National Myth

The decision of CBS to cut away [from the 77 Trailblazers post-championship-game celebrations] was a reminder that for all of its artistic beauty and its high salaries, and the fact that it might employ more truly brilliant and complete athletes than any other sport, professional basketball [NBA] had not entered the national psyche or become part of the national myth. It remained, the grace and skill of its athletes nothwithstanding, a sport of some isolated urban areas and some rural areas struggling for national acceptance.

– David Halberstam, “The Breaks of the Game” p.17 

One of my favourite coaches to catch up with at tournaments is Liam “Sketch” Sketcher from Victoria. His teams are often pretty good, and as a writer with cool literary and cultural tastes, always has an interesting insight to the game.

Recently, Sketch wrote a great NFL preview online and commented how the NFL takes itself even more seriously than “our modest” AFL. I’m a huge NFL fan and he’s absolutely right. For example, just look at the “America’s Game” documentaries that mix classy talking heads styled interviews with incredible game footage (35mm on the sidelines with perfect audio from the 70s) narrated by celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Lawrence Fishburne, Gene Hackman and Jon Hamm.  The classy series (which in the above video can make a neanderthal like Bill Parcells appear as statesmanlike as Bill Clinton) is one of the things the NFL does well to create a “National Myth” in the public psyche.

High participation of a sport does not necessarily make its professional league part of the national myth. It doesn’t matter that more kids play “Soccer” each week on a Saturday morning in the US than “Grid Iron” (or even that the US Men’s soccer team always qualify for the World Cup finals), the NFL has marked out a valuable territory in the public’s mind that Major League Soccer hasn’t.

The other sports “brands” that are part of America’s National Myth would be MLB (Major League Baseball), NBA (National Basketball Association) and NHL (National Hockey League). In Australia we have the Australian Cricket Team (note they do not have a crappy nickname like the other representative teams that are lesser brands), AFL and NRL. What’s interesting about the NBA and NFL, is that it’s easy to think that they were always part of the national myth, when it wasn’t the case.

In the 60s, the NBA had a strong 10 team competition in mostly “small (media) market” towns like Cincinnati, Minnesota and Kansas. Only the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks were in larger markets. It wasn’t as popular as College basketball let alone professional baseball. Even in the 70s, the NBA had bad TV deals that delayed the broadcasts of games or didn’t show them at all. In Halberstam’s quote, the 77 Championship Portland Trailblazers post game celebrations are cut as CBS crosses to a telecast of a Golf tournament. There’s no way that would happen now. The NBA didn’t truly connect with fans in the way we know it until Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan et al in the 80s dragged it into the National Myth.

Until the merger with the rival American Football League in the late 60s, the NFL was considered a poorer cousin to the college version of the game. The college teams had better attendances, better media coverage, and teams whose “programs” were more professionally run. Professional Baseball was already part of the national myth and eclipsed NFL in popularity. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Super Bowl that the NFL became the brand it is. NFL franchises are now worth more than franchises in other sports, the Superbowl is usually the highest rating broadcast of any given year,  and the stadiums are always packed on any given sunday. There is more prestige in being an NFL owner than being the owner or any other sporting team in the US. Interestingly, NFL teams play the least amount of regular season games a year (16) compared to MLB (162) and NBA (82) and have a one-off winner-takes-all contest to decide the champion.

Sadly, I can’t see how volleyball in Australia can crack that national myth. We might have the “biggest school sporting event in the southern hemisphere”, and produce some great players, but still seem relegated to the miscellany of obscure sports that get shit Olympics coverage from Channel 9.


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