Despite being a hot-bed of artistic talent in literature, music, theatre, film, dance, and visual art of all varieties, New York is also a major sports town, arguably the world’s greatest. Consider: New York has hosted world championship events in every major American and international sport, including nearly half of the World Series played, NBA finals, college basketball Final Fours, World Cup soccer games, annual golf and tennis majors, thoroughbred Triple Crown races, Stanley Cup finals in hockey, boxing heavyweight titles, and the New York City Marathon.
Only football has not seen a champion crowned in New York: the Super Bowl has never been played here (though it is a consideration with the new Meadowlands Stadium), and no college bowl games are played here (again, that might change with the new stadium). The athletic interests are broad and diverse enough to ensure a single team doesn’t hog the spotlight all the time (although the Yankees come close), but that doesn’t diminish the overall appeal of team sports in the City. New York doesn’t have any major college teams, so it is definitely a pro sports town. That may dampen the passion somewhat, but its fans are still intense. Today we’ll review the major league teams, who cheers for which team, and look at some other miscellaneous events throughout the year.
First of all, who do New Yorkers cheer for in each sport? That’s a complicated question, because New York is home to 2 teams in each of the 4 major professional leagues (the only city in the US that can make that claim), in addition to an MLS team and WNBA team. For now we’ll just look at the Big 8: the Yankees and Mets in baseball, Giants and Jets in football, Knicks and Nets in basketball, Rangers and Islanders in hockey. In general – and I’m stereotyping big time here – the Mets, Jets, and Nets fans are all the same, and the Yankees, Giants, and Knicks fans are all the same. For the most part, fans of the Mets-Jets-Nets are from Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey, and tend to be more blue collar, middle class people; their classic fans are firefighters, policemen, and secretaries. On the other hand, Yankees-Giants-Knicks fans tend to be upper middle class or wealthy, and typically live in Manhattan, Bronx or the Upstate and Connecticut suburbs. The Rangers-Islanders division isn’t as clear – no one really supports the Islanders now, so the Rangers are everyone’s favorite hockey team, though the New Jersey Devils have a substantial following as well. I won’t delve into why these divisions exist, other than to say that much of it is historic, geographic, and somewhat socio-economic. And of course there are many exceptions to the general rule of who cheers for which team.
As much as I hate to admit it since I really don’t like baseball, the Yankees are the first love of most New Yorkers. Dating back to their first game in 1903 (then known as the Highlanders because of their stadium’s location on a hill in northern Manhattan), the Yankees have had an enduring love affair with the City. Rich in history with such notable players as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, and recently Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and manager Joe Torre, the Yankees have one of the most identifiable (including palpably hated) and wealthiest franchises in the world. They are also one of the most successful, with a staggering 26 world championships (most of any sports franchise in North America), 39 World Series appearances, and nearly 10,000 total wins. Over 4 million fans watch the Yankees play at home every year, and they are also the most watched “road team” in baseball. With abundant tradition starting with the pin-strip uniforms and Yankee Stadium itself, the Yankees are an icon of New York City.
Some people claim the Mets are second in the hearts of New Yorkers (and they might be right), but I would argue the Jets and Giants both have more widespread devotion. Though both teams play their games in New Jersey, the Giants and Jets have predominant New York City followings. The Giants have a similar history to the Yankees: the franchise started in 1925, and has won a total of 7 league championships (including 3 Super Bowls).
In many ways they legitimized professional football by beating Knute Rockne and the “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame in what was supposed to demonstrate the superiority of college football – the Notre Dame “all-star” team was beaten badly by the Giants, and professional football began its rise to America’s most popular sport. After their shocking Super Bowl win over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in 2008, the fan base was re-invigorated, and the sports bars are packed with jersey-clad Giants fans on Fall Sundays. The Jets were founded (originally as the Titans) about the same time as the Mets in 1960. They are notable for “Broadway Joe” Namath and his guarantee win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III – something that had, to that point, been unthinkable for an AFL team.
Like the Jets, the Mets were founded in Queens in the early 1960’s, and shared Shea Stadium with their football counterpart until the 1980’s. With a significantly shorter history and substantially less success (only two world championships), the Mets still have a rabid fan base. Their most famous moment came in 1969 when the “Amazin’ Mets” beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the world series. Since then the Mets have had only sporadic success, winning the 1986 World Series (another major upset win, this time over the Boston Red Sox) and losing to the Yankees in the “Subway Series” in 2000. They have also been dubbed the “Lovable Losers” for their occasional incompetence.
In basketball, New Yorkers haven’t had much to cheer about, as the Knicks and Nets have been equally bad for most of their existence. Like the Giants and Yankees, the Knicks (short for Knickerbockers) were founded in 1946, and have played in Manhattan – mostly in Madison Square Garden – throughout their existence. Though they were very strong in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, winning two titles (their only championships) during that time. Though they had some success with Patrick Ewing in the 1990’s, including finals appearances in 1994 (an infamous Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets) and 1999, they have struggled for the past 5-7 years, particularly with the scandals and general incompetence during Isaiah Thomas’ tenure as coach. The franchise is still on bad terms with the fans, who generally attend games at the Garden only to see the opponents. The Nets are no better, with no titles and no prospects for success on the horizon. Notably, the Nets are scheduled to move back to Brooklyn (they play in New Jersey currently) in 2011, making them the first Brooklyn-based professional team in half a century.
Briefly home to Wayne Gretzky (all time points, goals, and assists leader in the NHL), the Rangers have a reasonable following among New Yorkers, but it’s sort of a niche fan base, and predicated on success. Founded in 1926 as the New York Americans, the Rangers have won four NHL titles, including the first ever in 1926. New Yorkers tune in to the Rangers during the playoffs and when they are doing well. The team has a solid core of fans, but doesn’t captivate the attention of the city as a whole the way the baseball and football teams do. The Islanders haven’t been competitive in two decades, but their initial success was impressive, as they won 4 Stanley Cups within the first 12 years of their founding in 1972. With some limited success in the 1980’s and none since, the Islanders are mostly off the radar now, surpassed in fan following by the New Jersey Devils, who are definitely a Jersey team but have the attention of New Yorkers because of their success.
Beyond the professional teams, New York hosts some of the biggest sporting events in the world. The biggest is probably the U.S. Open in tennis, where the best players in the world battle on the hard court in Flushing Meadows (Queens) in one of the 4 most prestigious tennis tournaments every year.
Though not held there every year, Bethpage Park (on Long Island) is often home to the U.S. Open golf tournament, a 45 minute drive many New Yorkers make in August to see one of the 4 major golf tournaments. The New York City marathon, considered the crown jewel of distance races, is held every November and is considered penultimate of the 5 major distance races every year. Starting across the Verazzano Narrows Bridge in Staten Island, the race takes runner through every borough to the big finish in Central Park.
Belmont Park, just outside the city on Long Island, is home to the Belmont Stakes, part of the Triple Crown of horse racing, and is generally considered one of the “elite” tracks in the world. Like Bethpage Park it is technically outside the city (just as the Jets, Giants and Nets play in New Jersey), but is an easy commute for City-dwellers on the weekend.
In 1994, Giants Stadium (home to the Giants and Jets) hosted World Cup soccer games, and has hosted numerous international games since, including the 2009 Gold Cup championship. With the United States considered a serious contender to host the World Cup again in 2018 or 2022, the massive new Meadowlands Stadium is considered a possibility for the championship game.
Since moving to New York over four years ago, only once has the city been captivated by a single event.
On one occasion only was every topic of conversation and virtually every news story centered on one item. Everyone in the city – regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, home country, or language spoken – all had one thing on their minds. Any guesses what that event was? Hint: it wasn’t Barack Obama winning the election, nor was it the anniversary of September 11. No, New Yorkers were most captivated and unified by the Giants winning the Super Bowl in 2008 – nothing else has come close. So New York is definitely a sports town: with its diversity of interests and teams, like most aspects of the City, there is something for everyone…