams or team roster data, that is mixed with geographic information, such as GPS readings or latitude and longitude coordinates. Once organized in a database, translating the information to a map using a program like ArcGIS is relatively simple. Combining multiple maps to create visualizations is more complex, but becoming more accessible, especially if done in collaboration with a digital scholarship lab.

I have begun putting some of these concepts to work in my dissertation project. I created a series of maps to help visualize the changes in the University of Oklahoma’s football schedule. One of Bud Wilkinson’s goals to help boost the profile of the team and the university was to develop a national schedule. The slide show below shows maps of the locations of each of Oklahoma’s opponents (the schools not the game location) from 1947-1963. You can see how the schedule spreads out, beginning as a mostly “great plains” based schedule to one that moves into the upper midwest and touches the coasts. Future additions could extend the timeframe earlier to more fully explore the evolution of Oklahoma football and its imprint on the country.

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Oklahoma is my sample, with the potential of mapping more schools to explore regional and conference questions. They can help us explore scheduling and conferences in relation to media markets, recruiting, and even national rankings. I have plans for “An Atlas of University of Oklahoma Football” that will include several more maps, arguments, and visualizations. Recruiting and roster construction is one area I hope to address. Longterm, such a project could evolve into a large-scale collaboration among scholars working on various colleges.

The possibilities are endless for map making and sport history questions. While some of the answers may seem obvious and the maps simplistic, visualizing data on a large-scale with multiple levels of information provide chances for us to analyze the past in new ways. Even if the representations are not surprising, they can help us more clearly see the contours of change over time.

This is not without challenges. Early in my graduate career I had the idea of mapping each season’s college football national champions. My hypothesis was that it would help us better see the fluctuations of football power between regions (I never made the map). Of course, such a project is not easy. It requires us to do research and deal with the complexities in our own data. For example, what authority would I rely on as the definitive national champion? The AP Poll did not begin until 1936, leaving out a large and important dataset. Yet, before then there was rarely a consensus champion. Historic data is complicated.

While this post is a bit simplistic and the examples I give above are limited to college sports, I hope it helps shine the light on the possibility and promise of spatial history for sports scholars. Mapping is a useful tool. It can help us make new arguments, confirm assertions from our sources, visualize our assumptions, and record important historical places and events. Spatial history projects can also work as a form of digital public history, sharing and explaining our research to new audiences.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

One thought on “The Promise of Spatial History for Sports Scholars

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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