If you spend any time at all on places Reddit you’ve probably seen the same questions asked over and over again. One question I’ve seen posted over the years comes from people outside the United States who ask “What’s the deal with Americans and college sports?” or “Why do Americans care which university is best at basketball?” or “How do you know which university to cheer for?”
I’ve seen the question answered many times, but the answers were, in my opinion, incomplete. Some answers would discuss college sports generally, while others would focus on the “which university to cheer for” issue. I hope, with this post, to answer the question fully. So if you have any European or Australian friends who ask about American college sports, in the future you can send them a link to this post!
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the duration of this article, I will use the term “football” to refer exclusively to American football and “soccer” to refer to the sport the rest of the non Anglosphere (except Britain) calls football. Yes, Americans get crap from the Brits for calling it “soccer”, but Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, Belizeans and the Irish call it “soccer”, too. And much of Asia, including Japan, call it some variation of “soccer”, like “soka” or “saker”. But it’s just AMERICANS who are weird. On a lighter note, I will also follow the American custom of using the terms “university”, “college” and “school” interchangeably.]
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First of all, when Americans talk about “college sports” chances are good that they’re actually talking about two sports: football and\or basketball. These are the predominant college sports in the United States, and the reason for this is historical: both sports initially became popular at the collegiate level, and it was their wild success as spectator sports that led people to risk creating professional leagues.
Take football, for example. The history of American football is a bit murky. It’s known that mob football, a medieval forerunner of modern soccer, was played in colonial-era America, possibly for the first time at Jamestown in the 1600s. However, organized games played by intramural university teams did not begin until the early 1800s. Mob football was a brutal sport; some sources say that “any means could be used to move the ball to a goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder”!
By the 1860s, the game had been banned at most universities due to student number of injuries and destruction of school property. However, thanks to the introduction of manufactured balls of uniform size and shape – which made the ball bounce predictability for the first time, adding a new strategic element to the game – the sport continued to increase in popularity at prep schools. They came up with something called the Boston Game, a sport which combined the kicking aspect of soccer with the carrying aspect of rugby. The sport began to return to American colleges, and on November 6, 1869 a team from Rutgers University played Princeton University in what most historians consider the first true game of American football. This “new” sport quickly spread to other universities on the east coast of the United States, then went nation-wide once rules were standardized later in the 1870s.
By the 1910s, most large American universities had a college football team, and games were drawing as many as 80,000 spectators in some markets. There was an obvious market for a professional version of the sport, and several businessmen had a go at creating pro leagues. Unfortunately, most failed after a few years due to arguments between team owners. It wasn’t until 1920 that the American Professional Football Association was formed. The group changed its name to the National Football League two years later, and one day it would become the preeminent sports league in the United States.
However, for the first three decades of its existence pro football was a very distant second in popularity to the college game. A large part of this was due to a lack of teams. The early NFL was confined to the northeastern and Great Lakes areas of the country. There were no professional football teams south of Washington DC or west of Chicago. For the vast majority of football fans, their only option was the local college team. For example, in 1950s Atlanta, the Falcons football team didn’t exist yet, the Hawks basketball team was still in Milwaukee and the Braves baseball team was still in Boston. Aside from the Atlanta Crackers minor league baseball team, Georgia Tech was literally the only game in town.
This began to change later in the 1950s when several things happened.
The first was a loosening of social attitudes regarding professional athletes. You know how every single TV sitcom about a family seems to have at least one episode where the teenage daughter brings home a “musician” or “artist”, and the parents freak out? If TV sitcoms had existed in the 1920s or 1930s, the daughter would have brought home an athlete instead, especially a football player. Football was something that young men “got out of their system” in college before starting their “real” careers as doctors, engineers or lawyers. Men who wanted to play professional football were seen as immature oafs little better than hobos. It didn’t help that pro football paid near minimum wage back then, so most pro football players had to work another full-time job in the off-season. After World War II, however, America relaxed a bit, and being a professional athlete, while not ideal, didn’t automatically make one a social outcast as it had only a decade or two before.
The second thing was the rise of air travel in the United States. One of the main reasons NFL teams were concentrated in such a small geographic area was because of the time involved with train travel. Before jets, teams were reluctant to spend 2 or 3 days traveling to a game on a train, to say nothing of the 2 or 3 days to get back. If you’re from Europe, keep in mind that the direct distance from New York to Los Angeles (2,448 miles or 3,940 km) is greater than the distance from Lisbon to Istanbul (2,014 miles or 3,241 km). So it’s not for nothing that there were no Major League Baseball teams in California until after air travel became a regular thing.
The third thing, and perhaps the most important thing of all, was the start of nationwide TV broadcasts of NFL games. Before this, football was a mostly local affair, and for most Americans that meant college teams. But NFL games started appearing on television, and interest in the sport soon went through the roof. Many football historians consider the 1958 NFL Championship Game – a thriller in which the underdog Baltimore Colts beat the heavily-favored New York Giants in overtime – to be the “Greatest Game Ever Played” partly because of the game itself, but also because it was the first championship game to be televised. The NFL probably gained more fans on December 28, 1958 than on any other single day in its history. Even more importantly, the NFL was wise enough to negotiate with the TV networks as a single entity, rather than individual teams. This gave the NFL considerable leverage with the networks, and “TV money” gave the league a financial stability it had never had before.
The final thing was the birth of a rival league, the American Football League (AFL). In the 1950s, businessmen from “non-traditional” football cities like Dallas and Denver approached the NFL about putting teams there. But the NFL, financially stable for the first time thanks to TV money, didn’t want to risk that stability on a rapid expansion into untested markets. One of the scorned businessmen, Lamar Hunt, got together with the other rejected suitors and formed the AFL.
Despite the best efforts of the NFL to ignore the AFL, the new league became quite popular. Since the NFL had a recruiting stranglehold on most larger universities, the AFL had to recruit from smaller schools and historically black colleges. Black athletes, long shunned by the NFL, proved to be exciting players in the AFL… and, come to find out, most Americans didn’t really care about the race of their team’s players, so long as they won football games. The AFL differentiated itself from the NFL in other ways. One was to tweak the rules to make scoring easier and the games more exciting. The AFL’s uniforms were colorful and modern compared to the drab NFL ones, and AFL jerseys had players’ names on the back, making it easier to learn who was who.
The two leagues also started bidding wars for the best college players. In 1964, for instance, the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and the AFL’s New York Jets both drafted University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. The Jets signed him to an unheard of $427,000 contract. Although that’s “only” $3.4 million in 2017 dollars, it was an unbelievable amount of money to pay a football player at the time.
Both leagues began adding expansion teams in new cities, too. For example, the NFL really didn’t want to give a team to Atlanta businessman Rankin Smith, and for weeks they ducked his calls. However, an exasperated Smith finally announced that if the NFL didn’t give him a team, he would buy the AFL team that eventually became the Miami Dolphins and bring it to Atlanta instead. Within weeks, Smith had his NFL team, and the Atlanta Falcons were born.
It was obvious to almost everyone that competition between the NFL and AFL was counterproductive, and so the two leagues began having merger talks. In the meantime, the two leagues created a new game called the “Super Bowl” where the NFL champion would play the AFL champion to see which league really was the best. By 1966, the merger was complete on paper, and 1970 was the first year the two leagues played as a single unit. This is why most football fans consider 1970 to be the start of the “modern era” in American football.
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Of course, by 1970 a few college teams had been playing the game for a century, and most had been playing the game for 80+ years. Fans weren’t going to stop watching their beloved college teams just because some “Johnny Come Lately” pro team showed up. Although the NFL is now the 800-pound (362.8 kg) gorilla of the American sports world, there are several reasons why college football remains popular:
– The Gentlemen’s Agreement: In the early days of pro football, the pipsqueak NFL made a gentlemen’s agreement with the all-powerful NCAA, college sports’ governing body, whereby the pros would not play on days when college teams played. This was (more or less) made law via the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. One way or the other, it’s still in effect: college teams usually play on Saturday, while pro teams usually play on Sunday. So football fans don’t have to choose between the two: they can watch both.
– The Lack of Teams: There are 32 NFL teams, mostly located in large population centers on the coasts. As of 2012, there are more US states without a pro football team (28) than with a pro team (22). In fact, just eight US states – California, New York, Florida, Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri – are home to 19 NFL teams. That’s 59% of the entire league! By contrast, there are 130 college teams in the “Football Bowl Subdivision” (the “English Premiere League” of college football), as well as almost as many in the “Football Championship Subdivision” (equivalent to the “Football League Championship”), 156 teams in Division II (“League One”) and 234 in Division III (“League Two”). That’s at least 626 college football teams, and that doesn’t even include junior colleges. A football fan in a state without a pro team (like Alabama) might choose to pull for the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans or New Orleans Saints, depending on location. But chances are he’s only emotionally attached to one of the local college teams… in this case, either the University of Alabama or Auburn University.
– The Lack of Minor Leagues: Baseball and ice hockey both have “farm systems”, whereby major-league teams in big cities either own, or have affiliation agreements with, minor league teams in smaller cities. It’s possible (though unlikely) that a player could start playing baseball for the Danville (Virginia) Braves, then work his way up to the Rome (Georgia) Braves, then the Mississippi Braves, then the Gwinnett Braves, and finally the major-league Atlanta Braves. Football and basketball don’t have any of that. For the most part, colleges are the farm system for those two sports. Most of the NFL players people know by name went straight to the pros from college. And even Americans who don’t like college football at least pay attention to up and coming players, as they will likely enter the NFL and possibly join their favorite pro team.
[Just to be complete, there are opportunities for post-college football players. For several years the NFL had NFL Europe, a “developmental league” for players who weren’t quite ready for prime-time. For decades, players who weren’t yet good enough for the NFL have gone to the Canadian Football League in hopes of drawing the attention of NFL scouts. Several players have also honed their skills in the Arena Football League, an indoor version of the sport.]
– Fans PREFER It: Many people are put off by the big egos and big paychecks of the pro game. They prefer the “pure” version played in college, where players are supposed to play for “school spirit” or “love of the game”. And while the vast majority of college football players go on to have “normal” careers instead of playing pro football, and therefore do play for something like “school spirit”, many Americans would beg to differ on the “pureness” of the sport. It seems like every year there’s a scandal with some college team either financially rewarding its players in some way or creating easy classes specially-made just for players. You might have heard about the recent Penn State Child Sex Scandal. Although it was shocking to most Americans because it involved sex crimes against children, many aspects of that crime are common to most college football scandals (such as school administrators covering up the misdeeds, athletic supporters enabling the bad behavior and witnesses afraid to testify for fear of retaliation). In fact, many might call college sports the most corrupt institution in America. But still, the “myth” of the amateur athlete giving his all for his school is a great draw in American sports. I doubt it will ever go away.
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Basketball has its own history, of course. But in many ways it mirrors that of football. The sport initially became popular at universities. And, in the case of basketball, this was especially true for small Catholic universities who liked the lack of violence in the game compared to football as well as the relatively inexpensive nature of the sport. As a result, Catholic schools like Villanova, Xavier, Georgetown, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga have long had popular and competitive teams. Like the NFL, basketball’s pro league – the National Basketball Association, or NBA – was founded early (1946), but didn’t begin to approach the popularity of the collegiate game until TV came along in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And, like the NFL, the NBA had to deal with an upstart rival league, in this case the American Basketball Association, or ABA.
In the past couple of decades, college basketball’s popularity has increased dramatically thanks to the NCAA’s playoff system, colloquially known as March Madness. It’s a single-elimination tournament featuring the best 68 teams in the country. As teams advance through the tournament, they’re said to join the “Sweet Sixteen”, then the “Elite Eight” and then the “Final Four”. People enjoy the tournament for several reasons. For one thing, tournament standings are always shown in a bracket format, which has led to informal office gambling pools becoming popular. In the preliminary rounds of the tournament, games are played all day long, giving people an excuse to goof off and watch streaming sports instead of working (for years, companies have complained that their bandwidth usage goes through the roof during the tournament!). But more than all that, the nature of basketball is such that unknown teams from small universities have the ability to beat well-known programs and make a run for the championship game, something that almost never happens in football. In 2006, for example, George Mason University, a school most Americans had never heard of, beat powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to reach the Final Four. Americans are suckers for a Cinderella Story in sports, and every year March Madness seems to have one.
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Universities play other sports, but none of them come even remotely close in popularity to football or basketball. In fact, I bet you’d barely be able to fill a large football stadium with the combined fans of all the following sports from all the large schools in the country:
College baseball is popular enough to get a regular (albeit tiny) section in newspapers, and a few regular season games on the 24-hour sports channels. The college baseball season begins in February, after the Super Bowl, but before the NBA and hockey playoffs start and before Major League Baseball’s season begins. I’m guessing sports networks see college baseball as “filler” until something more interesting comes along. The College World Series is heavily advertised as a “big deal” on sports networks, but I’d bet my left arm the actual viewership numbers are pretty small.
College ice hockey is popular in the colder parts of the country, but is almost unheard of elsewhere. I’ve always wondered how many fans of the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech even know their schools have hockey teams! In 1999, the NCAA tried to bestow some of basketball’s magic on hockey by renaming their playoffs the Frozen Four. Most sports fans just shrugged and went back to waiting for pro baseball to start.
Women’s volleyball has become sort of popular, although that has more to do with the fact that it usually airs at 2:00 am and features fit young girls in tight, skimpy outfits than any actual appreciation of the sport.
Women’s softball has a few fans, and a handful of games are televised on sports networks every year.
Several sports are locally popular at schools which have traditionally been good at them. College golf, for example, might be America’s 341st most popular sport, but it gets the occasional mention in Atlanta news media because Georgia Tech is good at the game. The same goes with the University of Georgia’s gymnastics team, lacrosse teams from the University of Virginia and Princeton, the swimming team from the University of Texas, or the soccer teams of UCLA and Maryland.
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So… football and basketball are popular college sports. But how do you know which college team to pull for? Do Americans have some kind of system the rest of the world doesn’t know about? Well, actually… we kind of do. Here are the main reasons people become fans of college sports teams, in descending order:
They’re Born Into It – Just as an English child might be “born into” a Manchester United or Manchester City family, so too most American college sports fans are “born into” families which pull for a certain team. The reason a family cheers for a school might be a matter of great pride: “Your great-grandfather was the first member of the family to graduate from college, and he went to the University of Virginia, so we pull for the University of Virginia!”. Or the reason might be lost in the sands of time: “You pull for Florida State because I pull for Florida State because my dad pulled for Florida State because his dad pulled for Florida State because his dad pulled for Florida State… and so on, back until one of us got off the Mayflower, I guess.”
Attending the School – If you, or a family member or close friend, attend a university, that’s a pretty good reason to like their sports teams. But it’s not necessarily as cut and dried as you might think: a young man who was “born into” a University of Tennessee household but who chooses to go to the University of Florida for academic reasons might: a) remain a Tennessee fan the entire time he’s at Florida; b) become a Florida fan while attending the school, but go back to being a Tennessee fan after graduation; c) become a Florida fan for life; or, most likely, d) try to split his affection by pulling for both schools as long as they don’t play each other, or by cheering for one school in one sport and the other school in another sport. Also, remember that not every American university plays every sport, and even they do, that doesn’t mean they’ll be any good at it. I was “born into” a Georgia Tech family, but attended nearby Georgia State University. At the time, Georgia State didn’t have a football team, so no one thought it was odd that I cheered for the university next door. Georgia State did have a basketball team, but they weren’t very good, and they played in a much lesser conference (league) than Georgia Tech. It was much more fun watching Georgia Tech play (and sometimes beat!) legendary basketball schools like North Carolina and Duke than it was watching Georgia State eke out a win over the West Texas Air Conditioning Repair and Henna Tattooing Academy. So while I paid lip service to the idea of pulling for Georgia State in basketball, my heart was actually with Georgia Tech.
Location – If you weren’t “born into” a team family, or didn’t go to college, chances are that you’ll pull for one of the college teams from your state. Keep in mind that many American states have universities on either end of the state, so the college closest to you might have “brilliant young geniuses eager to learn”, while the school on the other side of the state is filled with “inbred hicks who drool on their boots”. There are also rivalries between US states: in 1835, Michigan and Ohio almost went to war over a thin strip of land containing the modern city of Toledo. Although the matter was solved without bloodshed in Ohio’s favor, the incident established a rivalry between the two states which continues to this day: no one from Michigan would ever cheer for an Ohio team, and no one from Ohio would ever cheer for a Michigan team.
Social Class – Many American states have at least one large, public (taxpayer-supported) university, as well as a smaller, more elite (possibly private) university. As a very general rule, the more money you have, the more likely you are to pull for the elite school. For example, here in North Carolina we have the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a very large, well-regarded public university where 85% of the student population comes from the state. But eight miles away there’s Duke University, an elite private university where 85% of the student population comes from outside the state, typically from wealthy northern families. If you see a beat-up old pickup truck next to a brand new Mercedes in a parking lot, 95% of the time the pickup will have a UNC sticker and the Mercedes will have a Duke sticker. The same goes for the University of Georgia vs. Georgia Tech: 95% of the time the pickup will have a UGA sticker and the Mercedes will have a Tech sticker on it. But remember that this is a generalization: there are plenty of rich UNC\UGA fans out there, as well as many poor Duke\Tech fans. Also, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 created an entire new class of universities known as “land-grant schools”. The act gave states free Federal land to build new universities, provided the schools focused on “practical” pursuits, such as agriculture and mechanical engineering (this is what the “A&M” stands for in the names of a few US universities). Although most of the land-grant schools have expanded well beyond their agricultural roots, fans of “traditional” universities often taunt fans of the “farm schools” with jokes about plowing fields for extra credit, or sleeping with their sisters, or other stereotypes about rural people.
Religion – This one isn’t as important as it used to be, but at one point in American history if you were Catholic and a college football fan, you pulled for Notre Dame. End of story. Unless you were a Catholic in New York City, then maybe you pulled for Fordham University. There are still some primarily Catholic schools in the US, as well as historically Jewish schools (like Boston’s Brandeis University). It’s not that other schools (or their fans) pull against these religious schools so much as it is that only people of that particular faith attend the school. Brandeis is something like 50% Jewish, so it would be odd for a gentile to pull for that school without some connection to the university.
Race – American blacks were denied admission to most universities after the Civil War. So blacks formed their own schools, which are now known as “historically black colleges and universities”. There are 105 such schools in the United States today, and although the schools still enjoy great academic prestige in the black community, integration has greatly weakened their athletics programs. Sixty years ago, a young black football fan might have cheered for Howard University out of “necessity”. But now that promising black athletes are welcomed at almost any university, young black fans are just as likely to be fans of big state schools as historically black ones. Also, as with religious schools, whites don’t usually cheer against historically black schools (unless their team is playing them, of course). It’s just that 99% of Howard University’s fans are black. I mean, I assume that, of course.
Other – This is the miscellaneous category, and any number of reasons could fit here. Perhaps your best friend in high school was the star quarterback, and you cheer for the university he went on to attend out of personal loyalty. Maybe you were “born into” a University of Washington family in Seattle, but when you were a teen your father was transferred to Columbus, Ohio. You started pulling for Ohio State just to fit in with everyone else in your new high school, and eventually became a true fan. Maybe your father was abusive, as well as a rabid fan of the University of Southern California, and the second you moved out of the house you started to pull for their arch-rival, the University of California at Los Angeles, just to spite him. Almost anything you can think of that doesn’t apply to the previous rules goes here. Except for one last thing…
The greatest sin in American sports fandom is bandwagoning. The technical definition of bandwagoning is to “pull for a team once they’re doing well, but not pull for a team once they’re not doing so well”. I’m sure you know the type. Everyone seems to know a couple who don’t care about football, soccer or rugby at all. The couple never watches games or matches, and expresses no interest in going with you to any games. In fact, they may even be downright hostile to the idea of sports fandom. But then, once your local team goes to the playoffs, the couple come over to watch the game at your house, decked out in team colors and jerseys and scarves and flags and whatever else fans in your area do to support the team. It looks like a team gear catalog exploded on them. But, once the team cools down, the couple put away all the team gear… until they next time the team goes to the playoffs, in which case they’re back again.
The problem is, in America many people seem to have forgotten about the second part of the rule, the “not pulling for a team once they’re not doing so well” bit. To many fans and sports journalists, bandwagoning is just “pulling for a team once they’re doing well”, regardless of whether you stick around for the seasons when the team has 2 wins and 20 losses. Because of this, many feel like they need to impose a bunch of silly rules on fans, like “if you’re from a city with an NFL team, you must, without exception, pull for that team”. I think that’s stupid. I’ve proposed a new system, where you may pull for any team you wish, for any reason you wish (even it’s as stupid as liking the team’s logo or color scheme), so long as you pull for them, without reservation, for a 15-year “trial period”. After that, you may choose a new team, but you may do so only once (read more about it here).
Anyway, the point is, there’s a bias in American sports against cheering teams because they’re doing well. If you’ve just arrived in America and take an interest in college sports, you’d do well not to pick a new favorite team based on who’s at the top of the polls at the moment. Few Americans would hassle a newly-arrived Englishman or Australian for picking Alabama as their favorite football team. Other Americans, however, would be subject to mockery and ridicule for such a move.
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I could write more. I could write so much more, especially about college football. I haven’t discussed how college teams are put into divisions, and how those divisions are subdivided into the non-stop merry-go-round that is conferences. I haven’t even discussed how the United States, a country that’s created 337 Nobel laureates, could come up with something as stupid as the BCS (“Bowl Championship Series”, the method college football uses to pick a champion each year; the system has been so unpopular that it’s being replaced in 2014). But alas, I’ll spare you.
If you have an interest in learning more, leave a note in the comments and I’ll write a follow-up article!