Saturday, July 25, 2009

You Know We Are / Bring It Down / We're F***in' Crazy!

I heartily co-sign on Andy Staples' paean to SEC fans. Any writer who writes two paragraphs like the following for a major sports web site is truly a man after my heart:

College football is just more important to people in the South than it is to people in the rest of the country. There is a good reason for this. Pro sports ignored the South for a long time. For southerners in my parents' generation, college football dominated the news because it usually was the only game in town. Those people passed their sports consumption habits down to the next generation, and my generation will pass it along to the one that follows ours. For that reason, many SEC fans pay no mind to the NFL, unless it's a Tennessee fan checking on Peyton Manning or an LSU fan following LaRon Landry...

Unlike much of the national media -- which regularly underestimates the passion and buying power of rabid college football fans -- CBS and ESPN know that in a nine-state footprint lives a dedicated base of fans who will follow their teams to the ends of the earth. Baseball can't match that dedication. The next time you meet someone who claims to be a die-hard Red Sox fan, ask him how many magnets he can fit on his RV. That's why the two networks will pay a combined $3 billion over the next 15 years to televise SEC sports.

Staples makes a good point that ESPN has figured out that there are a lot of eyeballs in the SEC states and those eyeballs are glued tight to SEC football. That said, his point regarding intensity of fan support can be taken one step farther. I doubt that ESPN and CBS forked over hundreds of millions of dollars to the SEC just to get ratings in this region. They realize that genuine fan support creates unparalleled atmospheres at SEC games and that makes for great TV. I'm reminded of what Bill Simmons wrote when he decided that he was going to become an EPL fan:

You know how Red makes the comment that, after a life spent in Shawshank, he can't even squeeze a drop of pee without asking for permission first? I feel like that's happening to us. American sports have been ravaged by TV timeouts, ticket price hikes and Jumbotrons that pretty much order fans how to act. Just look at what happened in the NBA playoffs. Miami fans were urged to wear all white like a bunch of outpatients from a psych ward; the Detroit announcer screamed, "Let's give it up!" and "Lemme HEAR YOU!" as the crowd responded like a bunch of trained seals; Clippers fans weren't able to stand and cheer after an outrageous Shaun Livingston dunk in the Denver series because disco music was blaring at deafening levels. And it's not just basketball. During Angels games in baseball, the crowd waits to make noise until a monkey appears on the scoreboard. You can't attend an NHL game without hearing the opening to "Welcome to the Jungle" 90 times. Even our NFL games have slipped -- you cheer when the players run out, cheer on third downs, cheer on scores and sit the rest of the time. It's a crying shame.

Not to pull a Madonna on you, but European soccer stands out because of the superhuman energy of its fans -- the chants and songs, the nonstop cheering, the utter jubilation whenever anything good happens, how the games seem to double as life-or-death experiences -- and I can't help but wonder if that same trait has been sucked out of our own sports for reasons beyond our control. And no, that same energy hasn't completely disappeared; you can see a similar energy on display at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, Lambeau, MSG (if the Knicks and/or Rangers are good, a big "if" these days) and any other city with enough history and passion to override the evils of the Jumbotron Era. Still, these are aberrations. By pricing out most of the common fans and overwhelming the ones who remained, professional sports leagues in this country made a conscious decision: We'd rather hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. That's the biggest problem with sports in America right now. And there's no real way to solve it.

Simmons's current opinion (and it's a perceptive one) is that European soccer is the next big thing in American sports because we've become a TV-oriented sports culture and European footie translates better on TV. The games are played in front of singing, crazed fans without any of the manipulative prompting so common with American pro sports. If he's right, then SEC football is an attractive TV property outside of the South because it brings something to the table that most American sports do not: genuine, unadulterated passion. A fan in Seattle or Philadelphia who is disillusioned by what the pro sports experience has become could be sucked in by an SEC game because it reminds him of the way games used to be before t-shirt bazookas and "Cheer! Now! Do It!" reminders on the scoreboard.

The one limiting factor to neutrals being swayed by a better TV experience is their feelings about the locales of the game. European footie will have a hard time becoming mainstream because it's foreign. It's not necessarily that the most popular foreign league is English. Most Americans like England and remember that they were our allies in WWII. (We forget that the Russians were as well, but that's a different rant.) However, because English footballers are generally rubbish, the league is mostly dominated by foreign stars: Drogba, Essien, Fabregas, Torres, etc. Unless NBC is wrong about the sentiment of the average American when it ignores the rest of the world in its Olympic coverage, the EPL may always remain a fringe sport because of all the funny names.

To a lesser extent, this could be an issue with SEC football. The South is still viewed by many in the North as being defined by the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Florida seems nonthreatening because it is heavily populated by retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, but can we imagine people in the Northeast getting very excited about Alabama and Ole Miss, given where they get their ideas about the Deep South? (Better they think about Bull Connor than the Boston busing riots, right?) I'd be fascinated to know what ESPN and CBS think about the potential for the SEC as a TV property outside of the Sunbelt.


Anonymous said...

I agree regarding the evils of the Jumbotron Era. And as a UGA fan, I'm afraid to say it has taken root in the college game as well. I know I sound like an angry old codger (I'm 41) when I say this, but I have come to hate the huge Jumbotron at Sanford Stadium. It fills almost every second between plays with commercials and idiotic games ("Where's Uga?") that are so loud it makes it diffiucult to talk to the person next to me.

Of course, its not just a UGA problem-Arkansas brags about having the largest Jumbotron in the world or something. And as noted, the giant Jumbotron has taken over other sports as well. I find the one at Turner Field similarly detracts from the game experience with the non-stop commercials and dumb games. The Jumbotrons are nothing more than large amped-up TVs with poor resolution. But hoping big-time sports teams go back to a simpler scoreboard is like hoping basketball goes back to the peach baskets.

Jesse said...

I'm not sure the EPL is a fringe sport in America after seeing the attendance numbers throughout the World Football Challenge. There were over 81K in Seattle, and even Atlanta turned out 51K for the AC Milan-Cub America match. I think the entire event averaged around 62K. That's pretty solid, all things considered, and it's more than we see at some college american football games.

Speaking of footie, is it just me of is AC Milan just plain bad? They seemed to get worked from beginning to end of every match. Chelsea looks really good, though at times their forward play irritates me. And Club America sure was fun to watch.

If only the big boys had come back to play on the US team for the Gold Cup final, maybe the outcome would have been different. At least the second teamers played well up to that point, which always bodes well for the future of the squad.

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I have seen several bigtime college and NFL games; A Rose Bowl, the NFC championship in Seattle, USC at Notre Dame, Miami at UW when Husky stadium was a beast. But even a Northwest schlub like me knows that nothing can compare to what goes on in the SEC. Someday I hope my brother and I can take our dad down there to experience if you had to pick one SEC gameday to experience, what would it be? Bama? Tennessee? I always loved the Hedges and was a huge Herschel Walker fan growing up, so maybe Athens.

As to soccer, I selfishly hope that it stays a fringe sport. I don't want to go to the Barca-Sounders game in a couple of weeks and look like every other frontrunner wearing the Blaugrana. My jersey is so old it was made by Kappa!

chg said...

As long as you avoid Vanderbilt and Starkville, you can't go wrong. However, if you have to choose one, I'd say a big night game in Baton Rouge.

Unknown said...

*Sigh* I am so tired of reading this type of thing. Is the SEC as a group the most college football rabid place in the country? In general yes. Does that mean that they care more about college football than ANYWHERE else? No, and to think so is quite frankly arrogant. I believe I need only one example to disprove this and I will (predictably) use my own. Nebraska. The people that outdrew Notre Dame in the days of the four horsemen. The people that have sold out Memorial Stadium every game since November 3, 1962. The people that bought three fourths of the tickets to a NC game many expected to lose.

Now, I'm not saying we care more about college football than SEC people do, I'm saying we don't care about it less. Nebraska football isn't the only game in town, it's the only game in the state.

That said I actually came here to read your Braves stuff and found it refreshing to find someone who wasn't constantly bagging on Yunel. After all how many great defensive shortstops hit .310 with power?

Michael said...

Anon, you make good points regarding the changes to the experience at UGA, but at the end of the day, the place is still loud as hell and filled with people who care about the outcome. Contrast with the atmosphere at a Falcons game.

Jesse, I went to the game at the Dome and spent most of my time watching Ronaldinho. He's lost his athleticism, so he gave the ball away regularly, but he still sees passes that other players can't. Milan were playing him behind the two strikers, which was a good role for him. If he gets an understanding with Inzaghi, they'll score some goals. And they better because the back line is porous.

Anon, I agree with CHG: if you're going to one SEC game, a night game at Baton Rouge should be the choice. And yes, I also have that Kappa Barca jersey with the male and female silhouettes. It was my first Barca jersey and I bought it at the Madrid airport in June 1997.

Zachery, I won't question Nebraska fans. You're absolutely right about their passion. However, Nebraska doesn't sell their TV rights individually. In terms of a TV property, no conference brings a collective experience like the SEC because no other conference has such a high proportion of crazy fan bases. Kentucky is one of the worst programs in the conference and they draw 60K+ every week. South Carolina has never won anything and they sell every ticket. You won't try to tell me that the Big XII is equivalent, will you? And if it is, then why isn't the Big XII signing a similar TV deal with CBS and ESPN?