Five rules for being a fan of the away team

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m a Boston Celtics fan living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve got tickets to see my team play later this week and I’m super excited about it. But then I started thinking about going to the game and I realized that I don’t really know how to act or what to wear. Can you help?

Thanks,
Kirk


Dear Kirk,

You are a sports fan. You spend dozens of hours watching your team on television. You read about your team obsessively, you follow players on twitter, you know the names of your team’s beat writers, and you have more than three bits of team paraphernalia in your closet or on your walls. You don’t live in your team’s city anymore (or maybe you never have) but you haven’t let that stop you from rooting for them. Finally, your team comes to town and you splurge for some tickets. You’re excited to see your team play in person. It’s the day of the game and suddenly, you starting thinking… oh man, what am I going to wear? How should I act? Is everything going to be cool? I’m rooting for the away team tonight. How should I act?

It’s an age old conundrum: how should you act as a fan for the away team?

I’m going to a hockey game as a fan of the away team tonight, so this is something I’ve been thinking about today. At first I thought I would write this piece with a certain amount of uncertainty. “I’m not sure what I think,” I thought I should write, “but here are the variables in play.” Actually though, the more I think about it, the more I feel certain that I do know how one should act as an away team. When you are a fan of an away team, you are basically a guest in someone’s house. You should act accordingly. Here are five rules for being a fan of the away team:

  1. By all means, wear your team colors, but do it with restraint. A hat or scarf is great. A jersey is fine. A full team warmup suit accompanied with team pom-poms and face paint? That’s a little too much. Save that for when you are going to a home game.
  2. The same holds for your behavior. Don’t get belligerently drunk and scream. That type of behavior is permissible (some might say ideal) when you are rooting for the home team, but as an away team fan, you should be more demure. Applaud your team. Cheer when they score. But you know what? Stand and applaud when the other team scores too. You’re watching with thousands of people for whom that is a good thing. If you want them to welcome you, show that you appreciate their hospitality.
  3. Don’t try to affect the game. Home teams deserve to have the advantage of being supported by their fans. In most sports, this advantage simply consists of the emotional boost players get from hearing the support of their fans. In a few sports though, fans have more direct ways to try to affect the game — by making it impossible for offenses to communicate in football or by distracting a free throw shooter in basketball. It’s not your right to do this as an away fan. You’re already limiting the impact of home court by taking a loyal supporters’ seat and you don’t have to apologize for that but you don’t get to try to impact the game as if you were at home.
  4. Being an away fan does not make you a legitimate target. Good natured ribbing is fine and can be enjoyable, but you should not put up with intimidation or abuse. If you do find yourself the target of anything from a crude or mean-spirited home fan, be firm but do not escalate. Either ignore them or remind them that you’re simply a visitor who want to watch the game and support her or his team. Ask them how they would like to be treated if they traveled to an away game with their team. If things get bad, don’t be afraid to move away from them or appeal to a stadium worker for support. There are almost always other seats that you can move to.
  5. Be knowledgeable. This goes back to acting like a good guest. It wouldn’t be nice to show up at someone’s house for dinner and not know their children’s names, what they do for work, or why they walk with a limp. That’s what you’re doing if you show up as an away fan and you don’t know the home team’s record, players, coach, history, and traditions. You don’t need to go overboard and memorize everything, but take a quick glance at the standings, a team depth chart or roster, and the team’s wikipedia page before you go. It gives you something to talk about with the people who will be sitting around you.

Sports allegiances always come down to coincidences: where you were born, who your parents were and who they rooted for, or what teams were winning championships when you were around nine years old. The relationships you create with people, even if they are only for a few hours while you watch a sports game, are more important than your devotion to a team. Being a fan of an away team can be a tricky balancing act, but it is worth it. Have fun!

Thanks,
Ezra Fischer

Why are sports teams from locations?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are sports teams from locations? I mean, it sounds like a silly question, but it’s not like the players or the coaches are from there. What’s the point of having a team from New York or Tennessee if you let people from all over play on it?

Thanks,
Jesse


Dear Jesse,

This is one of those questions that makes complete logical sense but, because it challenges a foundational aspect of the sports world in our country, is difficult for a fan to understand and answer. The fact that teams are tied to locations and that they represent the city, state, or region they’re from seems like an unassailable truth of sports. It’s not though. After doing some research on the topic, I’ve found an interesting example of one league that works completely differently. Let’s start with a little history, move on to the way things work now, and then look at an interesting exception that may be a harbinger of things to come.

From the very beginning of organized athletic competitions, sports have been a way for competing political groups to safely play out conflict. The ancient Olympics were dominated by individual events like running, boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing. Nonetheless, the competitors were there to represent the city-states they came from. Wikipedia’s article on the ancient Olympics states that the “Olympic Games were established in [a] political context and served as a venue for representatives of the city-states to peacefully compete against each other.” In the United Kingdom, some medieval soccer-like traditions survive and are still played. The Ashbourne game is a two-day epic played over 16 hours and two days each year that pits the Up’Ards against the Down’Ards. Instead of being the instantiation of a international or inter-city conflict, this game is a (at this point) relatively friendly version of a rivalry between city neighborhoods. There’s a natural human tendency to define oneself by splitting the world into “us” and “other” and where you live or where you come from is the obvious way to do this. Sports has always provided an outlet for group identity and simulated conflict.

Much of the early history of sport in the Americas is a history of college athletics. College sports, by their nature, are tied to a location and (however inappropriately) to an institution. The identification of teams with cities has also been present in American professional sports from the beginning. In baseball, the first professional team was the Cincinatti Red Stockings in 1869. The first professional hockey team was the Canadian Soo from Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada. Confusingly enough, the Canadian Soo played its first game in 1904 against the American Soo Indians from Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan, United States of America. Wha?? Football has an interesting professional history in the United States. For over forty years, there were professional players but no professional teams. Individual players were being paid to play on teams that were nominally amateur teams. It wasn’t until 1920 that the first professional football league came into being. The American Professional Football Association had teams from Akron, Buffalo, Muncie, Rochester, and Dayton. Basketball is a much newer professional sport. Its first game was played between teams representing Toronto and New York in 1946.

Even early on, teams were not made up of players from the team’s location. One reason is that some areas simply produce more top-level talent in some sports than others. It’s not financially smart for a league to only have teams in the core player producing areas, so instead, the players themselves travel and become ambassadors for spreading the game. For example, every single player on the 1940 Stanley Cup hockey champion New York Rangers team was from Canada. The 1949 Minneapolis Lakers may have had a slight over-representation of players who went to college in Minnesota with three, but the rest of their players went to schools around the country in California and Utah and Indiana. The famous 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only National Football League team to go undefeated throughout the regular season and playoffs, only had two Floridians in a roster of 50+ players. Aside from some areas just growing better athletes in some sports, the implementation of player drafts to balance the selection of players by professional teams and eventually free-agency to allow players some say in where they play serve to scatter players throughout the country.

As the big four American sports have spread throughout the world and our professional leagues have simultaneously gotten better at finding talented international players, the division of players from team location has become even more obvious. The NHL and NBA wouldn’t be half as good without players mostly from Europe, nor would Major League Baseball be as compelling without its (mostly) Central American and Japanese imports. While some teams have specialized in finding players from a particular region — think the 1990s Detroit Red Wings and Russia or the current Red Wings and Sweeden —  international players have played anywhere and everywhere.

The idea of having teams made up of only players from the city or region they represent is a fun one and there are many counter-factual thought experiments around the internet in this vein. Yahoo recently posted a ranking of NBA teams if made up of only players from the team’s area. Max Preps published a map showing current NFL players by home state. It’s clear from the map that California, Florida, and Texas rule supreme, but I’d like to see the stats controlled by population to see which state is most efficient at producing NFL players. Quant Hockey has two interesting visuals about where NHL players come from. The first is a history of NHL players by home country, showing the increasing internationalization of the game and league. The second is an interactive map where you can look up the home towns of all your favorite (and least favorite for that matter) NHL players. The official NBA site has a similar map for NBA players. That the league itself bothered to put this together is an example of how important it feels the international nature of its sport is.

Sports teams aren’t all tied to locations. If we take a brief detour to the basketball crazy country of the Philippines, we find one of the most unique sports leagues out there, the Philippine Basketball Association. This league is made up of twelve teams. Team names are made up of three parts — a “company name, then [a] product, then a nickname – usually connected to the business of the company.” My favorite example is the six time champion Rain or Shine Elasto Painters owned by Asian Coatings Philippines, Inc. Teams are completely divorced from regional affiliation and play in whatever region the league rents for them to play in. This may seem like it’s completely crazy to those of us who are used to leagues in the United States, but it could be the future. Consider the increasing visibility of corporate sponsorships. In all leagues here, we have stadiums that are named after companies. The Los Angeles Lakers share the Staples Center with the Los Angeles Clippers and hockey’s Kings. The Carolina Panthers in the NFL play in the Bank of America Stadium. This isn’t a new fangled thing, remember that baseball’s historic stadium in Chicago, Wrigley field bears the name of the chewing gum its owner in the 1920s sold. The next likely step in the process is having corporate sponsorships show up on the jerseys of sports teams. This has already happened for most soccer leagues. Scott Allen wrote a nice history of this process for Mental Floss. The process has taken a long time, from the first corporate jersey in Uruguay in the 1950s to the final capitulation of the famous Barcelona football club in 2006. Allen provides several funny sponsorship stories, including my favorite, about the soccer team West Bromwich Albion:

From 1984 to 1986, the West Midlands Health Authority paid to have the universal No Smoking sign placed on the front of West Bromwich Albion’s jerseys. The campaign featured the slogan, “Be like Albion – kick the smoking habit.”

While the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB have resisted giving up their jerseys to their sponsors, speculation is out there that they soon will. Total Pro Sports has even designed a series of NBA jerseys with each team’s corporate sponsor on the front in anticipation.

Will the future be a complete takeover of teams from their old regional identities to new corporate ones? Or will we remain in an uneasy compromise between location and corporation?

We’ll find out together,
Ezra Fischer

What is a bye in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a bye in sports? I’ve heard that word in a bunch of different contexts but I’m not totally sure what it means.

Thanks,
Samuel


 

Dear Samuel,

In sports, a bye refers to a period when a team or player would normally compete but for one reason or another does not have to in this case. In mainstream sports like football, soccer, baseball, or basketball, it has two common uses. The first is a scheduled week off in sports where teams play weekly. The second is in the context of a playoffs or a tournament, when a team or player is rewarded for earlier success by getting a free pass into a later round. We’ll take a quick look at each meaning in this post and then spend a moment on the word’s history and derivation.

In leagues where teams play weekly, like professional and college football in the United States and soccer in most European leagues, teams sometimes have a week off. In the NFL, each team has one week off during a seventeen week schedule during which they play sixteen games. This is a great thing for players and coaches to rest up in the midst of a very physically and mentally challenging season. An unintended but intriguing consequence of this is that it wreaks havoc of fantasy football owners whose start/sit decisions are made a thousand times harder on weeks when important members of their team aren’t playing. When organized this way, a bye week is an equitable way of rewarding all teams with the same amount of rest.

In tournaments and playoffs, a bye week rewards a team or player by guaranteeing entry to a future round of play. Let’s take a single elimination tournament, like the NFL playoffs or a tennis tournament. If you wanted to design a tournament or playoff without byes, you would start at the finals (two teams) and go back: semifinals (four teams,) quarterfinals (eight teams,) the round before that (sixteen teams), and again (thirty-two,) once more (sixty-four.) Choose a number from those and you can have everyone play the same number of rounds. If, instead of four teams, you want to start with six, one easy way of handling it is to have two games (four teams) while two teams wait to play the winners of those games in the next round. This gives you two rounds of four teams each, followed by a final with two teams. It’s not “fair” because it gives a significant advantage to the teams who don’t have to play in the first round, so instead of selecting these teams or players at random, the reward of the bye goes to teams or players who have performed better in previous tournaments or in a regular season. Using byes in this way is one strategy the organizers of a sport have for balancing the excitement of an inclusive tournament with the goal of getting the two best teams or players into the finals so they can play each other.

The word “by” has lots of meanings in English but the one that I think most clearly represents its current use in a sports context is as an adverb, meaning “so as to go past” as in, “the reindeer ran by the puzzled pig.” This fits the use of the word in sports fairly well, even if the word has shifted from being used as an adverb to a noun: “The Dolphins have their bye week this week” or “Serena Williams has a first round bye in an upcoming tournament.” Another possibility, called out in this Yahoo answers post, is that the word is used because it means “something secondary.” This is supported by a great discussion of byes on Stackexchange’s English language site, where a person named Hugo points out that the first use of byes (and how they still work in some throw-back competitions like dog racing) were an attempt to make competition more fair, not less. When a dog (or human athlete) could not compete in a tournament, their opponent would have to complete a bye or a secondary form of the game. Advancement to the next round of the playoffs was guaranteed but, in order to keep things fair, the athlete would have to tire themselves out as much as they would have if they had had to play. In the case of dog racing, the dog would have to run the course anyway. In human sports, I’m guessing a substitute was brought in to compete just as a workout partner.

Hope this shed some light on what byes are,
Ezra Fischer

What are refs for?

Something interesting happened at the end of the National Football League (NFL) game last Thursday between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. A small interaction between a ref and a player played a potentially big role in the outcome of the game. Of interest to us is not the outcome of the game but what it says about the function of officials in football and how well that maps to our perception of authorities in the rest of society. Let’s start unpacking this thing from the trunk.

At the end of the game, the Patriots were up by two points. The Jets last chance to win the game was to kick a very long field goal to get three points. They lined up for a 58 yard field goal. This is not an impossible task but it’s very difficult. As the teams set up for the attempt, a Patriot defender was lined up directly opposite from the Jets center. On field goal attempts, the center is a specialist called a long snapper who’s entire job is to snap the ball back to kickers on field goal and punting plays. The New York Times ran an incredible video feature on how field goal attempts work back in 2013. Check it out here if you want to know how they work. Anyhow, the thing that’s important to us is that when the long snapper is doing his thing, he’s basically an open target to defenders who could really smush him into the ground. So, the NFL created a rule to protect the long snapper by mandating that defensive players may not line up directly opposite from him. The exact text of the rule from the NFL playbook is this: “When Team A presents a punt, field-goal, or Try Kick formation, a Team B player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, must have his entire body outside the snapper’s shoulder pads at the snap.”

The Patriots player was set up in an illegal position and, if the ball had been snapped while he was in that position, his team would have been assessed a five yard penalty. The Jets could then have tried a 53 yard field goal to win the game instead of a 58 yard one. How big of a difference is this? Pretty big. Jets kicker Nick Folk has made a little more than half his field goal attempts over 50 yards but never one over 56 yards. So, that penalty could really have helped the Jets. Unfortunately for them, a ref did something which is apparently very common and noncontroversial: he stepped forward, and nudged the player in the illegal position to warn him to move over so that he didn’t get a penalty. The defender moved, the long snapper snapped the ball, the kicker aimed low so that his kick had a chance to fly 58 yards, and a defender reached up with his hand and blocked the kick. No penalty was called. Game over, the Patriots win.

What’s so interesting about this is that we normally think of refs as being there to penalize wrongdoing not to prevent rule breaking or to protect the safety of the players. In the aftermath of the game, after initial claims of controversy and cheating, we learned that refs do this type of preventative action all the time. The most interesting part of the story became how non-controversial it was. Even the Jets coach admitted the ref was “not wrong doing what he did.” League spokesman Greg Aiello was interviewed by Dom Cosentino in his article about the incident for NJ.com. Read closely because Aiello offers two explanations:

It is a standard officiating procedure that occurs regularly… That rule was adopted for player safety purposes, another good reason to help avoid violations in advance.”

“Helping players get lined up properly takes place in other pre-snap situations to avoid administrative penalties… It’s a longstanding standard officiating mechanic.”

Preventing penalties serves the twin purposes of player safety and maximum entertainment even if it comes at the cost of some marginal amount of competitive balance. Teams that are slightly sloppier in their mechanics probably receive more help from refs than more precise teams. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Jets got a raw deal. Losing a game in part because a ref helped an opponent avoid a penalty doesn’t feel fair, even if the overall approach seems reasonable.

Does this same principle hold for authorities outside of sports? Take the approach of police to the dangerous practice of speeding. Police give out penalties for drivers they catch speeding, just like refs do for players caught breaking the rules. Police also do things to prevent speeding without giving tickets. If you’ve ever seen an empty police car at the side of the road or one of those digital readouts that show your current speed next to the speed limit, they are tactics the police use to slow people down without giving tickets. In this context, authority measures used to prevent violations before they occur don’t seem so bad, do they?

Why is the start of a season in sports so exciting?

Dear Sports Fan,

Sports seasons are so long — how can anyone get excited at the very start? It’s going to be at least six months until the playoffs in most sports.

Thanks,
Jan

— — —

Dear Jan,

The start of a season is exciting for many reasons and only a few of them have to do with making the playoffs. You’re absolutely right about how long sports seasons are. Take the National Hockey League (NHL) which is starting tonight. The NHL regular season is 82 games. It starts in early October and ends in mid-April. That’s a long, long time and a lot of games! The National Basketball Association plays the same number of games. Baseball plays 162 or roughly twice the number. Football is the outlier here with relatively short seasons — 16 games in the National Football League and around 12 for college teams. Setting football aside, the first few games for a baseball, basketball, or hockey team don’t actually mean very much in terms of their eventual record and qualification for the playoffs. A fan’s excitement for and enjoyment of the start of the season can’t be measured in wins and losses but it can be described. Let’s give it a shot.

Saying hello to old friends and meeting new ones

Part of following a team is getting to know the players on the team. The players on your favorite team or even their biggest rivals[1]  become like characters on a long-running sit-com. You learn their quirks. You cheer with them when they celebrate and you share their anger and frustration when the team is down. You track their various injury rehabilitations with bated breath. You might even wear a shirt with their name on the back. Players on your favorite team feel like an extension of your social circle in a weird way. The start of a season in sports is a little like the start of a season of a television show you really like or a new book in a series you love. You can’t wait to drop back in on their lives to see how they’re doing, if they’ve grown a funny beard, lost weight, gained weight, changed in any way. As a Penguins fan, I look forward to dropping back in on Sidney Crosby’s life just as much as I look forward to seeing what’s up with Lady Mary as a Downton Abbey fan.

Teams never stay the same from one season to a next. Players are traded, retire, or become free agents and move to another team. The first games of the season are your first chance to meet the new guys or gals on the team you follow. Some of them are players you know from other teams in the league. This can be great if you’ve always grudgingly respected their play. It can be challenging if you’ve always (sports) hated them and now you have to find a way to root for them. Rookies or players who have moved up from the minor leagues are always exciting to meet because their potential is unknown and therefore theoretically limitless.

Returning to ritual

Watching sports is also an important part of many fan’s social lives. Whether you go to games in person, watch them in a bar, or at home, watch them alone, with a partner, or with friends, watching and rooting can be a big part of a sport’s fans life. The start of the season means a return to social settings that you haven’t had access to during the offseason. It’s like the end of summer when you were a kid and all your friends got home from summer camp or the end of a long sustained period of craziness at work that allows you to rest, relax, and actually meet a friend for a drink instead of just heading home to rest up for the next day.

I have friends that I know I’m going to hear from ten times more during a particular sports season than I would otherwise. It’s great!

Getting a feel for your team

The first few games of a hockey, basketball, or baseball season may not have much of a statistical effect on their outcome for the year but that doesn’t mean fans don’t watch them attentively to get a feel for how their team might do. If you root for a team that just won a championship, you’re looking for evidence of the lethargy that often infects teams after they win. If you’re like most of us and you root for a team that did well but didn’t win the championship last year, you’re looking to see if the team has improved or taken a step back. How has a new coach affected the team’s play? How well are new players integrated into the team? Which players have improved? Which have lost a step? If you root for one of the worst teams in the league last year, the first few games may be your only time of true hope during the year.

Truthfully, the first few games probably can’t shed too much light on what the season will hold for your team, but that won’t stop fans from trying!

Enjoy the start of the season,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. note the outpouring of sincere love from Red Sox fans for the departing Derek Jeter

Have sports become politics?

Michael Sam as a star in college
Michael Sam as a star in college

Recently, I’ve been divided over what to write on Dear Sports Fan. How much space should I give to the various cultural issues around and within the sports world and how much should I stick to writing about the just the games. In my mind, there’s a three-tier setup being created. There’s the core of sports, which remains the games themselves, and then there’s the next layer that consists of all of the non-game stories that directly affect the game, like trade rumors, injuries, free agency, team chemistry. Finally, there’s the outside layer that consists of stories about athletes or other sports figures but not about sports. The core of my enjoyment of sports remains the games but increasingly, the headlines on most publications covering sports seem to be in the third group. Will Leitch, the founder of Deadspin.com, wrote a wonderful piece on this for New York Magazine recently. The piece is called, “From Mo’ne Davis to Michael Sam, the Culture Wars Have Invaded the Sports World.” I’m excited to share some of my favorite parts of it here but I suggest you read it in full over at nymag.com.

Leitch begins by talking about how little fun it’s been to cover the Michael Sam story for the past couple months because of how polarizing the response has been:

It isn’t just Sam. He’s just the most prominent symptom of a subtle but undeniable change in modern sports discourse, which is basically, and maddeningly, turning into politics.

He then moves over to sharing his memory of how loving, obsessing over, and covering sports used to be:

The fun of sports debates has always been how, even when they’re spirited and a little rancorous, they’re essentially harmless… Yankees fans and Red Sox fans hate each other, but only theoretically, and only on the surface: Their rancor was real but empty. Sports has allowed us to exercise our tribalist passions in basically trivial ways … and therefore productive and healthy ones… Not anymore. Now sports, like everything else, has been conquered by political tribalism.

I loved reading this article. I hope you do too.

What is a national sport?

This question was transcribed from Stack Exchange’s sports site, sports.stackexchange.com. Stack Exchange is one of the premier question and answer sites. I’ve re-written the question a little and anonymized the name of the person who asked the question. The original question is here.

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a national sport? What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? For example, I think soccer is the national sport of Italy but I’m not sure. Is there a list of official national sports?

Thanks,
Sandy from Stack Exchange

— — —

Kabaddi

 

Dear Sandy,

Your question is an interesting one. What makes something a national sport? There are two answers, one straightforward and one complex and hypothetical at best. Which answer you care about depends on how much you care about obscure laws.

“Laws?” you say. That’s right, laws! There are a small number of countries in the world and states within the United States that actually have official sports. Just like the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue water lily, the national sport is volleyball. Canada has two national sports, lacrosse for the summer and ice hockey for the winter. As for states, the state bird of New Hampshire, the Purple Finch, is joined by its state sport of skiing. North Carolina made the sport of stock car racing officially its state sport in 2011. Perhaps North Carolina has a thing for droning, buzzing sounds because its state insect is the honeybee! These are just a few examples of sports that have become officially, in law, representative of a nation or state.

It’s a funny concept though, a national sport. One of the lovely things about sports is how they so frequently are able to cross boundaries of culture, ethnicity, race, and nation. The Olympics, the World Cup, even the Little League World Series, which might seem like the most American thing around, has been international since the 1950s. How can a country claim a sport that’s loved world-wide? Indeed, that seems to have been on some countries’ minds when they selected a national sport. Take Brazil, which, if you watched the World Cup this past summer, you know is one of the most soccer crazed countries in the world. Why is Brazil’s national sport capoeira not soccer? Or the Philippines, a country who loves basketball more than anyone, but whose national sport is Arnis, a weapons based martial art? I honestly don’t know, but my guess is that soccer and basketball seemed too international and therefore not suitable to become the national sport.

That leads us back to your initial question. What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? Reasoning from the sports chosen as official national sports, I would say these criteria are important:

  • The sport should have been invented in the country. Example: lacrosse in Canada.
  • The sport should be extremely popular. Example: kabaddi in Bangladesh. 
  • If it’s not popular, the sport should be “important” in some cultural way and therefore worthy of conservation, reenactment, and reverence. Example: Charreada in Mexico.
  • When possible, the sport should convey something meaningful about the country, ideally in a kick-ass way. Example: Varzesh-e Bastani in Iran.

These same factors are important when talking about unofficial national sports too, but here I think that popularity takes precedence. There’s no need for unofficial national sports to be unique to each country. One could easily say that soccer is the unofficial national sport of Brazil and Italy and the Netherlands and many other countries. Cricket would be another popular choice as an unofficial national sport in former British colonies in Asia or the Caribbean. Then there are some countries which, for reasons of nature or nurture, seem to produce an inordinate number of skilled athletes in particular sports. These too could be said to be unofficial national sports, like marathoning in Kenya, sprinting in Jamaica, or Cross Country Skiing in Norway.

National sports may shift over time, especially if they are left unofficial, as most are. Forty years ago, baseball would have been the most likely unofficial national sport for the United States. Some sports fans still reflexively call it the “national pastime.” Today, that sport is football. Things change. As we covered a few weeks ago, the unofficial national sport of Poland has been soccer but American football is rapidly gaining steam there. Who know, in time any sport could gain in popularity pretty much anywhere, or maybe even a brand new sport could take over!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

What is a Conference in Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a conference in sports? What makes a conference a conference? And why is it called a conference?

Thanks,
Erik

— — —

Dear Erik,

Thanks for your question. A conference is a collection of teams that play more against each other than they do against the other teams in their sport. As you’ll see, conferences have various histories and meanings in different sports. In some sports conferences are defined geographically. In some they are the remnants of history. In some sports the conferences are actually pseudo competitive bodies themselves and in other sports they are cooperating divisions within a single organization. Conferences vary in importance and independence from sport to sport. Before we get into the differences, let’s start with some general truths about conferences that apply across (almost) all sports.

Teams within a conference play more games against each other than against the other teams in their sport. It varies by league and by sport. In the NHL, for example, teams play at least three times per season against every other team in their conference but only twice against teams from the other conference. In Major League Baseball teams only play 20 of 162 games against teams from the other conference.

Conferences crown conference champions in all sports. In many leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB, playoff brackets are organized by conference. Teams in the AFC (one of the NFL conferences) only play teams from the AFC in the playoffs until the Super Bowl. So, the conference champion is basically the winner of the semi-final game. In other sports, mostly college sports, the conferences only really have meaning during the regular season, so conferences have different ways of deciding a champion. Depending on the sport and conference, there may be a conference tournament at the end of the regular season or a single championship game between the two teams with the best records in the conference. In some conferences, like Ivy League basketball, the champion is just the team with the best record in games against other teams in the Ivy League.

What Sports Have Geographically Defined Conferences?

A geographic division of teams is perhaps the most sensible way of defining a conference. Since teams within a conference play more games against each other than against teams outside of their conference, organizing geographically saves money, time, and wear and tear on the players by reducing the overall travel time during a season. The NBA and NHL are organized in this way. Both leagues have an Eastern and a Western Conference and both stay reasonably true to geographic accuracy. The NBA has a couple borderline assignments with Memphis and New Orleans in the West and Chicago and Milwaukee in the East. The NHL recently realigned its conferences, in part to fix some long-standing issues with geography like Detroit being in the West. Geographic conferences seem logical because they simplify operations for the teams within them. Many college conferences began geographically but as we’ll see later, that’s no longer their defining characteristic or driving force.

What Sports Have Historically Defined Conferences?

It’s easy to think about the sporting landscape as a set of neat monopolies. The NFL rules football, the NBA, basketball, the MLB, baseball, and the NHL, hockey. It wasn’t always that simple. Most of these professional leagues are the product of intense competition between leagues and only became supreme after either beating or joining their rival. The NFL was formed by the merger between two competitive leagues, the traditional NFC and the upstart AFC. The NBA beat out its biggest rival, the ABA, in 1976 but took many ideas from it, like the three-point line but alas not the famous ABA multi-colored ball. Believe it or not, Major League Baseball was not a single entity until 2000! Before then its two conferences (still called “leagues” because of their history as separate entities but pretty much, they are conferences,) the National League and the American League were independent entities.

Two leagues, Major League Baseball and the National Football League continue to have conferences defined by their competitive history. In baseball, the American League and National League each have teams across the entire country, often even in the same city like the New York Yankees (AL) and Mets (NL), Chicago with its White Sox (AL) and Cubs (NL) and Los Angeles/Anaheim with the Angels (AL) and Dodgers (NL). The NFL has similarly kept its historic leagues, the AFC or American Football Conference and NFC or National Football Conference. Each NFL Conference is broken up into three geographic divisions, East, Central, and West, but they all play more against the teams in their conference, even far away, than the teams close by but in the other conference. In the NFL the two conferences play under exactly the same rules but in baseball there are still some major historic differences in how the game is played, most significantly that pitchers have to also bat in the National League but are allowed to be replaced by a designated hitter in the American League.

What Sports Have Conferences that are Competitive?

So far we’ve looked at geographic and historically defined conferences. It’s clear that geographic conferences don’t compete against each other — they are part of the same entity. You can imagine that because of their history, the conferences in the NFL and MLB may be a little competitive with each other, like brothers or sisters. There are still some conferences though where competition against other conferences is their key driving force. These conferences are largely found in college sports.

Most college conferences have geographic names — the Big East, the South-Eastern Conference (SEC), the Pacific Athletic Conference (PAC 12), the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Sun Belt, and the Mountain West. When they formed, they formed for all the reasons we discussed above in the geographic section but also to take advantage of financial arrangements that could only be made together, most importantly television contracts. As the money has gotten bigger, especially in college football, the competition between conferences for the best teams and the most lucrative contracts has become incredibly intense. In recent years, you’ve seen conferences poach teams from one another in a race to provide television viewers with the most competitive leagues to follow and therefore generate gobs of profit. This scattered the geographic nature of these conferences so that a map showing which teams are in which conferences now looks like a patchwork quilt.

Like it did with the ABA and NBA, the NFC and AFC, and the NL and AL, my guess is that this competition between conferences in college sports will resolve itself into some more stable league form. No one knows when this will happen but my guess is that it will be in the next ten or fifteen years. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

Thanks for asking about conferences,
Ezra Fischer

Time for Other Television

tv watching
Now is your time for other television. Hit it!

This is a public service announcement on behalf of all of you who share a television with a sports fan. Now is your time for other television! It’s a brief lull in the sports calendar. The excitement of baseball’s opening games has worn out and the realization that there are 155 more games to go has descended. March Madness is over. Football is a distant mirage. The NBA and NHL regular seasons are wrapping up but the playoffs are coming soon. The NHL playoffs begin in five days, the NBA playoffs in less than a month. Now is your chance to dominate! Binge-watch True Detective, Downton Abbey, or Orange is the New Black. Watch new episodes of Mad Men or Game of Thrones live. Put your feet up and lackadaisically jock the remote while you go through episodes of some pleasurable show like the Real Housewives of North Dakota or Say Yes to the Dress, Paisley Edition.

The television is yours, enjoy it!

[Editor’s note: if you live with a golf fan, your results may vary. The biggest golf tournament of the year, The Masters, just started today. But really, if you live with a golf fan, you already know this.]

How Tough is Too Tough in Sports?

There’s a great scene in the Marx Brothers movie, Monkey Business, where a mobster mistakenly hires Chico and Harpo as henchmen. He asks Chico how tough the two of them are and Chico responds:

You pay little bit, we’re little bit tough.
You pay very much, very much tough.
You pay too much, we’re too much tough.
How much you pay?
I pay plenty.
Then we’re plenty tough.

We all know that people who play sports are tough — it’s one of the things most sports fans admire about the players — but how tough is too tough? And what is the right way to respond as fans to that toughness?

Boston Bruins v Vancouver Canucks - Game Seven
If Rich Peverley does have to hang them up for good, hopefully having won the cup a few years ago with Boston will soften the blow of early retirement.

This question came to the forefront this week when Rich Peverley, an ice hockey player on the Dallas Stars, collapsed during a game. His heart had stopped but thanks to the quick action of team doctors and his teammates who immediately piled onto the ice en masse in a successful effort to stop the game and signal the seriousness of the situation as quickly as possible, Peverley’s heart was restarted and he is in stable condition. Peverley had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in a pre-season physical and had a procedure designed to fix it. The game was (rightly, in my mind) postponed by the NHL following the incident.

Soon after it was reported that Peverley was in stable condition, a story started floating around, sourced from the Dallas Stars twitter account:

 

As Deadspin commented, “The most Hockey dude ever is in stable condition at a Dallas hospital.”

And indeed, there is something admirable about Peverley’s determination to get back into the game at all costs. It’s similar to the admiration we have for hockey players like Patrice Bergeron who played the final game of last year’s playoffs for the Boston Bruins with broken ribs, torn rib cartilage, torn rib muscles, and a separated shoulder. It’s the admiration we have for basketball players who “walk-off” ankles that we’ve just seen bend in ways that shouldn’t allow their owners to be upright, much less playing a sport. It’s not limited to men either, who can forget gymnast Kerri Strug landing a vault on a broken ankle for the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team or U.S. Women’s National Team player Abby Wambach going up for headers while blood streamed down her head from an earlier injury. A big part of a fans enjoyment of sports comes from admiration for people willing and able to do things that you, the viewer, could not do. Playing through injuries is part of that.

There’s a flip-side to this toughness though. There are some injuries that shouldn’t be played through: head injuries and heart injuries or conditions seem like obvious candidates to us but they are routinely ignored and even hidden by players. Bruce Arthur of the National Post wrote an article about this (as well as the strange need of some hockey fans to denigrate other sports as less tough) yesterday. He writes of Peverley, “Asking to go back in wasn’t so much about toughness as a form of insanity.” He also reminds the reader that two basketball players, Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis both died of heart problems on the court. When Peverley went down, many people thought of Jiri Fischer, a hockey player who was similarly brought back to life after a heart issue during a game, but there are other examples: Corey Stringer was a prominent football player who died of complications from heat stroke but there have been many others, Kris Letang, a player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, had a stroke this year resulting from a small hole in his heart. He is recovering now but managed to get to the training facility and fly with the team to an away game before the trainers found out and hospitalized him. The concussion story is well documented but it’s worth repeating that a big problem with preventing concussions, particularly the far more damaging second and third concussions in a short period, is that players at every level actively hide them from their coaches and trainers.

So, how tough is too tough in sports? I guess the answer is: when it comes to heads and hearts, don’t be tough; when it comes to anything else, be as tough as you want. That’s a pretty hard psychological change to ask athletes to make though: put the team before your knees, your legs, your arms, but not your head or your heart. It would be better to put structures in place in all sports that, without increasing the incentive of players to hide head and heart injuries, identified them and treated the players medically as people first and players a far distant second. I think it’s okay to enjoy a player whose heart tells him to get back into the game even after it’s just been shocked back to life as long as, as Barry Petchesky of Deadspin wrote, his coach, teammates, team doctors, and the league itself were all determined that it was “never, ever going to happen.”