Monday, 28 December 2009

"Ref you suck" and other American sporting practices

Some of you may remember a series of television adverts for the international banking conglomerate HSBC. Under the strapline 'The World's Local Bank', the adverts demonstrated how cultural practices differ around the world. There was the Chinese attitude to generosity, and their ideas on fishing; parking á la français; and the importance of getting your hand gestures right in Brazil.

Before you ask, no, these straightened economic times have not forced The Cynical Challenge to seek corporate product placements. It's just a reminder that, although the world is getting smaller, we shouldn't forget that things are done differently around the globe.

And sport is no exception, as The Cynical Challenge has found out in the last week after taking in a Christmas feast of American sport - including live basketball, where Miami Heat hosted Utah Jazz, and live American football at Miami's Dolphin Stadium between the Dolphins and the Houston Texans. And, like the sportswriting equivalent of Claude Lévi-Strauss (let's be ambitious), this blog is reporting back its findings on these most American of leisure-time activities.

More more more - how do you like it?
Turn on the TV at any time of the day in the US and you'll find more sport to watch than on an average matchday in Britain. There's the usual suspects, American football, hockey, basketball and baseball (the latter less so as it's currently off-season). Then there's "soccer" - sorry, it had to be done - from England, Italy, Spain, South America and even Australia. There are even Spanish-language versions of all these channels for the United States' sizeable Hispanic population.

In short, there's something for everyone. On Christmas Day, traditionally the worst day for television in the calendar, lucky American viewers could see five (five?!) NBA games back-to-back whilst digesting their Christmas turkey, running from 1pm to past midnight. On Boxing Day fans of English Premier League football could watch three games consecutively, starting with Fulham vs Tottenham and ending with Liverpool vs Wolves.

And even the most desperate sports fan finds themselves sated. In the last week - purely for research purposes of course - The Cynical Challenge has watched a bunch of 12-year-olds from  Texas and Kentucky play Little League Baseball, a re-run of the 1982 playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys (one of the greatest games of all time, by the way - read more here), and former New York Giant Tiki Barber do a turn on daytime TV as correspondent for NBC's Today.

Food glorious food...
Watching live sport in the US is as much a culinary experience as it is entertainment. Foot-long hot dogs, corn dogs and chilli dogs. Pizza slices the size of an average pizza in the UK. And as many salt-infused empty calories as you can think of - nachos, popcorn, grilled cheese, and pretzels so large they could be murder weapons.

Best of all is the beer. Dispensing with standard-sized cans, the Americans go for a 24 fl-oz ring-pull can (that's over 700ml) while they watch a game. That's heavy duty. Shame they cost $12 a piece.

...and impeccable toilet habits
 Clearly The Cynical Challenge's experience of bathroom facilities in Europe's sport stadia only takes in 50% of the available toilets - best not to get arrested for inspecting the ladies loos, even for a blog post. But it can be said without much reservation that American stadium toilets are the best in the world. The sight of Leeds United fans effectively destroy the toilets through, shall we say, 'misuse' on an away day at Norwich City's Carrow Road stadium about 3 years ago were banished to the past as soon as I saw all that spotless ceramic.

And not only that - some people actually washed their hands. With soap. That'll be the day.

"Ref you suck"
Continuing with the theme of politeness and etiquette, here's another difference between watching sport in Europe and in America - here in the States you hardly ever here a swear-word raised in anger or for amusement.

For a young British boy of primary school age, being taken to watch the football was a rite of passage. Once you'd seen your local team live in the flesh you were a man, and not just because of the cultural connotations that attendance meant, but because you heard, probably for the first time, the English language being put to highly colourful use. Ubiquitous, for example, is 'the referee's a w*nker', heard across English football grounds pretty much every weekend without exception.

By the way, an interesting exception might be Russia, where, like in the US, swearwords are largely confined to quiet grumbling among supporters rather than orchestrated chants. The Russian version of 'the referee's a w*nker' is pretty clean. They shout 'referee to soap', which sounds if anything odd, but actually has quite an insidious connotation. Back in Soviet times the regime had a nasty habit of dispensing with people they didn't like by killing them off, and boiling the bodies to turn their fat into soap. The fans are effectively calling for the ref to be taken away by the KGB for a nice dose of "re-education".

Anyway, in the US the closest you'll get to that is 'ref you suck', ad infinitum, which sounds, to use another Americanism, a bit 'lame' in comparison. Still, it makes for a very family-friendly atmosphere, without all that turning the air blue, and it's hard to think of too many reasons why you wouldn't want to take young children to watch live sport in America. Besides perhaps the threat of morbid obesity from all those snacks.

Sport as entertainment
More than anything, though, the overriding impression from watching sport in the US is that sport is less about partisanship and localism, and more about entertaining the viewer. And for the purists reading this and scoffing, it's worth saying that that isn't such a bad thing.

The average Premier League ticket price is around £30 per game as of 2008, and for that princely sum the paying punters get about two hours worth of entertainment, maybe more if you can bear the pre-match buildup. In America ticket prices vary considerably, but for about £20-£30 you can get a decent seat at a game which lasts for perhaps 3 hours. That factors in not just the running, passing and scoring, but the cheerleading, the fireworks, the music and video replays, the t-shirt giveaways and much else besides, that go into an average game-day.

Stadia and arenas are built with entertainment in mind too. At the American Airlines Arena, home to the Miami Heat basketball team, you can comfortably see the game from any of the 19,600 seats, even on the top tier. There simply isn't a bad seat in the house.

As for generating atmosphere, it's hard to argue that American sports can generate the kind of intensity from the crowd that a big football or cricket match can over in Europe. Having said that, the prematch buildup at an American sports arena matches any examples The Cynical Challenge can muster from Europe. The players enter the field one by one, called by the stadium announcer, accompanied by fireworks and flashing lights. Then comes the national anthem, and though it's hard to talk about this as a Brit without sounding disingenuous, it must be said that hearing The Star-Spangled Banner live, along with 60,000 others, gets the hairs on the back of your neck on end.

Cynical's Final Thought
The message is this: Britain can learn a few things from the Americans about its relationship with sport. First and foremost, and this is only my opinion, you get better value for money from a ticket to an NBA or NFL. game than you do to a football match in Britain. Sure, the food and the drink all costs money; the dancing and singing and fireworks are all incidental to the sporting action; and the free giveaways are a huge marketing gimmick; but it all adds up to a hugely enjoyable, longer-lasting bang for your buck.

Still, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Political correctness is something that should never be imposed on British sporting chants.


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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James