Saturday, September 16, 2006

American Football - College Style

I like that is. No, not soccer of course, but American football. Few outside of America care much about it - which ironically is what most Americans think about soccer. Happily that US/soccer situation has been changing a lot over the last decade thanks to good results by both the mens and womens national soccer teams.

Right now I'm watching college football which needs a little bit of explaining as there is no such soccer equivalent in the UK. When I came here a decade ago as a 3 week at a time summer tourist, I'd never heard of college football as, like it's professional big brother, it's not played in the summer.

In those days I liked to visit football stadiums when they were near my routes as saying I was from the UK usually got me in for a brief personal tour. I never wanted to pay for an official tour as I really wasn't that interested. Then one summer I got to Dallas, Tx and went to their football arena and once again, talked myself inside for some photos. I was left on my own and was clicking away and thinking what a vast and impressive place it was - when it hit me ! Where was the roof ?? Surely the Dallas Cowboys stadium had a roof ??? I'd seen it on tv, so where was it now ???

I went up to a groundsman and asked..........this IS the Cowboys stadium isn't it ? He give me a withering look like I'd stepped off a banana boat and said......hell no, son, this is the Cotton Bowl - the Cowboys play at Texas Stadium on the other side of the city !!

In those pre-internet days, I had to wait till I got home to look it up as I didn't want to add to my 'shame' by asking who DID play there. I was stunned to find out that this huge stadium, seating almost 70,000, would sit empty most of the year. Not only had the Cowboys left it in 1970, but even colleges found it too small to be of much use to them. You gotta love that.

College football is HUGE. Games regularly get much bigger crowds than NFL ones and most college stadiums can hold well over 80,000 and some over 100,000. 'My' state, Michigan, has the largest of the lot and when Michigan plays neighbouring Ohio, the crowd is around 107,000.
The record crowd was only a few years ago and was over 111,000. And this isn't the only college team in the state !! As well as Michigan (also known as U of M), there is Michigan State and Central Michigan to name but 2 more. Every state is like this so there are literally hundreds of these impressive stadiums all over the country putting the capacity of the new Wembley Stadium to shame.

The reason for these large crowds is based on history. These colleges have been around a long time (well in American terms anyway) and several family generations have graduated from them. The colleges never move and so there builds up a long tradition of supporting a team and going to the games. In the NFL, teams have owners and so get bought and sold and often move to a different state altogether. Given the distances involved here, fans find they can no longer go to games when their team is moved elsewhere and so crowds are nowhere near as high as they could and should be in the professional game.

How can colleges afford to build, modernise and manage these huge stadiums ? Well I'd assume it's down to the fact that when you get 100,000 paying customers every 2 weeks of the season and the players (being students) get nothing, then there is an awful lot of money flying around and a large slice must go into the college coffers. Leeds University must be drooling.

Here are 2 statistics for you - since they shutout Purdue on November 8th, 1975, every Michigan home game has had an attendance exceeding 100,000. In 2002, they had an average attendance of 110,576 fans at its home games. Staggering.

Anyway back to the present and I'm watching Michigan playing Notre Dame. The 'Fighting Irish' as they are known (that's Notre Dame by the way) are an Indiana college team that even some non-Americans may have heard of due to the excellent Rudy movie. Just as there are no good soccer movies, in my opinion there are no good football movies, or baseball, or basketball or.....ok you get the drift. Sport and movies do not mix. Usually. But the 1993 movie, Rudy, was an exception and the ending always bring a tear to even my cynical eye.

Today is the 3rd week of the season and with only seconds remaining in this game, Michigan is winning 47-21 to get a 'played 3, won 3' record. Games are spread over numerous tv channels from noon till late at night so Saturdays from late summer really are college football days. Sundays belong to the NFL.

Where does all this leave us ? Well when we Brits try and push soccer onto Americans and unknowingly use crowd statistics to try and impress them, it's not surprising that Americans look bewildered. Remember the Michigan statistics earlier ? A home gate over 100,000 every game for the past 31 years ? Well my home city, Leeds, has the 3rd largest metropolitan population in the UK and has only one soccer team to support. A week ago it played at home and the attendance was............16.268. Nuff said.

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