Four months ago I moved to D.C., having spent the past 30 years living in Europe.
I am American (a Boston native) but proudly consider myself to be teetering on Euro trash status given that I have lived the majority of my life abroad and most of that time working across sports, entertainment, strategy, sponsorship and brand experience. With this cataclysmic shift in reality comes a marked change in how one (in this case, I) perceive things, especially when looking at the sports industry. Funny how the brain can trick you into thinking differently without you realising it … So with this as the background, I would like to share four key differences that although I have always known, the true reality of each of them within a sports context only hit home once I returned to the motherland.
The first key difference is March Madness. This is a fan and brand’s dream come true whose religious like status cannot be underestimated when it comes to awareness, engagement and bragging rights. In fact, this may be the closest thing to nirvana that devoted basketball followers of all ages get to without having to pay for a ticket to heaven.
Yes, football is the world’s most watched and played sport (4 billion viewers depending upon which site you visit, with cricket coming in at a mere 2.5 billion) and yes, the World Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Premier League galvanise fans globally but honestly, the country’s devotion to March Madness blew my mind. And my knowledge of ‘brackets’ has in turn skyrocketed.
For those not in the know, here is a quick definition: “The time of the annual NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) college basketball tournament, generally throughout the month of March.” Let’s consider this carefully – we are talking about college basketball folks, NOT the NBA. From the in-office pool, to the white noise of the TV on in the background, to the betting, to the uber pride of alma maters flying high, topped with ‘in your face’ as a regular conversation starter – it is unreal.
Here is a little fun fact to pull out at your next Trivial Pursuit evening. According to a 2016 study by athenahealth network, ‘vas madness’ is real, i.e. there was a 30% increase in vasectomy procedures during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament than in an average week. Although recovery time for each person varies, doctors advise patients to spend at least two or three days at home after the procedure, leaving plenty of time to rest in front of the TV (i.e. away from the office). Silly me, I thought more babies would be created during this heightened period of sports frenzy.
Perhaps the Olympics in the host city can rival this level of sports hysteria, activation and constant chatter, but from a nationwide bragging rights perspective (and highly committed one that occurs annually for a month), this is unprecedented.
God bless the BBC: ads, ads and more ads
The second is the ad break. Mind numbing stuff for the most part and with a seriously outdated approach to engaging the viewing audience. To be honest, I just did not appreciate how much of our viewing pleasure is downright sullied because of the incessant amount of ads that are shown ad nauseum. It is at these times when I actively embrace a moment of silence and think sweet thoughts about the BBC. I miss Auntie, but I digress …
On the plus side, at least around that other global sports behemoth that demands attention (aka the Super Bowl), this has propelled brands into becoming more creative, more experience led and more memorable. But this is only once a year. Despite the myriad of options available to a sports viewer, sometimes you just want to turn on the TV and watch the game without constant interruptions. Maybe it is just me, but I am convinced that the noise levels increase as soon as the ads come on, in much the same way that I was certain little people lived in my TV when I was very young: as soon as I turned the TV back on, the programme would simply resume. Right?! Europe 1, U.S. 1. We move on.
News flash: football is not the only sport out there
The third revelation (perhaps that is too big a word) is around the vast array of sports that genuinely receives air play, which makes this discovery a breath of fresh air: there are more sports regularly discussed here than in Europe, and one is not usually mocked for daring to mention something other than what is fondly known as ‘the beautiful game.’
I will not question 4 billion people’s commitment to the game of two halves, but it is genuinely refreshing to be able to jump in and out of conversation around a plethora of sports without fear of reproach, unless of course you happen to be supporting the perceived ‘wrong’ team. But at least you have got the choice of lots of teams to be ostracised about vs just the one. That is kind of cool, no?
By the way, I happened to wear my Dolphins at Wembley sweatshirt to the office a few weeks back and was literally hissed at because a) I am a New England Patriots fan, so how could I (the cheek of me to buy non-authorised merch!) and b) the Dolphins in D.C?! It was a nerve wracking day for me as I did my best to tiptoe around the ‘what is acceptable vs what is clearly going to provoke some serious eye rolling and questions about my moral compass’ test. But it is fun, in an oddly satisfying way.
Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment, and of course, there is also a game
I do not really need to spend too much time on this because it is simply an accepted fact: American sports are two parts entertainment, one part sports.
Do not get me wrong – I do not for a moment think that the athleticism is sub-par but rather even in the most nail biting of plays, there seems to always be some level of entertainment peppered into that play, by design or by default. Case in point is watching King James work his magic on the court day in and day out, with one of particularly outrageous plays on 7 May when the Cavs took on (and down) the Raptors, 128-93.
Yes, the major leagues here have pre-, during and post-game entertainment. That is just part of our sports package offering but there is something else going on that seems to be innate in the athletes as well as the commentators who are in their own right, colorful, joke-filled, whoop-whooping, hand slapping, jaw-dropping ‘wanna be’ stand-up comedians. There is no getting round it. Without the entertainment, would fans even show up to watch the games or tune in to find out more?
Let’s face it, being a sports fan in Europe means less flash and more play by play scrutiny with just the tiniest bit of pixie dust thrown in. And even then, that dust settles very quickly.
Since my return, I have been to basketball games and hockey games. I have lived through March Madness and before my definitive big move, went to a baseball game, something I had not done since I was a kid who on occasion went to Fenway Park to root on the Red Sox. I find myself spending almost as much time watching the fans as the game itself – fans here are just different. The atmosphere is party like, noisy, food and beer fueled … and yes, there is still a game going on.
So what is my takeaway from this culture clash? After much soul searching I have come to realise that when it comes to sport, I am just as American as the next guy sitting next to me devouring a slice, necking a beer and craning over small children to get the T-shirt that has just been blasted into the stands. No shame here …
My name is Fredda Hurwitz and (I think) I am an American sports fan.
Fredda Hurwitz is a Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer at RedPeg Marketing
The column was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 11 (May 2018).