Fresh eyes on America's favourite past-times... As an English dude living in the States, here are my opinions on the overall game experiences I came across during my stay.
NCAA Football - Oklahoma State vs Texas, Texas Tech, Missouri, etc. @ Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater
Probably the highlight of studying at an American university (which I did at Oklahoma State back in 2005-6) is the camaraderie of getting involved with collegiate sports. The university football stadium has a capacity of 48,000, which is currently being extended, and that would be entirely unheard of for ANY sport at university level in England. This made gameday for me one special experience, walking to the games with my flatmates in a sea of bright orange, and even knowing a couple of people involved in the team.
The best gameday experience I was involved in was the OSU vs Texas game, when the Longhorns were ranked at #3, and we were down somewhere in the high 40s. At half-time, OSU was a couple of scores ahead - the place was buzzing, and I'm pretty sure most of the stadium was beginning to lose their voice. The foundations of the stadium shook as we made as much noise as humanly possible whenever Vince Young and his offense took the field, and he looked rattled until late in the third quarter. Breaking free along the right sideline, he ran it home for about a 60-yard score, and silenced us. Then he ran in for a couple more touchdowns, and Texas completed a late comeback to scrape victory by a couple of points.
The Longhorns went on to make the championship game, and a star in Young was born. Just for the fact that the Cowboys hung on to their more illustrious opponents for so long made my day though, and I can still remember the feeling at half-time to this day. Experience rating: 9/10
NCAA Basketball - OSU Cowboys vs Baylor Bears @ Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater
Unlike the NCAA football, I couldn't afford a season ticket for the basketball, so only made it to a couple of games, and only one conference match-up in the Big 12, which was the game against Baylor. After a few years of the the OSU team being NCAA tournament finalists, expectations were high, and a good season was expected by the Stillwater faithful. The team had failed to match these expectations though, and Coach (Eddie) Sutton was beginning to come to the end of his reign.
Still, Gallager-Iba had a reputation to uphold, and the fans knew this. I don't know who gave the arena the tag, it may have been self-imposed, but it was known as the 'rowdiest arena' in the country, and we all had our part to do in maintaining this. So even as the season drew to a close and the team played one of its final games, the students and locals attempted to make the atmosphere as hostile as possible, by screaming their lungs out. Mission accomplised. After 48 minutes of end-to-end action (which is pretty much EVERY basketball game!), the Cowboys triumphed by around 6 or 7 points, and the 12,000 of us in the arena could go home knowing we'd played our part, even if the game didn't count for too much. Experience rating: 10/10
NBA - New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets vs Dallas Mavericks @ Ford Center, Oklahoma City
Back in late 2005, while I was studying at Oklahoma State University, a bunch of foreigners and I decided we'd take advantage of having an NBA team in town. We carshared over to Oklahoma City and got back-row tickets for the Hornets versus that seasons NBA-finalist Mavericks. One of the guys with us happened to be a German, and obviously we all rooted for the Hornets to break Dirk in half as a result.
Being sat on the very back row gave us a great view of the overall arena, but made it hard to feel part of the atmosphere, especially when everybody in the few rows in front spent the whole time sat down, and turned round and scowled every time we made a little bit of noise. I don't know if it was because the Hornets were not actually Oklahoma City's team, but the atmosphere seemed very tepid, and not intimidating for the incoming Mavericks in the slightest. Experience rating: 6/10
MLB - Texas Rangers vs New York Yankees @ Arlington Ballpark, Arlington, Texas
The following May, the Yankee bandwagon rolled into Arlington, TX, and having a few friends from Dallas-Fort Worth meant I'd be silly not to head on down and see what the fuss was about. This must just be a phenomena with the Yankees, but looking around at the jerseys in the stands, you really could not tell if the Rangers or Yankees were the home team. If anything, the Yankees were better represented.
The traditions of certain crowd chants after certain points of the game, and the seventh inning stretch made this feel much more involving than the NBA, but Jeter, A-Rod, et al were so far away, we really wouldn't have known if their sisters had shown up and disguised themselves in their uniforms. Experience rating: 7/10
NFL - Miami Dolphins vs New York Giants @ Wembley Stadium, London
As soon as this NFL experiment was announced I knew I had to attend the game, being a Dolphin fan and not seeing an NFL game while I was in the States. I took my brother and best mate, neither of whom are especially big NFL fans, but I got them both involved as honorary Dolfans for the day. Being a "home" game for the Dolphins, I kind of expected a large number of us to be grouped together in the stadium, to give us that aspect of mob mentality and feel as though we were united in support of our team. It turned out that fans from every NFL team were interspersed with their differing jerseys and one another, and Dolphins fans were spread all over the space making it hard to create any kind of atmosphere.
Also, and without trying to disrespect the English NFL fans, but noone seemed to understand their role in the event. Whenever the Miami defense was on the field, the place should have been a cauldron of noise, but there wasn't so much as a slight groan. I knew from my College days that the idea is to make the arena as hostile as possible for the away team's offense, but I could literally hear Eli's play counting from my seat on the top deck. The NFL might have been pleased with the result, and the fact that the stadium was full, but I was disappointed with the level of noise, so I'm all for keeping the Dolphins' home games in Miami next year. I'll definitely go again if any NFL matchup should come back to England, all the same. Experience rating: 6/10
"Soccer" - Bristol Rovers vs Fulham @ Memorial Stadium, Bristol
Now, contrast all of the above with my Football League experiences, and English fans may be able to relate to what I'm talking about. On a cold January evening, in the Fourth Round of the F.A. Cup, a Premier League team rolled into town for a replay against their highly-charged lower league opponents. With a capacity of around 12,000, the Memorial Stadium isn't huge, but it's an intimate little arena, where the fans can be as close as a couple of metres from the pitch on all sides. Fulham only managed to bring 600 of their own fans, so almost 11,500 Bristolians attempted to play on the one advantage they had - their level of support.
The game was pretty even, with Rovers having slightly more chances, but Fulham having more of the ball, so the game going to penalties was probably a fair reflection on the game. Never has a sporting event been so stressful, but Rovers came out winners, and after two-and-a-half hours of constant singing for our team, the Gasheads could go home knowing they may have been the difference that night. There were parts of the game when the fans did get on their own players' backs for missing chances, however, which I am not in agreement with, slightly marring the perfect experience. Experience rating: 9/10
In all and based on purely my own experiences, I'd have to say that NCAA Basketball is the best sport to attend in the US, closely followed by NCAA Football. This is probably due to the level of involvement the fans of College teams feel and passion they have for their team. However, I am basing this on not many actual pro-sport experiences, and I'm sure if I were to go to Madison Square Gardens, Fenway Park or Qwest Field I may have had better experiences. Either way, soccer stadiums in England can be just as atmospheric as the College arenas in the US, so we're not missing out over here!