THE facts don't seem to fit. As measured by attendance and money, Americans show greater interest in religion than in sports, but it receives far less attention from the news media.
This curious tilt has been borne out statistically.
``It's a strange disparity considering the importance religion has in American life,'' says sociologist Robert N. Bellah of the University of California in Berkeley, Calif.
He says the media seem to assume that religion, except in cases of scandal, is largely a private matter. ``This is a very bizarre idea, but it's part of the ideology,'' he says.
Newly gathered comparative statistics in the 1990s on two key yardsticks of human interest - financial and personal involvement -
show religion ahead of sports.
Yet religion gets only a tiny fraction of media notice compared with the huge volume of attention lavished on sports.
The latest comparative figures collected on religion and sports find that money contributed to religion totaled $56.7 billion in 1992, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel. That is about 14 times the $4 billion spent on the three biggest sports - major league baseball, football, and basketball.
THE major sports leagues don't disclose gate receipts, but totals were obtained through league public-relations sources who asked not to be named. Financial World magazine reported similar figures for 1992. Major religious organizations make public annual financial reports.
In attendance, religion totaled 5.6 billion in 1993, based on annual Gallup polls. That is about 55 times greater than the 103-million total attendance reported by the three main professional sports leagues.
The latest tally of overall attendance at all United States sporting events, gathered in 1990 by the Daily Racing Form, totaled 388 million, including both professional and college football; baseball; basketball; hockey; boxing; tennis; soccer; wrestling; and harness, automobile, and dog racing.
In comparison, religious attendance of 5.2 billion in 1990 was about 13 times the overall sports total. More people turned out for worship in one month - about 433 million - than the 388-million total all year at all sporting events.
Past comparisons of such statistics - initially in 1973 and again in 1980 - found the same striking contrasts as today. Religion far exceeded sports in attracting people's time and money.
John Seigenthaler, longtime Nashville, Tenn., newspaper executive and head of a national study center that examined press coverage of religion, says the press ``is not doing the job. It's not meeting the need and demand for it.''
``Religion gets short shrift,'' he adds. ``So do the readers interested in religion. Anything else - whether it's politics, sports, health care, or whatever - is given primacy over the religion beat.''
Mr. Seigenthaler retired in 1992 from the Tennessean after 43 years as a reporter, editor, and publisher-president. He is now chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.
``There are more people more interested in religion than in any other beat covered. It doesn't make sense that the religion beat is given the second-class status to which it has been relegated,'' he says.
A STUDY backed by the center found that newsroom personnel are not particularly irreligious, but did find that the media mostly shuns religion.
Religion is mainly ``off limits to editors who do not take the time to read their mail or listen to complaints,'' Seigenthaler says. ``There's a nervousness and hypersensitivity about invading this no man's land.''
He says many editors have a ``badly flawed perception'' that religion is private. This is ``a cop-out,'' he says, adding that many public issues involve religious elements, both now and through history.
Religion historian Harry Stout of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., suggests that sports may get so much more news media attention because it has the excitement of winning or losing, while religion is more regular and predictable.
The ``uncertainty of sports'' may account partly for the different treatment, he says, but ``responsibility goes with it. People's use of time and money reflects the importance of religious values, even in this age.''
Sociologist Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville says the media have ``disseminated a pattern'' that religion doesn't belong.
``Others pick up that policy in what has been a trickle-down process,'' he says. ``It's been a top-down kind of dissemination to the peripheries of culture.''
But despite religion being downplayed, he says, ``religion is one of the most interesting subjects in life. It is still shaping history as much in the late 20th century as it did in previous centuries.''