Getting into College: Warming Up to NCAA Football from Across the Pond

Gareth PughCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2009

I’m not sure there is anything that emphasises the different sporting cultures of the UK and the US more than College Football. We have had NFL coverage over here for a long, long time, and it is hugely popular, but regular transmissions of NCAA games are something of a rarity.


Satellite channel NASN (North American Sports Network) first started broadcasting in 2002 as part of the Setanta family. The channel has since been sold and re-branded as ESPN America and continues to beam College Football into British homes.


As an English guy interested in American sports, I’ve always found NCAA sports a little difficult to warm to. The combination of not knowing any of the athletes and having no allegiance to a team or conference makes it tough to invest time in.


However, through USA Today Sports Weekly, I’ve followed the last two NFL drafts quite closely, filled in a March Madness bracket, and now, after watching a couple of Football bowl games last season, it is time to fully embrace the College Experience.


So, there I was all ready for week one. Oregon @ Boise State provided a controversial curtain raiser, but the main events were on Saturday afternoon. College GameDay starts at 3 PM London time, and then at 5 PM, the Navy took on and very nearly upset Ohio State in "The Horseshoe."


Now this is the point where College sports in the US become difficult for a Brit to comprehend. Every year in the UK a couple of hundred thousand people line the River Thames to watch Oxford and Cambridge have a rowing race. This event continues to be popular despite the fact that the crews are made predominantly of hired professionals with a tenuous connection to the Universities.


This Varsity Boat Race remains one of only two (the other is a Varsity Rugby Match) university events which are televised on major networks. There is of course a full schedule of inter-university sports in the UK, but these receive only a modicum of coverage even on their own campuses.


I’ve stood on a grassy bank with 20 or 30 others watching my University rugby team, but watching US College Football is quite literally a different world. In week two, 18-year-old USC QB Matt Barkley made his road debut in front of over 106,000 at "The 'Shoe."


To put that in perspective, only three World Cup (Soccer) finals have had larger attendances, two in the same stadium. I very much doubt whether any footballer in Europe has played in front of such a vast audience. And Ohio Stadium is not even the second largest stadium in the conference!


It is very difficult for a British university alumnus to comprehend the popularity of College sports in the US. National media coverage and huge stadium attendances demonstrate the cultural gulf.


Okay, so I’ve given up trying to get my head around the fact that the 10 largest sports stadia in the US (excluding racetracks) are college grounds, and that they sell out every home game. Time to embrace the games.


I have watched the odd game before, and through shows like Around the Horn and PTI I’ve heard debate about results and the continuing arguments for and against the BCS system—but this season I aim to become a committed fan.


Do I need a team to enjoy the games? I feel I do, really, so I have sort of adopted Clemson based on the fact that is the surname of a close friend. Basis for lifelong support? Maybe, maybe not, but at least I cannot be accused of being a glory hunter. I’ll stop short of orange facepaint, but I will pay particular attention to their results from now on.


My allegiance to the Tigers is not a factor in the first weekend’s programming schedule, but my conversion to College Football is made a lot easier by the fact that every live game seems to be decided in the last minute and features at least half a dozen lead changes.


Highlight of week one? Miami @ Florida State. What a game. What a contest. I’m not sure there was much that game missed as a sporting event. Week one means I am hooked.


Of course, there is always the worry that the next game will be inferior. I need not have been worried. Despite the result, Clemson’s defeat to Georgia Tech was another absolute nail-biter with plenty of outrageous plays. Then on Saturday, UCLA @ Tennessee, Notre Dame @ Michigan, and USC @ Ohio State were all won by a TD or less.


Now I can’t get enough. Watching the NFL kickoff was tame in comparison, and I can’t wait for the next Saturday afternoon to come round. With no live English Premiership matches broadcast in the 3 PM slot on a Saturday, College GameDay has filled the gap, and the matches that follow are played in front of vibrant crowds in huge stadia.


The spectacle of the Ohio State marching bands spelling “Ohio” on the field gave a unique insight into a piece of pure Americana which we across the pond just don’t get to see very often—though I’m not sure the sousaphone player was supposed to clatter the cameraman.


I am certain that many of my contemporaries in the US may take all of the theatre and atmosphere for granted, but my advice would be don’t. You have something very special there, and while those critical cynics might say there’s too much flag-waving or staged pageantry, I say who cares. It’s all great and a unique environment.


There is a commercial for the NCAA on ESPN which says that there are 400,000 student-athletes in the US, and almost all of them will go pro in something other than sports.


This has particular resonance, as it makes me wonder that when I speak to American work colleagues on the phone if I’m talking to some guy who has played a football game in front of a bigger crowd than David Beckham ever has.