Can You Teach an Old Dog a New Trick?

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.

8 thoughts on “Can You Teach an Old Dog a New Trick?

  1. Great article. Here is the irony, though.

    Despite the billions of $$$ invested in soccer/futbol you were oblivious to it. You opted for rugby which happens to be very popular in France because of its great tradition. (Germany, Holland, Norway, Portugal… not so much!).

    Without the grass roots development, TV coverage of team handball will STILL get you nowhere. Call me naive but I still believe that the best way to promote this sport is to the youth. In middle schools, high schools, youth centers, etc. Be omnipresent in your community. Do the legwork.

    TV coverage is the cherry on top. Not the whipped cream.

  2. Not long ago France really did not have a big tradition of rugby as far as I know. It has certainly made major strides there since WWII. Rugby has mostly been confined to Britian and former British colonies [ones that stuck around longer than 1776] and has only been a professional sport since the 1990's. I know my interest was simular to John's. At Ohio State [whose club had A,B,C,D,E sides] I was jealous of the fact they could have so many participants and we could not seem to attact more than 7 to 14. I also learned more about the game and gained more interest in it seeing the Rugby World Cup on TV! I still say, try as you might [and I encourage doing so] with the youth, Americans, including our youth, will not take it seriously or believe in it unless they see it on TV!

  3. I wasn't oblivious to soccer. It would be impossible for even the most casual fan to not be aware of the sport in Europe. It's everywhere and unavoidable.

    They've been playing rugby in France for a 100 years. It's the #2 team sport nationwide and is actually more popular than soccer in the Southwest.

    And, if you want to learn more about rugby in the US check out this site: Check out the comments section on the college and High School posts. It's amazing how they have many of the same issues as handball.

  4. Rugby should be, and rightfully is, way behind team handball in popularity. While the sport may be plagued by the same issues I think it is a matter of team handball not living up to what it CAN achieve. Rugby, very popular in Romania as well, is a lot harder to implement as a high school or middle school sport.

    Oblivious was not the proper word. I guess you can't be oblivious to something that surrounds you. You certainly did not care to pick it up, despite it's widespread coverage.

    Sometimes, TV is not all that is made out to be.

  5. John, Interesting fact! I did not realize rugby was so popular in France. I knew they were good in recent years, but did not know it was #2, and played that long. In the 1970's and 80's what I heard of Rugby was New Zealand, Australia, South Africa [also the old Rhodesia], Canada, Britian [England, Scotland, Wales] and Ireland. Mostly the old Commonwealth Nations. Starting in the '80s I did hear that it was becoming bigger in the rest of Europe and Argentina, Japan, and a few others.
    Bogdan, Somethimes "the exception proves the rule." A question, How did you become a baseball fan? I find it hard to believe you had much exposure in Romania. After you came here, maybe you saw it on TV?

  6. That's right… I did watch baseball on TV… I learned baseball by watching the ol' WTBS. But this does not apply to our situation. I hope you realize that!!!! For your sake… :)

  7. I just knew you would be up at this early hour to answer. And if you think about it, there is not a 100% correlation, but there is some application to our discussion.

  8. Funny you should mentioned that Mark! Bogdan X34 series I, was the one who posted. I was so happy with my self perfection that I cloned myself. Now there is more of me to deal with. I figured that is the only way I could get things done around here… Kinda getting tired of all the talk, ya know!!!!

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