Living in Europe for five years broadened my horizons in many ways and one of those ways was my sports viewing habits. Through the wonders of satellite TV I still had ready access to American Football, NCAA and NBA basketball, and baseball, but I couldn’t help but also sample the offerings on French TV. There was no doubt that I was going to watch Handball, but what surprised me is how I became a fan of a “beautiful” game.
Oh, the crisp passing, the non-stop action, the intense fans, the national pride. And, if you think I’m talking about soccer then you obviously don’t know much about American sports fans. Like most of my fellow countrymen it is beyond my comprehension why this mind numbingly, boring game is the world’s favorite. Don’t get me wrong. I tried to watch. Even made my way out to the Parc des Princes to see Rolandinho when he played for Paris Saint Germain. And while the World Cup and the European Championships are worthy as grand spectacles you are never going to teach this old dog to like soccer. But Rugby, well that’s a different story.
It wasn’t like I was predisposed to become a fan of rugby. In fact, when I was first exposed to the sport at the Air Force Academy, I was anti-rugby because I was envious of the rugby club and the level of support it got compared to the Handball club. I also thought Rugby was crazy. American football without pads and only an excuse to party. On more than one occasion I harassed a friend who played rugby with lines like, “There’s a reason why we Americans modified the sport– Ever thought of adding the forward pass? It’s quite a concept- you guys should look into it.” And while I‘m still partial to American Football, seeing rugby played at a high level on TV was a revelation and pure entertainment.
I started out at first as a casual fan in 2003. While channel flipping I came across a rugby match. Not bad. I thought. This is certainly different than the rugby I had seen before in the U.S. And then because it was the Rugby World Cup and there was a match on TV every night for a whole month, I was hooked. Of course, I could understand the very basic strategy of the game, move the ball to the goal line or kick it through the uprights, but with limited French skills I had no clue as to what the announcers were saying and was really going on. Every morning, I’d spend 15 minutes peppering my British and French colleagues with questions on line outs, kicking into touch, etc.
Over the next four years, my level of interest continued to grow and I started to follow the club teams as well as the European 6 Nations tourney. I made my way to the Stade de France to see France-New Zealand in person and several trips to see the local club Stade Francais play. And if anybody had told me five years ago that I’d be flipping back and forth between rugby on French TV and American football on my satellite and finding myself watching the rugby more than the American football I would have thought that they were crazy.
So what’s the point of the story? The point of the story is that you can teach an old dog a new trick. But, it’s got to be a entertaining trick that the dog can relate to and you’re not going to “teach” that dog overnight. Or ditching the metaphors, altogether, I became a fan of the sport of rugby for the following reasons:
1) I was first exposed to the sport on [i]free television[/i].
2) I saw the sport being played at the [i]highest level[/i].
3) While it was a sport that I didn’t know much about and one that I had never played, I could relate to it since it was similar to a sport that I was [i]familiar[/i] with.
4) I had [i]repeated exposure [/i]to the sport which allowed me over time to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of the sport.
So what’s the point? Well, the point is I’m convinced that the same thing could happen for Handball in the United States and other countries. Handball will never approach the popularity of basketball or football, but it can and should be more than the near zero it is now. If you were to put a weekly EHF Champions League match on ESPN or any basic cable sports network on a Saturday morning, before the first NCAA basketball game tipped off on the East Coast people would watch. And a good portion of them would have the following conversation with themselves:
“Hey what‘s this? O.K. this sort of like basketball or soccer. Damn, that guy drilled the ball past that goalie. Where is this being played? Does anyone in the U.S. play this game? Damn, this game is almost over. When did this game start? When is it going to be on TV again?”
And slowly, but surely, you build a fan base. And some of those fans will become hooked enough that they end up buying merchandise and television subscription packages. Well, how do I know? I know because this one time rugby neophyte still wears his Stade Francais triple lightning bolt hat and purchased Direct TV satellite, solely for Setanta Sports and its Rugby package. The 2007 World Cup starts on Friday, 8 September and I will most definitely will be watching again.