Believe it or not, catching a game of top level sport while on holiday is a common occurrence. Whether it’s a Premier League match in the U.K., a college football match in the U.S. or a game of Gaelic football in Ireland, sporting events are an ever popular travel activity.
American sports, then, are like the pinnacle of sport watching. They are the Everest for sports aficionados such as myself. The big four sport leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB) act like a dangling carrot that entice a person to want to witness one of these events live- bucket list items that need to be ticked. You see, some people want to be happy and healthy in life- I want to drink beer and watch talented and incredibly tall individuals, most of whom are household names the world over, attempt to best each other on a sporting arena in a foreign country.
By the very definition, I am a sport tragic. I love it. I don’t care what it is- I will have watched it on television or attempted to play it, usually always poorly, and find teams or individuals to support. It’s not something that I go out to try and achieve, it kind of just happens naturally, like people complaining about the weather or being confused about what the Kardasians are actually famous for.
As luck would have it, my brother fell in love with an American and married her in The States. Cheers guys. This meant I finally had the opportunity to see some of my favourite sports live. So, after booking flights, accommodation, getting insurance and other essential items required for a trip to a foreign country for a family wedding, tickets to sporting events were quickly(ish) acquired.
First stop on my sporting bucket list was an ice-hockey game. As it turns out, tickets to the NHL aren’t cheap. Actually it’s bloody expensive- especially if you manage to go see the New York Rangers. The Rangers are one of the biggest and most well recognised franchises in world sport and if you happen to get along to one of their games, be prepared to pay through the nose for it. My ticket cost me the equivalent of 17 regular Big Mac meals or 108 pieces of chicken from KFC. That’s a lot of money to spend to sit up in the ‘cheap’ seats to watch a sport where your understanding of the rules is questionable.
The fans themselves are die hard; everyone decked out in their team jerseys, hats and scarves, a sea of merchandise. The game itself was a New Jersey Devils home game, yet there were twice as many Rangers fans filling the seats. Sporting apparel is expensive (a basic jersey in the Devils merchandise store was going for $170 plus) but the whole crowd (bar the three of us) were wearing their colours with pride. Then they started heckling each other. Not in a threatening kind of way and not usually directed at anyone in particular, more just yelling “You suck” repeatedly until they thought their point had been proven. All that changed as soon as the first fight between players broke out. Every person stood up and cheered. Some used their words but it’s mostly just noise, their hands raised above their heads in jubilation as gloves were thrown off and players tried to punch each other in the face as many times as possible before falling to the ice and the referees pulled them apart.
What resonated with me was the passion and excitement that the crowd had for everything involved in the night; from the national anthem at the beginning to cheering goals and hits. They were absorbed by it all. They even booed a poor bloke for not doing well enough in a goal shooting competition. It was ice-hockey’s version of a half-court shot. Yes, he struggled, but surely standing on ice, in a pair of slippery shoes, shooting a puck from a third of a way down the rink, into a small goal has to be a challenging exercise, doesn’t it? For someone who wasn’t 100 per cent familiar with the sport, stuff like this helps draw you in. Some of rules were foreign to me as well but the people sitting nearby were more than happy to explain what was going on so long as we waited for a break in play lest we risk an accidental fist to the face. For a sport that has penalties such as butt ending, slashing and slew footing, a helping hand goes a long way.
Two days later I ventured to Brooklyn to witness an NBA game, a dream of mine for years. Even though I had to watch the worst team in the league (Brooklyn Nets) play the second worst (Phoenix Suns), it was electrifying to simply be in the building, regardless of how poor both teams were. People still rolled in and basically filled the entire arena on a chilly Thursday night.
The atmosphere was different here- different sports draw different crowds- but the structure was the same. Each break in play saw a new competition or prize to be won. Cheerleaders brought out t-shirt guns to shoot promo shirts into the top decks while a hostess ran a skill test with a couple of fans from the crowd who had about as much talent for basketball as I do at speaking Latin. As awesome as it was for those guys to get their moment on court, they had the skills of a blind turtle.
The spectacle of these events cannot be undersold; American sports know how to put on a show. Dimmed lights, red carpets, suspenseful announcements and annoying court/rink side announcers whose sole purpose is to whip the crowd up into a frenzy (“Why are we yelling?”, “I don’t know but it’s awesome!!!”)- even the announcement that Floyd Mayweather was courtside was done with a flair for the dramatic, encouraging a crowd reaction bigger than anything that had happened on the court.
Sport and travel have been intertwined for years. There are a litany of tour companies who run sport specific itineraries focusing on that organise anything and everything you need. NBA and international cricket are prime examples and are incredibly popular. It’s as much a part of the travel experience as it is a genuine interest. But my overarching theory is that if you can’t see it at home, why wouldn’t you try and see it when you are there?
Make the most of your opportunities.
Wayward Tip: even if you don’t follow any of the sports, if the opportunity arises to get to a game, do it. Call it cultural education.