Okay, in truth, Boston and New York sports franchises have more rings than a Vegas pawn shop. In the past decade, a team from one of the two cities has played for a major championship every year except 2006. In all, fans from New York and Boston have celebrated nine titles in the past decade, including four of the past 10 Super Bowl winners.
While a title game might feel like a birthright for some, today’s Super Bowl XLVI matchup gives everyone else something to cheer against.
“The only good thing about this game is that one of the teams is going to lose,” said Todd Crosset, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts who teaches the sociology of sport. “We can all feel good about that.”
Something about those cities — backward sense of civility? funny accents? insecurity disguised as self-importance? a near-monopoly on tall buildings? — has a way of drawing together an otherwise polarized nation. There’s a common cause that’s easy for many to get behind.
Tim Groseclose, a professor of political science and economics at UCLA, has spent a professional lifetime studying politics, media and biases, and when it comes to big East Coast cities and their sporting teams, there’s little to debate.
“We Arkansans and Oklahomans sometimes call people from Boston or New York ‘Yankees,’ which we mean as a synonym for ‘rude, Northern person,’ ” Groseclose said. “Hank Williams Jr. might have said it best: ‘If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t want to go. . . . You can send me to hell or New York City. It’d be about the same to me.’”
In the oft-times insular world of pro sports, the nation’s attitudes for New York and Boston are no secret. The successes of their teams serve as inspiration for taunts and barbs. Road trips in the NFL are merely sleepovers in a lion’s den.
“It is polarizing,” said former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC Sports, “but there’s been some tremendous athletes and coaches in both these cities.”
The successes of the sports teams serve as kindling, while the more potent fuel for many is a perceived overexposure of East Coast teams. And critics point to a singular culprit.
“Ask anyone in Chicago, Detroit, Iowa, Minnesota — it just feels like a large portion of the country gets ignored,” said Steve “Sparky” Fifer, a sports talk radio host for WSSP-AM in Milwaukee. “So it’s not necessarily a hatred or dislike for the team specific teams, it’s the dislike for ESPN and the coverage they provide. From a fan perspective, if you turn on ESPN during the baseball season, good luck seeing Brewers highlights. Right now, regardless of how good the Knicks are, you’ll see Knicks and Celtics every night.”
John Ourand, who covers media and television for the SportsBusiness Journal, said “East Coast bias” is a real phenomenon but not necessarily a true bias. Television’s decision-makers don’t favor particular teams; they favor money, he said.
“There are markets that have teams and people follow that passion whether they like them or hate them,” Ourand said. “Even when you hate them, you’re watching.”
The 2008 Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Giants — XLII in Roman terms — was watched by 97.5 million people. At the time, no sporting event had ever drawn so many eyeballs. The Super Bowl has set a new viewership record every year since, and this year’s game is expected to eclipse last year’s mark of 111 million viewers.
Not surprisingly, ESPN drenched its viewers in reporting on the Patriots and Giants last week. Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, said they’ve had 110 hours of live radio and television programming from Indianapolis in the past week, up about 10 hours from last year’s Super Bowl. But the specific matchup between New York and Boston teams had little to do with the coverage, he said.
“The Super Bowl to me is different than a Red Sox-Yankees regular season game in August because the nature of the game,” Gross said. “. . . I know some people may say there’s a Northeast or an East Coast bias, but you can’t argue with the ratings and the interest in those games versus the other games.”
According to the network’s own research, four of the nation’s top 15 favorite pro sports are from either New York or Boston. While teams such as the Yankees, Patriots, Red Sox and Giants appeal to fans in their home markets, their reach extends far beyond the back yard. More than 52 percent of Giants fans live outside of New York, according to ESPN Sports Poll data, and 57 percent of Pats fans reside outside of Boston.
While Super Bowl XLVI will be watched worldwide, life will come to a halt Sunday evening throughout the Northeast. Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports, which is broadcasting Sunday’s game, calls the event a “national holiday.” That probably understates its significance to many. Animosity for the two teams might stretch from coast to coast, but passions run hottest in New York and New England, neighboring markets whose teams usually compete in similar divisions and conferences.
“Once I came to this team in New England, they basically told me the first week I was there, if you're going to hate anybody, hate the New York Jets, hate any New York team,” said Rodney Harrison, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots during his 15-year NFL career. “That first week of being there, you kind of fell into that whole mind-set: anything New York, you hate.”
That hostility says little about the Giants and Patriots, but it does reveal something about the rest of us. Experts say people gravitate toward underdogs. Teams from Boston and New York have giant payrolls, larger-than-life characters and decades of tradition and success. Losers are lovable, and winners wear targets. Sports fans love to hate, and a Good vs. Evil story line is an easy one to process. So is Evil vs. Evil.
“Sports have always been about rooting against villains,” said Michael Moorby, proprietor of the Web site YankeesHater.com. “And villains are wonderful for sports.”