“Hey buddy. You suck!” was the starting point. Before you knew it, a few hundred Yankees fans were echoing the chant. Nothing surprising here, except the shouts weren’t directed at the Red Sox taking on their heroes on the field of play. Instead they were aimed at a couple trying to take a cheesy photo of themselves in the bleachers. This was as intense as the atmosphere got, in a game where the Yankees were battling to secure the Division title against their bitter rivals.
A few weeks later, over in England, a Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United was marred when an away ‘fan’ ran onto the pitch and assaulted the home side’s goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. The game was sound-tracked by repeated obscene chants aimed at managers, players and fans alike. Sheffield Wednesday coach Dave Jones labelled Leeds fans “vile animals” and called for them to be banned from away grounds.
Back in the Bronx, most people sat happily chatting away, stewing slowly on overpriced beers and wandering around to frequently top up on corn-based snacks. What was most striking was how congenial everyone was. Nobody sat on the edge of their seat, biting their nails and swearing under their breath for hours on end. Few hurled real abuse at the officials, players, or even opposing fans. Many only glanced at the action every now and then.
The same occurred at a Knicks game I attended earlier in 2012, and Patriots vs Broncos match a few days after the Yankees ballgame. Three different sports, all with crowds enjoying communal fun. In America sport is a social occasion, not a life-and-death embodiment of their hopes and desires. When was the last time you had actual, tangible fun at a football match in England?
This doesn’t mean British fans care more about their teams than their American counterparts. They just express it, on the whole, with far more anxiety and far less delight. This could make the satisfaction of victory less fulfilling in the US; when the Yankees won the division, the cheering was no more jubilant than when a consolation goal goes in for a losing Championship football team.
The differing cultures are brought out again in their singing styles. The lack of inventive chanting at American sports grounds is staggering. While English football crowds seem determined to turn The Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ into a funereal dirge as they explain their respective strikers “score when they want”, each team do have their own quirks and clever songs. At Yankees, Patriots and Knicks games, most audience noise is spoon-fed via loudspeaker direction. “Let’s go (insert team name), let’s go,” can only stay bearable for so long. “DE-FENCE” gets intolerable quite quickly and regular yells of “USA! USA! USA!” are just plain bizarre to an English onlooker.
There are exceptions. Red Sox fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was being lightly mocked by the Yankees bleachers regulars with chants of, you guessed it: “You suck!” Two seats down, a New Yorker lampooned the vapidity of the chants with a wryly delivered: “Mr Ellsbury, I question your ethics. Pardon me, sir, but your demeanour is disquieting!” On my limited experience, this exception proves the rule though. Nevertheless, at the US games singing never deteriorated into personal, vitriolic abuse, as it so often does in UK sport.
Another striking element of American sport is the singing of the national anthem before play and, in baseball, the performance of ‘God Bless America’ during the seventh-innings stretch. Sport becomes a vessel for outpourings on national pride, and delight in the particularities of America. The same only happens in the UK when national teams are playing, and even then is treated as a dated formality rather than an integral part of the overall celebration. Group-sponsored patriotism isn’t really a thing in England in the same way as America.
It could be argued the more important the sporting competition is deemed by the fans, the more likely they are to be highly engaged. The atmosphere becomes increasingly intense; in turn the chances of this spilling into violence grow. Nothing excuses incidents like players being assaulted by fans, and of course they are not particular to the UK either. But if football games here had some of the sociability of sport in the US, they might be more pleasant places to spend an afternoon.