Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 Year In Review

2009 has been a great year for sport, and a great year for me. While it may have started off slowly – stuck at home working a job I hated – by mid year I quit my job and hit the road again, and have enjoyed an amazing six months of travel and world class sport.

So here it is, my list of my most memorable sport and travel events of 2009. Some were highlights, others less so. But when sport and travel is involved, can ya really lose?

2009 Australian Open Grand Slam Final – Federer V Nadal
My first big sporting event of the year – as it is most years, is the Australian Open tennis. Thanks to a good friend with a spare ticket, I was able to go to the mens final which featured the two best players in the world slugging it out over five sets.

2009 NBL Grand Final Series – Tigers V Dragons
A small event on a world scale – or even an Australian sport scale – but a big one for me, with my Melbourne Tigers going against the cross town rivals in a five game final series. While the Tigers ultimately lost in five, the crowd support over the nine days showed that basketball in Melbourne could be a success, despite the champion Dragons not entering a team in the new league.

2009 AFL Grand Final
With the Saints winning all of their games before I left the country, I felt sure they could win their first premiership since 1966, and when they made the Grand Final, I had to find somewhere to watch it. Luckily enough I was in New York – where you can find anything – and I managed to find an Australian bar full of my countrymen watching the game. While the Saints also lost (I sense a pattern), the atmosphere of being in a bar in New York filled with other Aussies (and at least one scared New Yorker) was an event in itself.

Live College Football – Tennessee Volunteers @ Neyland Stadium
College Football is crazy. While I’d never even watched a college football game on TV before, I knew one of the things I had to do while in the US was go to an NCAA game, and while staying with friends near Knoxville, Tennessee, I had the chance to see the “Vols” who’s fans are among the most devoted and passionate in the country. No kidding. Sitting in Neyland stadium with 100,000 odd other people was an incredible experience. It didn’t matter at all that we were two rows from the back or that the Vols destroyed the opposition 63-7.

Major League Baseball at Wrigley Field.
I went along to an Atlanta Braves baseball game a few months prior, however nothing can compare to the history of seeing the Chicago Cubs at the second oldest stadium in Major League Baseball. The seats aren’t very comfortable. The seating is restricted, and the back wall is covered in Ivy – and I wouldn’t have it any other way, and neither would any of the legion of other Cubs fans who love the stadium almost as much as their team. Wrigleyville – the area just outside of the stadium full of bars that the fans flow into after the game – was another rare experience.

New York Knicks @ Madison Square Garden
Ok, so it was only a pre season game, but it was my first NBA experience, and it still had everything. The big crowd, the over the top introductions, and Knicks fans booing one of their own players. The Knicks are a team on the rise, and a trip back to the most famous basketball stadium in the world will be a bigger ticket item if they land LeBron James in the summer.

NBA Road Trip – Nine Games in Seven Cities
Starting with two games in Toronto and finishing with an unplanned road trip to Portland, November of this year was this NBA fan’s dream. I got to see my Raptors twice in Toronto, two Australians, Nathan Jawaii and David Andersen, go head to head in Minnesota as well as Australia’s most successful NBA player, Andrew Bogut twice in Milwaukee. I was treated to rookie Brandon Jennings lighting it up for 55 points, Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy hit buzzer beating game winners, and the home of the legendary Chicago Bulls. It just doesn’t get any better. Oh, and I also met Chicago Bulls star Derek Rose.

Hockey Night in Canada
Arriving in Canada, I knew that (Ice) Hockey was a big deal and that I would have to learn all about it or risk not having anything to talk about. I think I still managed to underestimate how big it is though. It is everything. So I soon picked a side, and went about watching them at the local bar every other night. It’s a tough life isn’t it? Within a week I decided I had to go see the game in person, so went along to the Bell Centre in Montreal to watch my newly adopted “Canadiens” defeat the New York Islanders with a golden goal in the extra period. The atmosphere was as good as any sporting arena I’ve ever been in.

Cheer for the Anthem
My second NHL game came in Chicago to watch the Blackhawks fans, who have one of the strangest traditions I’ve ever seen. While most stadiums request the fans to be silent during the national anthem, the fans in Chicago cheer as loud as possible, and the result is quite unique experience, and it works. The atmosphere is amazing.  Below, is possibly the best ever rendition, from the 1991 All Star game.  While the current version isn't quite as crazy, it is still pretty incedible.

McKale Centre – Home of the Arizona Wildcats
While there was no game on at the time I visited the campus of the University of Arizona, just getting to walk on to the court of this NCAA Division One champion was very exciting for me. It also made me realise just how good the facilities are for sport in the US. This was the sort of stadium teams in Australia could only dream about, and in the US college system, it was only average.

I like to watch sport
I love watching sport, but occasionally I am compelled to try some of my own. There were two such occasions while travelling this year. The first was, after arriving in Los Angeles, and staying on Santa Monica, I decided that I had to go for a run along Santa Monica beach – and yes, I did have the theme to Baywatch in my head the whole time. My only other sporting activity for the past six months, was getting on the back of a horse for the first time ever – at the age of 29 – while I was in Tennessee. I’m far from a cowboy, but it was fun, and something I might do again some time in the future.

With 2009 done and dusted, I now look forward to the events of 2010.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Sport at Christmas?

With Christmas in just a few days time, most people are preparing for big family dinners, buying last minute presents, and looking forward to seeing their family and friends, sometimes for the first time since last Christmas. Most people that is, but not me.

I’m getting ready to take advantage of something that I think North American pro sport does well – Sport at Christmas time. While I wont be able to attend the events myself, a veritable feast awaits for my TV viewing pleasure. Now I know a lot of you may baulk at this, but I think sport and holidays go together perfectly.

Sport at holidays isn’t that unusual. Growing up in Australia, every boxing day was spent watching the Boxing Day Test, even if you’re at a Christmas party – and even if the person hosting the party had no interest in cricket, it became part of the Christmas/Boxing Day tradition to have the tube on watching Australia sledge there way through another Boxing Day victory. And when does anyone in Australia care at all about Yacht racing, except for the Sydney to Hobart which also starts on Boxing Day. It’s just like the diving at the Olympics, everyone becomes an expert.

The reason sport at the holidays works, is that the event becomes bigger than the sport itself. People associate all the good feelings they have about the day with the match (whatever it is) and that becomes part of their family tradition.

There’s no better example in Australia than the Anzac Day clash in the AFL. The same two teams, Essendon and Collingwood, play each year, largely because they’re the two teams with the biggest following traditionally. The game has been played every Anzac Day since 1995, and while the two teams aren’t always in the upper echelon talent wise, the game always attracts the best crowd for the season – often 100,000 people, aside from the AFL Grand Final. It’s become an event in itself. The AFL embraced Anzac Day and its importance, and created an event that is now as much an Anzac Day tradition as the march to the Shrine of Remembrance.

Some sports codes are hesitant to adopt holiday dates as part of their fixtures, as they fear lack of support as fans have their own traditions, however I believe that league administrations should be more prepared to take the risk, as all traditions have to start with a first time. Other examples of sport on Holidays are cricket on Australia Day, AFL on Easter Sunday, and of course, NFL football on Thanksgiving in the US. How many of these events were considered risky when first contemplated?

This year, with nothing but time, I’m looking forward to watching the Cleveland Cavaliers in LA against the Lakers on Christmas day, with the two biggest names in the game – LeBron and Kobe – going at it. While I would love to have my friends and family around me at the time, I’m looking forward to something different.

Now, if only I could find a channel covering the Boxing Day Test….

Monday, 14 December 2009

Olympic Fever!

Olympic fever is going around Vancouver and its very contagious!

One of my biggest regrets was missing out on the Sydney 2000 Olympic games. It was in my own country and due to me being a poor student, I didn’t do enough to get myself to Sydney and be part of it. When I found out that the 2010 Winter Olympics would be in Vancouver in February, I knew that I had to be part of it, so while starting my 2 year working holiday in Toronto or Montreal would have been better for me for every other sport, the chance to live and work in an Olympic city as it gears up towards the games was too much to pass up.
Sure, the Winter Olympics are different. Australia always prides itself on its results at the Summer Olympics. We generally fight above our weight with a pretty small population, but in the Winter Olympics? We have just three gold medals ever, and only six total medals. It’s not surprising given our lack of (good quality) snow and ice facilities in Australia, and our best bet at getting medals in 2 months time may still be another Steve Bradbury.

None of that makes the upcoming games any less exciting for me however. Being part of one of the world biggest sporting events is about more than just the actual sports, or people from my country winning or losing. It’s going to have people from all over the world coming for a big party, and what can be better than that?

There are people in Vancouver who aren’t as excited about the coming games as I am. Like any big event, the Winter Olympics will cost the locals a lot of money, and many residents feel this, along with limited access to many of the event locations for the months leading up to the games, is too much to give up for the two week competition. Many, however, are embracing the games, with business looking to take advantage of the thousands of tourists set to flock in, while individuals are also getting into it, renting out their spare rooms for the games in the hope of making a little extra cash.

Vancouver is a very international city, and there’s already thousands of people flocking here to be part of the games, accepting low pay and long hours to be part of what really could be a once in a lifetime experience. Myself included. I’ve signed up to be a part of it. The pay is terrible, the hours potential very long, and the job itself something a slightly trained monkey might be able to handle. Having said all of that, I cant wait. I’ll be part of a temporary workforce of thousands, toiling away behind the scenes to help make sure this event goes off without a hitch.

My long term goal is to get to all of the worlds biggest sporting events over the next few years, however this is probably my only chance to live somewhere before, during and after the games, and I intend to make the most of it.

Bring on February!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Road Trip!

Who doesn’t love a road trip? And when you’re off to watch your team take on some interstate – or international – opposition, it just adds to the sense of adventure.

I was lucky enough to have a road trip fall into my lap 2 days after arriving in Vancouver. A group of 16 guys and girls from Canada, Ireland and Australia all living and working in Vancouver had organised to head down Portland, Oregon to watch the NBA game between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers. Fortunately for myself, some people pulled out, so just a day before heading off, I was offered a spot. It had everything – my favourite sport, spontaneity, and a large group of people off to explore a new city and check out some sport – how could I say no and still call myself the Travelling Sports Fan?

While nobody in the group was a fan of either team, it didn’t matter, as the road trip itself, and the spectacle of the game was enough, and sure enough we were treated to a great game with Blazers star Brandon Roy hitting an unlikely game winner. The rest of the trip? Well the old adage, “what happens on the road stays on the road” will be used by some for sure. Needless to say it involved a few drinks, and finished with our group probably not being welcome back at the Hilton, Portland.

The Road Trip is a great tradition in sport, and is probably everyones first experience with the combination of Sport and Travel. I remember my first road trip, with a bus load of Melbourne basketball fans up in Sydney to watch our undermanned team an otherwise fairly meaningless game, but getting that win on the road almost feels like you’re taking on the world.

The best road trips are the ones with a few good mates in car, and while the sport is obviously a big factor, its really just an excuse for a good weekend away.

Possibly the best road trip of my life involved my best mate giving me a call asking if I wanted to join him on a drive to Sydney that night, for a game in two days time, with New Years Eve the following night. While I was a poor student at the time, the offer was too good to refuse.

The best part of being based in North America at the moment, is the chance for many road trips over the next 2 years. With my goal of seeing an NBA game in each of the 29 NBA cities, this weekend will be the first of many road trips.

Has anyone else ever had an any memorable road trips?  Good or Bad?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What is better than Sport and Travelling?

I Love Sport.

No kidding, I'm a guy. Not exactly a big revelation.

No I mean I REALLY love sport. Any sport really. It's got everything, heroes, villains, comedy, tragedy. Australian Rules Football was my first sports love, Basketball perhaps my biggest.

I'm also a massive travel junkie. Since I got my passport 5 years ago, all I've wanted to do is get out and see the world.

These two things would seem at odds with each other - how do you follow your footy team back home when you're away for two years at a time? They don't have to be though.

I've discovered in my travels, that, while I still love the sports, leagues and teams I grew up with, I become addicted to the local sports and teams when I get somewhere else. It has all of the same elements. While the game itself may be different, all of the good stuff is still there. The passion for your club, the historical (and often arbitrary) arch rivals, and people coming together for a shared goal.

The perfect example of how much of a travelling sports junkie I really am - and the inspiration to start blogging - came on the weekend just past, when I was in Calgary during the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup. I'd never heard of the Grey Cup - the CFL's version of the Super Bowl - until a week ago, while in Saskatoon, Canada, with some local friends watching their team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, win their way into the cup against the Montreal Alouettes.

When I arrived in Calgary, the host city, it was filled with football fans from all over Canada who were there to celebrate their game and enjoy the Grey Cup Festival. Even fans of the teams who didn't make the final were there proudly wearing their teams colours. This was a celebration of the sport and the game as much as it was about who was going to be the eventual champion.

I found myself well and truly caught up in the atmosphere, and while I still didn't know a thing about Canadian Football, I adopted a team - the Roughriders - and joined in the festivities.

The game itself was no let down. Montreal were the favourites, while Saskatchewan were easily the crowd favourite, with a sea of green in the stands. While the 'Riders got out to a good lead at half time, Montreal fought back and won in a fashion befitting a Hollywood movie. Damon Duvall, the Kicker/Punter for Montreal had a very dirty match, shanking a pair of punts in the third quarter to gift the 'Riders a score. He would have his chance at redemption however, lining up for goal with 2 seconds on the clock. He missed it. More pain. And yet another chance. The Roughriders had too many men on the field, so he would now line up from 10 yards closer, and this time there would be no mistake. He was now a hero. Where else can you get drama like that other than the sports field?

Throughout the game I cheered, booed, celebrated, rode every pass, every kick and ultimately was bitterly disappointed that the Roughriders lost, despite being a fan of the game for exactly one week. I couldn't have been more into it had it been my beloved St Kilda Saints losing a winnable AFL Grand Final. Oh, lets not talk about that.
I've been lucky enough to witness some amazing things happen in sport, in stadiums (and bars) all over the world. But I'm just getting started. Over the next two years I'm going to be living in Canada and trying to get to as many sporting contests as possible in North America (and hopefully Europe) with a big one first as the 2010 Winter Olympics comes to my new home, Vancouver in a little over two months.

On this blog I plan on talking about all things to do with sports throughout the world. The similarities, the differences, what makes each sport so important to each region and what lessons my favourite sports in Australia could take from all of this.

Most of all I'm gonna have some fun. After all, what could possibly be better then travelling and watching the top sports in the world?