Paul Rouse: American sports have all the bases covered as they spread

Sunday evening began at 5pm when the Detroit Pistons played a thrilling match against the Denver Nuggets.

Paul Rouse: American sports have all the bases covered as they spread

Sunday evening began at 5pm when the Detroit Pistons played a thrilling match against the Denver Nuggets.

Straight after that it was over to watch the New Orleans Pelicans play against the Houston Rockets. There is something wonderful about witnessing the arrival of a major talent in any sport.

Watching basketball’s latest sensation, Zion Williamson, is utterly compelling — even when he is losing.

When that game is over, the show rolled across the states to where the best team in basketball — the Milwaukee Bucks — were playing the Phoenix Suns.

And then a last game. The defending NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors, were playing the Chicago Bulls, one-time team of the incomparable Michael Jordan but now fallen off the pace.

The games were exhilarating displays of skill and athleticism — the players even smiled and were clearly enjoying the playing, You can see, again and again, why the NBA is such a success.

There was a free hour, and a grand way to spend a free hour is catch up with baseball. The season is America is still two months away but spring practice makes for a February fascination and stories of teams and players and managers and rosters abound.

And then, it’s the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers against the Kansas City Chiefs playing at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens in Florida.

It is the 100th season of the National Football League and the Super Bowl is now established a central part of American popular culture, to the point where it is now hard to imagine that culture without American Football and its crowning day.

And Patrick Mahomes is exactly the type of player that every sport needs — one who pushes the boundaries of what appears possible and does so in breathtaking style.

The dominance of these three sports — American football, basketball and baseball — in the United States is undeniable.

And the global spread of interest in them is insistent.

Now, there is nothing new about empires spreading their sports across the world — the globalisation of sport is not in any way a new thing.

Every significant empire has brought its sports to the boundaries of its realm.

You can see that through the building of Roman colosseums and amphitheatres at El Jem in Tusinia or at Pula in Croatia or at Chester in England. It was in these spaces that the Romans staged gladiatorial games and wrestling matches and cockfights.

In the east — in the Early Modern Period — the Mughals spread polo, just as Chinese dynasties had done before them.

And later, in the 19th century, the English took a modern version of that game and spread it for their elite across their empire. Their polo was part of the wider sporting life of the British Empire — they also built race-tracks and cricket pitches, and put up goalposts, almost everywhere they went.

While soccer retains its place as the most globalised sport in the world, the rise of American sports across the last 100 years is clear.

Indeed, this is a rise that actually began in the summer of 1851 when a yacht called ‘America’ beat 15 British boats as part of a sailing race on the shoals between the Isle of Wight and the British mainland. That the British had been considered invincible in sailing — testimony to the role of the Royal Navy in British global power — and that Queen Victoria watched the contest from her Royal Yacht made the victory all the more sensational.

The contest which rose from this race was forever after known as the ‘America’s Cup’ and as the American professor, Mark Dyreson, has written, it “marked the opening volley in an American effort to use sport to resist the British Empire and conquer a sphere of influence of its own” and “set the stage for the United States to use sport as a vehicle for spreading its influence and extending its power, especially in the western hemisphere and around the Pacific Rim but also in every corner of the rest of the world.”

American influence saw baseball, for example, adopted with great passion in Cuba and Japan in the late 19th century.

As the decades passed, baseball was joined by American football and — especially — by basketball. This sport — invented in America in the 1890s — has proven America’s great gift to the world of sport.

The spread of American sports has been a process driven by commercialisation.

Nowhere in the world are sporting entrepreneurs as successful as they are in America. Its sports professionalised early and the scale of the continent offered enormous wealth to those who could harness the love of sport.

This extended to exporting sport to wherever people might pay gate money.

Naturally, Ireland was influenced by this process. The ‘most dangerous’ sport in the world was hailed by the Irish Independent in May 1913 when it announced that the newest sporting craze to cross the Atlantic was polo played with ‘armoured motor cars’.

An American entrepreneur, RC Klegin, was behind the venture: “It is just the most thrilling spectacle you can imagine. Do we often have smashes? A good game is a series of smashes. Think of two cars rushing at each other from opposite ends of an 800-yard ground to reach the ball. When they meet over the ball, I think you may say that there is a kind of upset!”

More enduring was the arrival of greyhound racing. The idea of racing dogs around an enclosed track in pursuit of an electric hare spread from America across Britain and Ireland in the 1920s; it was adopted with immediate and considerable relish.

In 1927, tracks were opened in Dublin (10,000 people were thought to have attended the opening night at Shelbourne Park), Belfast and Cork.

These were quickly followed by tracks at Limerick and Waterford. Huge crowds came to the races, drawn by the excitement of watching dogs race under lights and drawn, too, by the opportunity to gamble.

A more recent example centres on the growth of basketball and the various ways in which it has thrived in Ireland. The erection of basketball hoops in city playgrounds, in schoolyards and, ultimately, to the walls of family houses has allowed for everything from pick-up games to one-on-one to solitary shooting.

Beyond that again there are school leagues and the growth of basketball clubs in towns and cities. Finally, there was the establishment of the Irish national basketball league.

In the 1980s, this was a thoroughly glamorous affair where imported Americans lived as cult heroes in communities such as the northsides of Cork and Dublin cities, in Belfast, and in the country towns of Tralee and Ballina.

The league lost its sheen over time, but its heyday was a thing of great splendour and a reminder of the potential of sport to change people’s lives — even momentarily — by exposing them to something new.

Naturally, the wider growth of American popular culture as a global phenomenon was central to all of this. American music, American films, American television all promoted the idea of its sports to the point where they became familiar and desirable.

The broadcast of American football on Irish television from the 1980s showed again how sporting cultures can be remade in new places as a form of entertainment.

It was not that it was expected that there would be American football clubs established in every corner of the land — but identification with the sport certainly helped with sponsorship deals and with the sale of merchandise to people who could recognize and identify with brands through sport.

And so it is that an evening watching basketball, baseball and American football is something that is more than a century in the making.

What is also clear is that the reach of American sports has accelerated in the new millennium. This is an acceleration that is facilitated by the Internet.

Having a smartphone, or a laptop, or a tablet of some description, allows you to watch any National Basketball Association, National Football League or Major League Baseball match. You don’t need a tv and don’t need to depend on what a broadcaster chooses to show you.

No matter where you are in the world, if you are on the internet you can watch every match live and in full and are not dependent on television stations to broadcast them.

More than that, full matches sit on the websites and can also be watched again in full.

As the sports broadcasting market increasingly splinters into ever more slender pieces, this revolution in broadcasting offers a direct route from sporting organisations to fans.

And presents the possibility of huge sums being paid by way of subscription. The sheer scale of American sports and the extent of their existing commercialisation offer them a massive advantage as they seek to extend their sphere of influence.

And where American broadcasting of sport goes, the rest of the world follows.

Already there are clubs and organisations in Ireland live-streaming their own sporting events and trying to get people to buy passes on-line.

We are only at the beginning of the change that the internet is bringing to how sport is organised.

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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