Sir Richard Turnbull, the last governor of Tanganyika, once assured Denis Healey that “when the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves of history, it will leave behind it only two monuments: one is the game of Association Football, the other is the expression ‘Fuck off’”.
This was unnecessarily pessimistic. The British Empire bequeathed to our former colonies not only the English language, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy, but many sports beyond football. Indians love cricket, South Africans love rugby, and this summer 43 countries will send their finest to Birmingham to compete in the Commonwealth Games.
But among Britain’s former colonies lies an anomaly: the United States. For despite their status as participants in the first international cricket match in which the Yanks lost to Her Majesty’s loyal subjects from Canada in a match played on Broadway and 30th in Manhattan in 1844, and despite the popularity of “soccer” among school children, sport is another thing to confirm the notion of American exceptionalism.
Cricket is played in America, but only really among Indian and Pakistani migrants. Rugby must seem barbaric without all the protective equipment and time-outs of American football. The governing bodies for soccer — or real football as we should call it — are forever told that if they truly want to break the American market, the game needs wider nets, more goals, more breaks in play and no draws.
The late Sir Richard proffered the only response to such crazy proposals. But why, when it comes to sport, is America so different? It cannot be, as some suggest, because Americans need everything faster and bigger than everyone else. American society leads the world in hit-demanding, instantaneous pleasure-seeking, give-me-what-I-want-and-give-it-to-me-now commercialism, but urgency cannot be the issue. Baseball is reassuringly slow. Basketball can go on for hours. It requires the patience of a saint to watch American football with all its stoppages.
Perhaps we need to explore an altogether more horrifying explanation. Might it be that Americans prefer American sports because they are simply superior?
It is certainly the case that in some respects American sports can be more advanced. Cricket has learned from baseball as fielding methods and training have grown more sophisticated. Football — real football — has borrowed ideas from across the Atlantic in the application of data. In planning trips across the Atlantic, I cannot be alone in rushing to book tickets to the baseball and basketball.
It is also true that American sports know better than sports elsewhere how to put on a show. English football clubs — most obviously Tottenham — have copied how American stadia work, hosting other sporting and live events. But nothing here can compare to the entertainment put on at almost any American sporting event. It is not just the Super Bowl: from the music to the hot dogs to the kiss cams, karaoke cams and celeb cams, every second of every event is squeezed for entertainment. Even high school basketball teams get cheerleaders.
In England the lunchtime entertainment at a test match is the Yorkshire Tea brass band, where the musicians parade around the pitch dressed as giant kettles and tea pots.
In football, a brief 1990s experiment with cheerleaders at Villa Park ended badly when oafish fans sang sexist songs. Even without that, it cannot have been much fun for the cheerleaders, since Birmingham on a cold January night does not much resemble California on a summer day.
But if American sports put on plenty of extra-curricular entertainment, it does not follow that their sports are better. While in the rest of the world we are entertained enough by sport, in America the sport requires something extra. We fans can be subjective about it: surely the skill of bowling in cricket is greater than pitching in baseball, real football more graceful and skilful than American football, and rugby more physically and technically demanding than anything produced the other side of the Atlantic?
Alternatively, we can try to be objective, inventing and comparing metrics to test skills: speed, strength, force, stamina, technique. But it would all be misleading and impossible to compare. Just as Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time in basketball, his switch into baseball was a flop; what works in rugby might not work in American football, and vice versa. The only metric we can really use to settle the argument is global popularity — and here American sports are behind.
Not that they care. For perhaps what America likes about American sports is America: it is after all the land of hype and hope, razzmatazz and self-sufficiency. Who else could get away with the ludicrously-titled baseball World Series?
And for the rest of us, perhaps how we feel about American sports reflects our ambivalence about America. While in the States, we might attend a game, stuff ourselves with super-sized burgers and marvel at the show. But we also choose not to import it, preferring to stick to our own sports.
Our sporting identity, like our national and cultural identity, lies in the specificities of place, tradition and habit — and long may that be the case.