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I was really quite surprised the first time I traveled to the United States and I saw that they had college football on the tv and it was a big deal.
Things are very different in Australia. University or school sport isn't such a big thing, except maybe for the wealthy people who send their kids to expensive private schools that compete against each other. But the general public outside that social circle couldn't care less about it, and it is rarely televised nor covered much at all in the media.
I think one of the major differences is probably the way kids in America go to college to live for a few years. It probably builds a much stronger bond with their school and the people there, unlike here where the majority of students live at home and travel to university each day. In fact I could even see how people would be more attached to their school team than a professional franchise placed in their city, like we were talking about in the football thread the other day.
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Like I said, it's a phenomenon that I never really quite got into in the US, even in spite of living there for most of my life and growing up there.
You're right in your assessment that it is tied to the whole concept of how people relate to university in the United States. In most cases, students do go off to live at the school and not just to study there. It does forge a stronger bond, but I never quite understood how or why the whole quasi-professional sports team concept came about. There is a lot of money tied up in it and universities claim that it helps attract more highly-qualified applicants (there is empirical evidence to back up this latter fact) but it still somewhat of a difficult concept for me to grasp.
What you mentioned at the end there is a very good point. For a lot of cities that do not have professional franchises, college sports teams can fill a pretty big gap for fans.
As far as the games themselves go, however, there is a lot of good things to be said for how they differ from their professional sport counterparts. In all of the big four - hockey, american football, baseball and basketball - the games are more open and more high-scoring, which is always fun. Plus, its nice to see college kids go all out for the sake of going all out, and not for money.
I think indubitably the most fun month of college sports is 'March Madness,' the final basketball tourney that starts with 64 teams. Has anyone had a chance to witness this crazy, entertaining month of aptly-named madness?