This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series, with expats talking about life and politics south of the border. Ben Wright, who formerly worked for the Atlanta Thrashers NHL team, writes about a key cultural difference between Canada and the United States.
When I moved from PEI to North Carolina to go to grad school, one of the first things I realized was that I'd better get up to speed on college football and basketball because everyone else was talking about them. I immersed myself in all things Demon Deacon. When I eventually moved to Georgia to work for the Atlanta Thrashers (NHL) and Hawks (NBA), college sports were at the forefront of conversation again, only this time the talk was centred around conference tables as marketing staffs tried to figure out how we could compete with the likes of University of Georgia and Georgia Tech for sports fans' hard-earned dollars and attention spans.
While college (or university) sports in Canada may be mildly important to those who actually attend the schools, they barely register on a national level. In the United States, on the other hand, college football is such a big deal that the U.S. Congress formed a subcommittee to determine whether or not a switch from the bowl system to a traditional playoff was warranted.
There are at least three reasons college sports have become such a dominant part of American culture, particularly in the Southeast: history; geography; and the sense of identity they provide, all of which are intertwined.
1. Historically, the NCAA predates the NFL, NBA, and NHL. While baseball had been around for a while when the NCAA was founded in 1910, the NCAA instantly surpassed it in sheer size, starting off with 62 charter schools and quickly expanding.
2. Geography has also played a key role in the shaping of college sports, and nowhere is that more evident than in the South, where the late and limited arrival of pro sports gave the college game time and space to grow. Pro sports didn't gain a foothold in the South until the 1960s and '70s with the arrival of the Braves, Dolphins, Cowboys, and Saints, among others. By then college football rivalries had been around for decades, or in some cases, generations. Florida and Georgia have been battling each other since 1915 and the Alabama versus Auburn game, known as the Iron Bowl, traces its history back to 1893. Duke and UNC have been doing battle on the basketball court since 1920, 68 years before major pro sports arrived in the form of the Charlotte Hornets. To do this day, states such as Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and Kentucky still don't have major pro sports teams, leaving college sports with limited competition and unlimited room for growth.
3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, college sports provide a sense of identity. Unlike pro sports, where teams choose players, college players, for the most part, choose their teams. Fans don't just root for the Bulldogs, the Tar Heels, and the Blue Devils – they ARE Bulldogs, Tar Heels and Blue Devils and they connect with players in a way pro fans don't, because those players have chosen to become one of them. And being a college fan is about more than watching games – it's about taking in the entire experience of tailgates, fight songs, cheerleaders, and other storied traditions. The players come and go, but the traditions and rivalries carry over from year to year in a way they don't in professional sports.
When you become a college sports fan, it's a lifelong affiliation that you automatically share with everyone else who has a connection to that school. Having common school ties with someone gives you a bond that can lead to friendships, employment opportunities, business deals, and more. I'm not saying that two connections I had at Georgia Tech directly resulted in me getting hired there after the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg last year, but it would be foolish to say that those connections didn't help (Go Jackets! – except for when they play the Deacs).
School affiliations are a matter of pride in the United States and that pride is embodied in their sports teams. No matter what state you live in, there's a local college program to follow and if Canadians moving south of the border ignore that fact they do so at their own peril.