My best friend’s girlfriend has been drunk on an airplane before. When I asked Brittany, a freshman this past year at the University of Maryland, what could possibly have compelled her to follow through with such a goofy social taboo, she responded in typical college fashion: “I couldn’t miss the Duke tailgate,” she explained, “so I got as hammered as possible before the taxi picked me up to go to the airport.”
Naturally, I instantly associated the word “Duke” with basketball. But she wasn’t referring to the heated Maryland-Duke hoops rivalry. No; Brittany was actually referring to the Maryland-Duke football game. Maryland is semi-respectable on the gridiron. Duke is about as respectable as Baghdad or the Detroit Lions. But that didn’t matter. Because Brittany didn’t actually attend the game. No, she just got as hammered as possible before a taxi picked her up before the game at the peak of her drunken fog and drove her to the airport.
Welcome to Collegetown, USA, where the atmosphere is just as important as the game.
A great professional sports town is like an alcoholics anonymous class: Everyone is united by a common obsession, but they also have different emotional reasons for attending in the first place.
A great college sports town, on the other hand, is the hometown bar that made them alcoholics in the first place. All the inhabitants are still united by that common obsession, but they’re attending for the very same reason.
It’s this subtle difference that brings a college town closer than any pro town could ever get.
Think about it like this: At a New York Knicks game you will see pompous doctors, middling lawyers and rich investors. You will see little kids attending their first game. You will see happy families enjoying a rare night out past 10 o’clock. You will see the nosebleed guy in a Nate Robinson jersey who put half his weekly paycheck just to make his first trip to the Garden. Against a good team, you may even see Spike Lee.
They’re all cheering for the same team. But the conscious mother is still covering her little boy’s virgin ears when the Nate Robinson guy starts cursing at Mike D’Antoni. And they’re all dispersing in separate directions once the clock hits zero.
Now at a Duke basketball game, for instance, you will see thousands of the brightest, most up and coming students in America jumping and chanting in drunken unison as they jeer opposing players and curse out their mothers. They all have class again on Monday. They’re all fighting for that cream of the crop summer internship. They all tailgated in the same parking lot before the game, before every game for that matter, whether it be against North Carolina or Appalachian State. And they’re all going to the same slew of parties after the game. Heck, they’ll probably even see Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee at those parties.
These life period similarities unify the heart of a college sports town in a way that pro towns simply can’t match.
While I understand that less than half of a typical college crowd is made up of current students, they’re still the heart and soul of a crowd that follows their rabid lead. The boosters, townies and alums that make up the rest of a college crowd are drawn to the atmosphere because they remember what it felt like to be the center of this proverbial hurricane.
There’s just something about being able to act like a circus creature in front of people old enough to be your parents that’s hard to let go of.
In spite of these stark differences, there is one unifying factor between great college and professional sports towns: Fans must believe in the product they’re supporting. So when deciding on the top 10 college sports towns, the success of its premier programs had to account for about half of the equation.
But just like in the professional ranks, the mark of a truly great college town is a stubborn fan base that refuses to turn away even when a program’s fortunes go south. So it’s a combination of loyalty, creative traditions and the ability to create a nearly equally rowdy atmosphere against a bottom dwelling I-AA opponent as you would against your biggest rival.
Even during down periods, the atmosphere should still be enough to convince the casual fan to end up drunk on an airplane.