Update: I originally wrote this article when I was living and working in NYC, but other than a SuperBowl party, I didn't get to see an NFL game live. That all changed on my return, so I've updated this article.
Almost all the world plays (English) football. No matter where I have gone, football seems to be the unifying language. Roughly a third of the world also plays cricket, and rugby has far surpassed its humble origins in the English Midlands into a truly global sport played across all hemispheres.
American sports on the other hand are not so well known outside their home country. Baseball is limited to the American continent, surrounding islands and parts of Pacific Asia (i.e. Japan and Korea), ice hockey is limited to the North American continent and parts of northern Europe, American football seems to be just the States. In fact, its only basketball that has a somewhat global following, so unsurprisingly its only basketball that I had any familiarity with.
However, wanting to immerse myself in American culture, and being a keen sportsman myself, I thought watching as many American sports as I could was a way of better understanding the American psyche and its people.
NBA (Basketball) - New York Knicks
I figured a sport that I had some previous exposure to might be a good place to start. During the basketball boom of the late 90's, Channel 4 in the UK used to carry play-off games. I can still clearly remember a couple of the finals I watched with my brother, specifically the two series' between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. Now, I was a bit too young to understand too much of the game, but I do remember being captivated by it. After that, nothing. Other than the odd NBA video game, and a few of the more famous players, I didn't really know what was going on.
I visited 'the worlds most famous arena'. Madison Square Gardens to watch the biggest New York basketball team, the Knicks, take on Miami Heat. I will say MSG is much bigger in reality than it looks like on TV although it is horribly dated, its definitely stuck in the 1980s. At one time, both of these sides were successful, but 2017 was definitely not their year. It was like watching two drunken teams attempt to dribble a basketball around. It was pretty shocking.
The arena itself was only about three quarters full, and it was mostly tourists. There was absolutely no atmosphere and it looked like everyone, spectators to players were just going through the motions: this was something they had to do rather than something they wanted to do. But that wasn't even the worst thing.
The commercialism was ridiculous, and you will come to see its a running theme in American sports. Every couple of minutes the game would stop and commercials would start playing. I know it sounds strong, but it was vomit inducing. The half time (which seemed to last an eternity) was a strange pop concert and people would randomly start shooting t-shirts into the crowd just to keep their interest. In all honesty, my brother and some of my friends had attended basketball games at MSG previously and warned me they aren't particularly fun things to watch and I wish I had listened. It's the only sport I walked out of before the end of the game.
I told a colleague at work about my experience and he seemed troubled. A huge Boston Celtics fan, he convinced me to give the NBA one more chance and to watch a play-off game. I figured why not, and I tuned in to watch the Golden State Warriors play the Cleveland Cavaliers - and I was hooked. Talented basketball players, good games, and a much better atmosphere. It didn't completely erase the stink of my MSG experience, but it definitely went someway to rekindling my love for basketball.
MLB (Baseball) - New York Yankees
This was the sport everyone told me I would dislike - and strangely this is one the one I liked best. It was also the place I was told was most commercialised, and sure there were prominent advertising hoardings but as a whole, in terms of commercialism it was easily the least frustrating.
Firstly, lets start of with the Yankees stadium. The stadium was built in 2009 and locals complain that the new stadium has no atmosphere and is very sterile, think of how Arsenal fans talk about the Emirates and Highbury. From the outside, the stadium is fairly unimpressive, even a little ugly, but inside it is one of the nicest stadiums I have ever been to, on par with Wembley and the large Spanish stadiums. In fact, in terms of appearance it has the modernity of the former, the city views of the Nou Camp but the look of the Santiago Bernabeu. The stadium holds roughly 50,000 but thats because one side has barely any tiers. The tiered side is genuinely impressive.
The Yankees are one of the most recognised sports teams in the world and regularly top rankings for the highest valued sports brand in the world and there are sellers of Yankees merchandise both official and unofficial inside and around the stadium.
The sport is similar to test match cricket, no one really goes for the excitement, but everything else around it. Typical American foods such as hot dogs, and cheese covered fries are complemented by cold drinks. I thought the rules would be pretty complicated, but a colleague of mine that I attended the game with explained everything and it wasn't too difficult to understand.
The game I saw involved the high flying Yankees take on another team doing well at the moment, the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees are the equivalent of Man United back home, a team with a track record of success but resented throughout the country. The same can be said for the New England Patriots in American football. The game was a lot of fun and lasted just short of three hours and in that time I saw four home runs.. I saw baseballs fly into the stand a number of times, and they are pretty dense, if they hit someone they will do damage.
As I sat in the Yankees stadium watching the sun set and the game played under floodlights, I realised that the moment I was in was perhaps my favourite of my entire stay in New York. If there is one sport that I would recommend visitors to attend live, a baseball game on a sunny day would definitely be at the top of my list. New York has two teams: the iconic New York Yankees, and the more gritty New York Mets. Yankees is the tourist attraction, Metz has a more local support.
NHL (Ice Hockey) - New York Islanders
As with baseball, ice hockey was another sport that I really wanted to see on account of its novelty. I've been ice skating a fair few times, and during my visit to Toronto, I picked up a Canadian ice hockey jersey. I also remember playing NHL video games so I was really looking forward to watching a game.
Tickets for the most popular ice hockey team in the New York, the Rangers, were fairly expensive so I opted for the much cheaper New York Islanders tickets. Unlike the Rangers, who play in MSG, the Islanders are located just over the East River in Brooklyn at the Barclays Centre. I like the Barclays Centre, its a fairly new arena and its almost as large as MSG. However, unlike MSG, the arena is very modern and state of the art.
Neither the Islanders, nor the Rangers were having a particularly good season but I got to see a fairly good game as the Islanders took on the Ottawa Senators. As with pretty much every other American sport, the atmosphere wasn't great, its nothing like football back home. I was lucky enough to see my favourite club Aston Villa in an FA Cup Final, live at Wembley and its always going to be difficult to live up to that atmosphere, that being said, being in a stadium without no chanting other than "defence" is very strange, and a little annoying. In fact, every so often, the big screen TV would show text asking fans to make noise. It was very cheesy and a little cringy but it happened in the basketball and also in baseball.
However, other than that minor gripe, I actually really enjoyed the game. It was much more free flowing than both basketball and american football and faster paced than baseball. Don't get me wrong, the annoying commercialism was still there, but again, it was palatable. I found myself getting immersed in the game and it was quite funny watching the fans trying to egg the players into fighting each other. I definitely had a good time and would recommend watching an ice hockey game if you manage to get cheap tickets.
NFL (American Football) - New York Giants
The most popular sport in the US is American Football. I never really understood the name because they hardly ever use their feet. Regardless, some of the largest stadiums in the world house famous football teams and football games are watched across the country. It's a sport that is almost entirely based within the United States and has failed to catch on globally, although two NFL games a season are now played in Wembley. Not that it matters too much, a domestic population of over 350 million means football games are some of the most watched games on the planet, the SuperBowl is only second to the Champions League in terms of annual sporting viewing figures.
I arrived in New York toward the end of the football season so therefore missed out on most of the football action (although I later returned to watch it, more on that below), but I arrived a couple of weeks before the SuperBowl and a manager of mine decided to invite me over to her house for a SuperBowl party. In the lead up to the event, almost all commercials on TV began to take advantage of the SuperBowl, having some form of American football angle.
SuperBowl parties are a big thing in the States, groups of friends get together for large house parties during the game and there are some foods that are synonymous with these gatherings, top of the list being wings. It was a lot of eating and drinking and it seemed the game was just a backdrop.
Let me get all the negatives out the way first. Firstly, commercialism. The amount of commercials or product placement was so bad, I actually began to get annoyed. It was borderline sickening. The game would cut away every 3/4 minutes to a commercial and even during the game commentators would drop the names of different brands. Commercial space during the SuperBowl is notoriously competitive and commands record prices. My hosts told me people watch the game for the commercials as much as they do the sport. To me this was beyond strange. What's worse, half way through the game, there was a huge pop concert. In fact, 10 minutes into the performance and I'd forgotten if I was watching a football game with a half time show, or a pop concert with some football attached. Finally, the stop start nature of the game means its difficult to get into, it also explains why association football is called the beautiful game with its free-flowing nature.
And now the positives. I liked the fact that a game could bring friends together, and more importantly a country together. The SuperBowl is an institution and is incomparable to things like the FA Cup or even the Champions League. I also managed to watch a particularly exciting edition, as the New England Patriots took on the Atlanta Falcons in what was the only SuperBowl to go into overtime and saw the largest points deficit comeback in history. By the end of the game, even I was beginning to feel the excitement.
Update: I finally got to experience a live game on my return to New York City. Tickets aren't cheap (mine cost just over $150 from StubHub), there are only something like 8 home games a season, so unlike sports like baseball, there's very few opportunities to see your favourite teams. I went to the spectacular MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to see the New York Giants take on the New Orleans Saints.
Getting to the stadium isn't easy. It's far enough out the city (and the state) that you have to get either a couple of trains or special shuttle buses. I paid $6 for the bus. I ended up queuing for over an hour and a half, and missed the start of the game. The queue starts at the bottom of the Port Authority bus station on 42nd street and snakes up a couple of floors. The bus parked right outside the stadium and it was a short walk across the car park.
I'm going to be honest, in terms of breathtaking size, the MetLife stadium is more impressive than Wembley and akin to the Bernabeu or Nou Camp. I went on a warm evening and sat in the nosebleeds but sight lines were good and just the sight of the stadium itself was incredible. The experience was similar to the Yankees in terms of the wider experience outside the sport - the late afternoon sun, and lit up evening providing a fantastic backdrop to the game.
I didn't exactly understand what the rules of the game were, I started to get into it the further it went, but like other sports, there is far too much commercialism and it is too 'stop-start' for my liking. That being said, I left the game with a much more positive opinion on the game than when I first entered.
The thing that surprised me most about this (and other sports here) is that home and away fans intermingle, in front of us were a couple of Saints fans cheering their team - that would never happen in England. Sitting next to me were the most stereotypical American 'teen movie' type of people. Probably a group of 12-15 shouting random things and sometimes just 'whooping'. They were friendly enough (and very polite to me), but borderline cringe. The atmosphere, while good at times, still felt contrived with a video screen telling people when to 'make noise'.
It's expensive, no doubt, but an experience I enjoyed. If you've worked for a few years and have the spare cash, it's a spectacle that is worth seeing. I would never been able to afford this in my early 20s, and if it's too much, it's something worth waiting for until you get the money.
WWE Pro Wrestling - Raw
This is more sports-entertainment than sport, but its about as American as a sport gets. I grew up watching the old WWF. I asked about an old Ultimate Warrior figure I had seen in our house and my mom told me before my dad passed away, we would watch wrestling together. After he died, other than hearing names such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, I had no idea what it was. It was only when I turned 11 that I began to get into wrestling again watching wrestlers like Stone Cold, The Rock, HHH and the Undertaker during the peak of the Attitude Era. I stopped watching again in the early 2000's, turning back every now and then, usually during Wrestlemania season, but on the whole I had lost touch with the goings on in the wrestling world.
When I got to New York, I realised that the now WWE were coming into town two weeks before the annual Wrestlemania and I decided to buy a couple of tickets for WWE Raw Live and take a friend with me. As soon as I reached gates and saw the type of people that were going and I understood why I had stopped watching it. I remained skeptical as to how much I was going to enjoy it when I walked into the beautiful Barclays Centre. However, all of that changed when old favourites made their entrances. The appearance of Chris Jericho, Mick Foley, HHH, Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker (two weeks before his retirement) made me feel like that 11 year kid again. I couldn't help but get caught up in the chants and the age old 'boo the bad guys' and 'cheer the good guys', something so simple but effective got me caught up in the whole spectacle.
That being said, as with most American sports, I found the whole experience to be very frustrating. Every 5/10 minutes the in ring action would stop as they went to commercials. At other times, you could tell when the TV had cut to adverts. Both me and my friend were getting really annoyed by the end, in fact I estimated that more than half of the 3 hour show was commercials or cut scenes.
I enjoyed my chance to watch different American sports, some more than others. My favourite was baseball, the whole experience being unlike anything else. The feeling of being in a beautiful stadium on a warm summers evening, relaxing watching sport was perfect. This wasn't too dissimilar to the experience I had at the NFL, although it was more energetic. The free-flowing style of ice hockey was a nice contrast to the stop-start nature of most American sports and I had a great time watching that too. The NBA finals saved what was otherwise a forgettable live New York Knicks experience.
It hasn't all been positive. The commercialism is ridiculous and emphasises some of the downsides of the States, specifically the focus on materialism. Unlike chants in football which can be fun and banterful, chants in every single American sport were so cringeworthy that I wanted to cover my ears. And thats if there were any chants. The atmosphere in almost all the sports I saw live was flat, completely different to football back home.
If you find yourself in New York, I would definitely recommend a trip to the Yankees Stadium for a baseball game if the weather is good. An ice hockey game is also a lot of fun. Unlike the UK, there is a huge secondary market for sports tickets, and I used both Stub Hub and Ticket Master to find best priced tickets.
*originally posted, October 2018*
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.