Why Do Some Sports Seem So Foreign?

ByMichael S. James

April 4, 2005 — -- Just as baseball's opening day can signal a shifting of the seasons and a new beginning, other countries' sports also can carry deeper meanings.

"We would class the beginning of the cricket season to signify spring," said Richard Marshall-Duffield, manager of the F3K sports bar in London.

Different countries may follow different sports -- but even so, those sports can fill similar niches, said Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do." (see related story on the meaning of sports)

For instance, British traditions embrace the ball-and-bat game of cricket rather than baseball, the contact sport of rugby (in two different pro versions) rather than football and the ball-and-goal game of soccer rather than basketball.

Still, subtle differences in the nature of different nations' major sports may highlight cultural differences. Most Britons probably don't understand the cultural meaning of baseball's opening day and may have little interest in basketball, hockey or American football.

"The main interest in my bar is premiership football," said Steven O'Leary, manager of J.D. Young Sports Bar in London, referring to the British soccer league. "I've watched American football, and I can't get into what's going on, the way they keep stopping and starting."

Things about European sports can bug American fans, too.

For example, having winners and losers may be particularly important to Americans, said Mandelbaum, who also is an American foreign policy professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Unlike European team sports, our most popular games tend to feature lots of scoring and few ties.

"We want a definitive result: We want everybody to be even at the beginning, and we want a clear winner at the end," he said. "Ties are very common in cricket. They're impossible in baseball. They're very, very common in soccer. They're not in basketball."

But Noel Dyck, editor of "Games, Sports and Cultures," believes any discomfort people feel with foreign sports may come more from unfamiliarity than cultural differences.

One aspect of sports' appeal as entertainment, Dyck said, is that they can be easy to follow, even for newcomers. For instance, while living in Montreal, Dyck often took visiting foreigners to Montreal Expos games regardless of whether they knew baseball's rules.

"They just loved the game," he said. "They started to put it in the context of a sport being similar in some respects, and different in other respects, to sports that exist in their countries."

And in a globalizing world of satellite sports transmissions, there's an increasing chance sports shown abroad may be the same as those shown in Montreal or Chicago. For example, Marshall-Duffield, the London sports bar manager, is an avid Chicago Cubs baseball fan.

"I would lose my marriage, I would lose my job and my home for a World Series title," he joked of the team that has not won a championship since 1908.

Sports scholars note that individual sports and racing exhibitions mainly predominated into the 19th century when team sports started to become organized. Differing sports cultures then evolved, often under the influence of the British Empire or American power.

Timing was important with sports established early on having an edge.

Franklin Foer, author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization," believes soccer might be a major sport in America if it "had its act together … during the 1920s," when radio and newspapers helped consolidate a national mass culture.

Soccer instead came to be seen as foreign. And even with recent popularity among upscale American kids, it may still have an image problem, Foer said.

"Soccer's place in America's sports kind of inverts the class structure of the sport in most countries," he said. "In most countries, soccer is the sport of the working class. Here, soccer was embraced largely by the upper class and the middle class. … The yuppie parents who became its biggest boosters really embraced soccer because of its potential for inculcating their kids with good values.

"It deprives the game from a lot of the things that give it mass appeal," Foer added. "Soccer is a violent game. In a lot of the world, soccer involves hatred and rivalry, not the types of things you want to be teaching your kids."

America has bucked the rest of the world before, particularly in the formative years of the 19th century. While sports popular in Britain often spread via the empire, America exhibited its independence by developing its own sports lineup.

For instance, baseball may have been seen as a working-class alternative to cricket, which some believe was seen as foreign, upper-class and time-consuming.

"Baseball was very time-efficient," said Christopher Hodge Evans, co-author of "The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture." "It could be played in a certain period of time."

But though baseball historically is seen as an American game, these days it has avid followings elsewhere, including Japan, the Caribbean and Latin America.

And even in countries where baseball isn't among the most-popular sports, ideals associated with the game are familiar. For example, the idea of bonding with dad at the ballpark, just like dad did with his father, is not unique to America.

"You find exactly the same things in England and Scotland and Europe when people are talking about soccer," Dyck said. "There's a tremendous sense of continuity and a large sense of imagination."

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