Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Baseball is currently of some interest in Barcelona since the European championship is being played here. The Netherlands and Italy are the favorites. Of course, a European baseball tournament is like an American cricket tournament.

So José Martí Gómez, local know-it-all, has an article in today's Vanguardia on why some sports have different levels of success in different countries, specifically the United States and Spain. Says Martí Gómez:

I think my long stay in the United States, completed with experiences in previous summers, allows me to understand why baseball has not caught on in Spain.

My guess is:

1. Baseball is rather slow and not too exciting if you don't know what's going on.
2. If you've never played a sport, it's hard to know what's going on. Baseball equipment is expensive and a field requires a lot of space, so few people in Spain are interested in playing it when you can put together a pickup soccer game with a ball and an empty plaza.
3. I could be wrong here, but I think bat-and-ball games are a particularly English-speaking thing. I can't think of any bat-and-ball games popular in Spain but tennis, and that's of Anglo-French origin and popular mostly among the middle class and up.
4. Baseball is a pre-television sport, unlike the NFL and especially the NBA, which have been successful overseas on television. TV doesn't show baseball nearly as well as it does the NBA and NFL, both of which have adapted their rules for TV.

5. A large part of being a sports fan is "rooting for laundry," and no Spanish fans have grown up rooting for (and / or against) a particular baseball team. They've got no stake in any particular game. They don't hate the Yankees or love the Dodgers. Similarly, one reason Americans don't go in big for soccer is that we have no particular team to root for.

But Martí Gómez has his silly stereotype joke all ready:

It's simply because of a question of dietary habits.

A baseball game usually lasts between three and four hours. Let us observe how the crowd behaves. They arrive loaded down with bags of popcorn bought outside the door of the stadium because they're cheaper there. They sit down and attentively observe the beginning of the game. Then they get up and go for some hot dogs with mustard. Seated now, they buy a beer from the kid selling them from a box carried on his head. They applaud a play and get up again to go buy a hamburger with ketchup. While they eat the hamburger they have fun with the lady who tries to win five hundred dollars while catching the three balls thrown to her. They'll go buy an enormous ice cream and call over the kid selling peanuts before buying a bag of potato chips to eat in the car on the way home.

Before leaving the stadium he'll comment on the game with those sitting near him. A three-ring circus applied to baseball, everyone knows how to analyze why they have won or lost, though they've only been seated for half the game. A Spanish spectator undergoing such stress wouldn't survive the whole baseball season.

Snicker, snicker, guffaw, guffaw. Of course he's exaggerating. The thing about baseball is that 1) they play every night, not just once a week, 81 home games a year. That means that baseball tickets are cheap in most places--you can still get into a game in KC for less than ten bucks--, which in turn means that people who are not serious fans can afford to go a couple of times a season just for an evening out. They're the ones buying all the burgers and crap. Also, baseball games attract drunks who pay $8 for a beer. Eleven times. 2) Serious fans don't appreciate the loud family with the fat kid who keep getting up and blocking the view, or the drunks, but tolerate them because the team wouldn't stay in business without their money. 3) A standard 9-inning baseball game should be about, say, 200 pitches. That means if you miss a few pitches you still know what's going on in the game. 4) Cultural difference: Most American fans do not absolutely live and die with their teams the way many Spanish fans do. Barça fans are so, well, fanatical that their eyes are glued on the whole game the whole time without ever relaxing. Americans might become stressed under such conditions, since most of them don't take a baseball game as seriously as a Spanish fan does a soccer game.

If I understand about baseball, I'm still confused about why football, called soccer there, has not caught on. Thousands of boys and girls play. Grass fields. Coaches from different countries. Perfectly equipped players and tournaments for all ages.

"They're kids with no references; they have no (soccer) heroes," an English coach told me. Not even David Beckham. Their families have gotten tired of the only thing that ever interested them about the Beckhams, their private lives. These boys and girls who pay two hundred dollars per season to play soccer don't watch European football, though some TV channels broadcast the important games played in England, Italy, and Spain.

Soccer hasn't really caught on in America as a spectator sport because:

1. It's a pre-TV sport, like baseball, and it hasn't adapted itself the way the NFL and NBA have. It's difficult for sports that aren't good on TV to make it big among fans.
2. Americans don't grow up rooting for a particular soccer team, of course, so the commitment to the Barça you see around here would take decades to develop over there.
3. We already have so many pro sports in America that there may not be room on TV or in viewers' brainspace for any more.
4. Americans won't commit to a spectator sport that isn't played in America at the highest level. It's hard to become a big Kansas City Wizards fan when everybody knows these guys suck and wouldn't even be on the field in England. I'm a perfect example: I'm a soccer fan, and a KC Royals and Chiefs fan, but I don't give a crap about the Wizards. I couldn't name a player on their team or tell you anything else about them. Who wants to root for a bunch of schloops?
5. Note that he's appreciative of America's grass soccer fields. Spanish fields for amateurs are generally hardpan dirt.
6. Operation Beckham failed. He's simply not a soccer superstar any more, and it's obvious he doesn't live up to the hype. He's not an interesting person, and nobody cares about his team. As for Posh Spice, she's too low-rent to ever make it in Hollywood. We're not talking Catherine Zeta-Jones or Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan or Hugh Grant here, we're talking a couple of chavs. Becks should have stayed at ManU.

7. Televised soccer is beginning to catch on among middle-class college kids in America. They grew up playing the game, and understand what's going on, and they are now globalized enough that they want to be into what is cool in England. The fact that you can now watch top-level soccer, the English and Spanish leagues, on American cable TV, shows there is a market for it, though the fact that it's still on fairly obscure channels shows the market isn't all that important yet. When the Premier League gets on an important US sports channel, which I predict will happen before 2015, that'll be the point when we can say that there's enough of a market for soccer that it's worth investing some real money. I still don't think soccer is ever going to catch on among the American working class, though.

Oh, yeah. The English constantly give the Americans crap because we call our baseball championship "the World Series." There's actually a perfectly logical reason. In 1903, the date of the first World Series, America was the only country where baseball of any kind, let alone professional baseball, was played. Therefore, the American champion would perforce be the world champion. That's a little boastful, of course, but that was back before the First World War, when everybody everywhere was boastful and ethnocentric. We've kept the "World Series" name because it's the tradition; in fact, the World Series is 26 years older than the Spanish professional soccer league. US pro baseball goes back to 1869, and the National League goes back to 1876. A few teams that are still playing today, such as the Chicago Cubs, were founding members of the NL.

Another argument I've heard is that the name "World Series" reflects the fact that, say, 95% of the world's best baseball players are in the US major leagues.

Not every American city has a sports team that is an integral part of the city fabric, the way Barcelona would be unimaginable without the Barça. I'd say the teams that are real institutions in baseball are the ones that go back to 1901 or before in the same city. That means that everyone who saw the team's first game is dead now. Generations have grown up listening to the games on radio. Literally millions of different people have watched ballgames in those cities over the years. Those teams would be the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, and St. Louis Cardinals. Surviving stadiums in semi-original condition are Fenway in Boston, Wrigley in Chicago, and Yankee Stadium in New York. You could make an argument for the Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers, which all date from the 1950s, as basic parts of their cities' identities. (By the way, the Phillies set a milestone this season: the first major league team to lose 10,000 games. That's got to be a record for all professional teams in the world.)

There are six hockey teams, the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks, that go back to the 1920s.

NFL teams that go back to the Thirties are the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and New York Giants. I'd say the Cleveland Browns and maybe the San Francisco 49ers (1940s) are also integral parts of their cities; perhaps the Dallas Cowboys from the 1960s as well.

There are only two original NBA teams left in their original 1946 cities, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics. I'd say the Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Lakers, which go back to the '50s or early '60s, are also parts of their cities' identities.

As for college teams, that depends on your state; most people pick the college they went to, or a college from their state. A few states, like California and Texas, have eight or ten Division One teams; most states have two or three. Kansas has two, KU and K-State. Notre Dame, traditionally the working-class urban Catholic (especially Irish) team, is the only university with a national following.

You can tell a lot about a person by his sports team, but maybe even more by the teams he doesn't like. For example, I hate the Yankees in baseball, the Raiders and the Cowboys in the NFL, the Lakers in the NBA, and Notre Dame and Duke in college sports. Not because they have any players I don't like or whatever; I just always root against these teams. I imagine in your country you have teams you'll always root against; in Spain, mine is Real Madrid. I was very anti-Atletico Madrid when Jesús Gil was running it, but now that he's dead I've toned it down to mere dislike. I'm rather of two minds about Athletic Bilbao; on the one hand I like the way they bring up lots of players from their youth squad, but I dislike the way they discriminate against non-Basque players. I have nothing against Espanyol, though many Barça fans despise them.

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