How NFL Teams Assume the Identities of Their Hometowns
It’s no accident that the Pittsburgh Steelers have always resembled the blue-collar, hard-nosed toughness of Pittsburgh's citizens. Nor is it a coincidence the Raiders have embodied the grit and intimidation common in both Oakland and Los Angeles.
Was there ever a more perfect landscape than that of New York for a guy like Broadway Joe Namath to thrive?
Is it me or do egos always seem to grow larger than life in Texas? But hey, everything is bigger in Texas—and that includes stadiums, owners and high expectations in general.
And which team has been one of the smartest in the league over the last decade? Hopefully, the first team to pop into your head was the New England Patriots.
This is a team located in a region with one of the highest densities of colleges and universities in the entire country. It seems quite fitting for an intellectually driven organization to accurately represent the metropolitan area of Boston—a region which is home to nearly 60 institutions of higher learning, including the first in the United States (Harvard).
Though the connection between a team and the city it occupies can vary greatly from organization to organization, there’s still some undeniable osmosis occurring across the football landscape.
One of the benefits of being an NFL journeyman has been the wonderful privilege of sampling the organizational differences in culture, atmosphere, team identity and the vibe of the region in general.
My many pit stops and experiences through the NFL include the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts.
During this time, I was always fascinated by the differences in each team’s characteristics and overall makeup—specifically regarding how it would reflect the pulse of the region similar to the way a dog absorbs the personality of his/her owner.
Although much of what I offer here is based merely on my opinion, I can say it’s an opinion formed through my time playing in the NFL and fueled by my natural curiosity as an observer amid my remarkable circumstances.
How does this phenomenon occur and what does it mean for the success of an NFL team?
To best tackle such a complex question, allow me to expound on a few of my many experiences in the NFL.
The bigger the city, the more likely that team’s players become isolated from each other—consequently making team chemistry more difficult to achieve.
Think about a team like the Green Bay Packers. These guys have absolutely nothing to do in Wisconsin other than form a tight team nucleus while looking inside the organization for entertainment and socializing.
The people of Wisconsin obviously adore their Packers as much as, if not more than, the fans in any other NFL city adore their teams. However, there media market is relatively diminutive compared to the rest of the league. In fact, Green Bay has the smallest Designated Market Area of all the cities currently hosting an NFL team.
Media opportunities in Green Bay may be numerous for the Packers and their players, but they tend to have more of a “local news” feel to them. Though this does limit player exposure and financial opportunities on an individual level, it conversely enhances the team's sense of community and connectedness with its city. This helps shape the perception of a team being the center of the universe—an element which could have ultimately contributed to Greg Jennings’ recent disclosure of feeling “brainwashed” by the Packers’ organization.
On the opposite end of that spectrum lies the densely populated city of New York, which happens to be the home of two NFL teams. Having played in New York for the Jets, I can tell you from contrasting experience that the media-frenzy atmosphere in New York is completely different than anything I’ve seen in the league.
This element, combined with the size and scope of the Big Apple in general, seemed to create an unfamiliar hostility in the locker room. Teammates seemed to be consumed by the scope of the town itself.
This environment clearly amplified the players' desire for stardom while reducing cohesiveness and unity within the organization by perpetually promoting the individual over the team as a whole.
In a city as big as New York, the sport of football is forced to compete with a multitude of cultural and social distractions—which, from a player’s perspective, can create a perception of football being a low priority for the overall pulse of the city's inhabitants. This perception felt true regardless of the heightened media coverage and constant bombardment by reporters into our personal space on a daily basis.
In addition, the Jets organization is also forced to share the city with the New York Giants, a team which has long been viewed as the favorite son to its mother city. This only amplifies the constant undertone of irrelevance and insignificance of the franchise. I can recall several instances when the Jets organization would celebrate with pride the idea of taking front-page headlines from its in-town rival.
If you’re wondering how this all translates on a football field, I can tell you that it matters quite a bit. Just think about the positive effect home-field advantage has on a team’s outcome. According to oddsmakers, home-field advantage should traditionally account for a three-point swing in the final score. Well, imagine a team that feels like it's without a true home. For the longest time, even the stadium name (Giants Stadium) seemed to be rubbing this right into the face of the Jets organization.
Everything about the experience felt borrowed.
Is it possible the elements of big-city living have played a major role in the Giants’ inconsistencies throughout the years? Absolutely.
The distractions of living in New York should not be underestimated.
How I Changed from One Team to the Next
During my time as a member of the University of California, there was a specific identity which was very much created by our surroundings and circumstances.
We were the school in the Pac-10 that was better known for our impressive list of Nobel Prize winners rather than our banners of football championships. The school’s tradition and stringent academic requirements naturally attracted smarter football players, along with those who had been overlooked by more prestigious programs. Our identity as a program was forged from castaways, intellectuals, artists and hippies. In other words, we were Berkeley personified.
The more time a student athlete spent immersed in that environment, the more it became a part of his identity. This effect, when applied on an organizational level across the board, generated a unique team dynamic which undoubtedly carried over in the personas of the players both on and off the field.
Considering the unusual college football origins I just described, it should now be easier to comprehend the culture shock of being drafted by the Oakland Raiders. Though Berkeley and Oakland share a common border, the contrast between these two cities is as vast as that between night and day.
Not surprisingly, this was also true with the teams' identities as well—in ways far beyond the obvious comparison between a college team and a professional one.
In any case, the players who made up the Oakland Raiders as a whole seemed to fit in perfectly with the identity of the city. Oakland has always been a town capable of intimidating some of the toughest and most ferocious looking guys out there. Few people had the courage to walk into the Oakland Coliseum for a Raider game wearing the other team's jersey. It was quite well-known that such actions would likely lead to multiple altercations and possibly bloodshed.
In many ways, the Raiders mirrored this intimidating persona.
Even the Raiders’ uniform colors and design are intended to strike fear into the opposition. There was a time when this actually worked. It was also accompanied by an ungodly number of penalties, as the entire mantra of the team seemed to teeter on the edge of chaos.
Late owner Al Davis made it clear all he cared about was winning. That meant he wasn’t interested in how many times you were arrested in the past. He couldn't care less if you smoked pot in the offseason. Historically, he was not concerned with whether or not you had ear rings, tattoos or a Mohawk hairdo—all he was interested in was how you played football.
So as I began to understand what it meant to be a member of the Raiders organization, I could simultaneously feel the influence it was having on me as a player. If you had any understanding of my unassuming character and humble nature as a football player, you would then comprehend just how much I stood out as a member of Raider Nation. However, over time I could feel myself becoming more and more like my environment—at least once the helmet came on.
It was as if the Raiders uniform somehow transformed me into an alter-ego of mine. Suddenly, I became much more aggressive in my style of play as I began to feel the spirit of the Black Hole inside me.
When you consider the multitude of environments I’ve been in and how different each one really is, it becomes hard to deny the pull the hometown energy has over a team's players and how that may collectively affect the way the team functions. It’s these interactions which help shape the identity of a team in a variety of ways.
Each team has its own story behind it. Some organizations have suffered simply because they’ve lacked an identity altogether.
In the end, the team that brings home the Lombardi Trophy in January could very well be determined by the adopted personalities created from the very town it inhabits.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report
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