As well as being good fun, catching a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on a summer afternoon or joining the screaming throngs at a Steelers football game in Pittsburgh can give visitors an unforgettable insight into a town and its people. Professional teams almost always put on the most spectacular shows, but big games between college rivals, Minor League baseball games and even Friday night high-school football games provide an easy and enjoyable way to get on intimate terms with a place.
Specific details for the most important teams in all the sports are given in the various city accounts in this Guide. They can also be found through the Major League websites: mlb.com (baseball); nba.com (basketball); nfl.com (football); nhl.com (ice hockey); and mlssoccer.com (soccer).
Major spectator sports
Baseball, because the Major League teams play so many games (162 in the regular season, usually at least five a week from April to September, plus the October playoffs), is probably the easiest sport to catch when travelling. The ballparks – such as Boston’s historic Fenway Park, New York’s famed Yankee Stadium, LA’s glamorous Dodger Stadium or Baltimore’s evocative Camden Yards – are great places to spend time. It’s also among the cheapest sports to watch (from around $10–15 a seat for the bleachers), and tickets are usually easy to come by.
Pro football, the American variety, is quite the opposite. Tickets are exorbitantly expensive and almost impossible to obtain (if the team is any good), and most games are played in huge, fortress-like stadiums far out in the suburbs; you’ll do better stopping in a bar to watch it on TV.
College football is a whole lot better and more exciting, with chanting crowds, cheerleaders and cheaper tickets, which can be hard to obtain in football-crazed college towns in parts of the South and Midwest. Although New Year’s Day games such as the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl are all but impossible to see live, big games like USC vs UCLA, Michigan vs Ohio State or Notre Dame vs anybody are not to be missed if you’re anywhere nearby.
Basketball also brings out intense emotions. The protracted pro playoffs run well into June. The men’s month-long college playoff tournament, called “March Madness”, is acclaimed by many as the nation’s most exciting sports extravaganza, taking place at venues spread across the country in many small to mid-sized towns.
Ice hockey, usually referred to simply as hockey, was long the preserve of Canada and cities in the far north of the USA, but now penetrates the rest of the country, with a concentration around the East Coast and Great Lakes. Tickets, particularly for successful teams, are hard to get and not cheap.
Soccer remains much more popular as a participant sport, especially for kids, than a spectator one, and those Americans that are interested in it usually follow foreign matches like England’s Premier League, rather than their home-grown talent. The good news for international travellers is that any decent-sized city will have one or two pubs where you can catch games from England, various European countries or Latin America; check out livesoccertv.com for a list of such establishments and match schedules.
Golf, once the province of moneyed businessmen, has attracted a wider following in recent decades due to the rise of celebrity golfers such as Tiger Woods and the construction of numerous municipal and public courses. You’ll have your best access at these, where a round of golf may cost from $15 for a beaten-down set of links to around $50 for a chintzier course. Private golf courses have varying standards for allowing non-members to play (check their websites) and steeper fees – over $100 a person for the more elite courses.
The other sporting events that attract national interest involve four legs or four wheels. The Kentucky Derby, held in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, is the biggest date on the horse-racing calendar. Also in May, the NASCAR Indianapolis 500, the world’s largest motor-racing event, fills that city with visitors throughout the month, with practice sessions and carnival events building up to the big race.