Holding the Olympics aside, it is safe to say that the NCAA platform is the highest level of amateur athletics in the world. Since I was a little kid, I can remember watching events like “March Madness” and various “Bowl Games” in awe. The level seems almost equivalent to the pros, and the stage itself is very similar to the professional level; thousands of fans, televised games, media coverage, etc. The student-athletes seemed like celebrities. The atmosphere surrounding college sports seemed grand and surreal.
Even in a sport like wrestling, which receives little budget, praise, and recognition, the talent and the college wrestling stage seemed bigger than high school. As a high school wrestler, when I watched college wrestling, it almost seemed like a different sport. Even as I achieved success in high school, and the prospect of wrestling in college increased, for whatever reason the college level seemed different and distant.
Upon competing in my first few college wrestling tournaments, and attending several Michigan sporting events, I have come up with a simple thesis. Sports are sports no matter what level; while the talent level rises, competition is still competition. Nonetheless, the atmosphere as a spectator changes on each level.
Going into my first college tournament, it was hard to believe that I had reached the next level; something I had worked for every day for years. From watching college wrestling for years, a part of me thought that there was something different about a “college-wrestling” tournament.
However, when I was warming up for my first match, I had somewhat of an epiphany. I thought, “I’m warming up the same as I did in high school, the rules are the same, there is a ref and an opponent on the mat. This is no different.”
Upon further analysis, I thought about the environment of the tournament; about how it was different. In high school, I knew everyone in the crowd. They were all friends, family members, friends’ parents, school officials, etc. I had a personal relationship with almost the entire crowd. Each match was won and lost with the fans.
Furthermore, when I competed, I competed as a representation of my high school, a place where I knew everyone. I felt as if I representing all of the members of the community while I competed.
Competing at the college level is very different. While I was competing at my first two college tournaments, there were over one hundred U of M fans there to cheer on the team. However I knew none of them. Part of this is that I am a freshman. Nonetheless, it would be impossible to get to gain the same intimate feeling of a high school wrestling tournament as that of a college one.
First of all, the number of fans is so great that one cannot meet or remember them all. Furthermore, these people are not apart of your life and community like in high school. This trend is not only in wrestling, it holds true just about every sport.
I noticed this when I attended my first Michigan soccer game. In high school, I had a few friends on the soccer team, and knew everyone on the team since I was a kid. I had an emotional stake in the game. I cared about the individuals in the game, and therefore rooted for my friends.
At the Michigan soccer game, I missed that same connection. I know a few kids on the soccer team, but I had no emotional stake in the game. I didn’t go to school with them since I was 6 years old. I didn’t know their families. I knew next to nothing about them. Did I want them to win? Of course! But there was no emotional attachment to the game. I rooted for them simply because they represent the University of Michigan, and so do I.
Ironically, in the college sports environment, where the relationship with the game is less intimate, the fans are more intense. Take football; the U of M has crazy traditions to cherish our football team. We dedicate an entire day, our safety, and our well being to celebrate our team. Millions of Michigan fans around the world use Saturdays as a day to disregard their own well being to show love for a group of kids they don’t even know.
Approximately 100,000 people gather in a giant bowl to relentlessly cheer for a bunch of kids. 99% of the people in the stadium don’t have any relationship with the players on the field, but will do anything to defend them and to represent them. People gain obsessions over college athletes without ever knowing the people behind the uniform.
The same trend holds true in any college sport. When I have attend U of M soccer games, fans cheer relentless, paint their faces, taunt the opposing players… And they might have a class with a player on the team, but they have little relationship outside of that. Yet, they are still die hard defenders of the Maize and Blue.
Let’s take it a step further: the pros. Professional sports have a similar fandom to the NCAA level. Fans are obsessed with their team, and will do anything to show their love of their team. Nonetheless, fans rarely have any personal connection to the team.
Evaluating each level of sports, it seems as if as the levels of play rises, the fans involvement and obsession increases. Ironically, fans at the lower levels have more of connection to the athletes and the game. However, they are less emotional about the game. Perhaps they feel so close to the game that they don’t care win or lose. Ultimately, fans at different levels of sports express their fandom in different ways.