Monday, January 12, 2015

Ohio State

Every year, it seems, I see various posts on social media from friends who bemoan the reality that the Ohio State Buckeyes have a large following, even from people who have never attended school there. Heck, many of those same fans actually attend or attended school at another school, often an in-state school like Kent State, Akron, Bowling Green, Ohio U, etc. yet you'll still find them sporting Ohio State gear at some point. Why is that, and is it all that unusual?

I'm one of those who fit in that mold of being an Ohio State fan but never having attended classes there. Even so, it's not like I have no connections to the school; my grandpa got his PhD from Ohio State and two of my aunts have advanced degrees from OSU (one a master's, one a PhD). Just from that, I was raised in a very pro-OSU environment, on top of the fact that OSU games are mostly broadcast on local TV every week, so it was easy to watch. At the same time, though, that same grandpa also took me to virtually all of my early Kent State athletic events (football, and men's and women's basketball) and he and my grandma are long-time financial supporters of KSU athletics even with their attachment to OSU. Come to think of it, the only OSU athletic event my grandma has been to that I can remember was when she and my aunt (who was finishing her PhD at Ohio State at the time) went to the 1997 Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, the thriller where OSU came back to beat Arizona State 20-17.

In my lifetime, I have been to five Ohio State football games, three of which were held in Columbus and one in Cleveland. The first two were in the mid-1990s when that aforementioned aunt was there getting her PhD in sport management. As a grad student, she had football tickets, so I was able to go to one game in 1996 with her and one of her friends (#3 OSU 38, #4 Penn State 7), and then my sister and I attended a game in 1997 (#7 OSU 24, #11 Iowa 7). The next time I was at a game in Ohio Stadium was just this past year, when OSU beat Kent State 66-0. For that game, I wore my yellow KSU hat, a blue KSU shirt, and my red OSU fleece jacket. I was most definitely conflicted!

Inside Ohio Stadium this past September sporting my KSU and OSU gear. I was pleasantly surprised how many KSU fans I saw at the stadium, though!

Outside Ohio Stadium with my sister Katie. It was our 2nd trip to Ohio Stadium together and first since 1997! 

I've been to two road games, one in 2009 when OSU beat Toledo 38-0 in Cleveland and then in 2013 when OSU won 56-0 at Purdue. That game was my first true OSU road game and came as a result of my sister and brother-in-law living about an hour and a half from West Lafayette, Indiana (home of Purdue University) and tickets for that game being as low as $10. It was the first OSU game for my youngest sister and brother-in-law, who like me are both KSU alums.

OSU vs. Toledo game at Cleveland Browns Stadium, September 2009, with my friend Michelle. It was a "home" game for Toledo, but the crowd was almost all dressed in scarlet and gray.

OSU vs. Purdue game last November (2013) in West Lafayette with my sister Becky. The game was Purdue's "blackout" game, but there were as many, if not more, fans in red than black. 

Now, compared to my attendance at Kent State athletic events, my OSU support is almost non-existent. This season I've already been to more than five KSU athletic events, which is the norm every year. Obviously distance is a factor (I can walk to KSU...Columbus is a two-hour drive from here), but so is cost (KSU events are significantly less expensive). Heck, even my the OSU game I went to this year was also a road-trip for KSU! Pretty much all of the OSU games I watch are on TV. But for KSU? Well, see just a few examples of my trips to KSU athletic events...

KSU vs. Akron men's basketball game in 2011

KSU at Toledo in men's basketball in 2012, one of several road trips I've taken for KSU. I've seen KSU play in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Bowling Green, and even in Logan, Utah!
KSU at Bowling Green in football in 2012, my first road trip for KSU football

KSU home game this past fall!

Now, with my experience in mind, why is it that so many people are fans even though, like me, they never went to OSU as a student? First and foremost, people need to understand that such a situation is hardly unique for the state of Ohio. OSU is easily the largest school in the state and has the most successful big-time football program over generations. The same is true for states like Michigan (UM and Michigan State), Texas (UT, Texas A&M), Nebraska, Wisconsin, Alabama (UA and Auburn), and others, as well as for schools like Notre Dame with Catholics and BYU with Latter-day Saints. (I have to say, it's quite ironic when I see Notre Dame fans in Ohio complain about OSU fans who never went to OSU...there's a good chance they never attended Notre Dame either, which has an enrollment of less than 10,000). Pretty much any major college team that wins consistently is going to have a large amount of fans who have a broader connection to the team (i.e. a casual connection like the same state or similar), but not to the school itself. In other words, you have fans and alumni of The Ohio State University and you have fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes. The latter group is similar to fans of professional teams. 99.9999% of the fans of pro teams never played for that team, they just typically follow them either because it is (or was) their local team or they like a specific player. Again, this is not unique to Ohio or Ohio State; its something that happens all over the sports world.

While not the only Division I school, Ohio State is also currently the only school in Ohio to play in one of the "Power Five" conferences. Of the remaining Division I football programs in Ohio, six play in the Mid-American Conference (Miami, Ohio U, Toledo, Bowling Green, Akron, & Kent State), one plays in the American Athletic Conference (Cincinnati), and the others play at the FCS level (Dayton & Youngstown State). Wright State and Cleveland State are Division I schools as well, but do not sponsor football. Because of that, while the other Division I FBS schools are technically eligible to play in the new College Football Playoff, the likelihood of any of the teams outside the "Power Five" conferences is very low.

The other factor that people seem to miss is the support for the Buckeyes is far more in football than it is for basketball. Yes, Ohio State draws well for basketball, but nowhere near what they draw for football. For instance, I mentioned the OSU-Toledo game I attended in Cleveland back in 2009. That game drew over 71,000, almost all of whom were Ohio State fans. Two years earlier, OSU played Cleveland State at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and while OSU had a very large crowd there, the 20,652-seat arena was nowhere near full (announced attendance of 12,715), even though it was the season immediately after OSU made the national title game. (They did draw well in Cleveland when they played at the Q for the first two rounds of the 2011 NCAA tournament, though their games were not the only games played there. The games, though, were sold out). Even in Columbus, OSU basketball isn't sold out consistently. Conversely, the schools that have consistently great basketball teams, but not so much in football (Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, etc.) have much better fan support in basketball when they travel, similar to OSU in football. For instance, ask someone who identifies as a Duke fan (but never went to school there or even lived in the state of North Carolina) and there's a pretty good chance they are fans of Duke men's basketball, not football.

Two views (top: north and west stands; bottom: south and east stands) of Cleveland Browns Stadium during the OSU-Toledo game in September 2009. Attendance was announced at 71,727, overwhelmingly Ohio State fans

Ohio State vs. Cleveland State in men's basketball in December 2007 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. 

There are many factors into why people follow certain teams in sports, but I guess it surprises me when some act like it's a crime to follow a college team that a person doesn't have a direct connection to. In the end, major college athletics attract fans regardless of alumni status for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is simply the success of a given team. Like with me, I was raised rooting for OSU, but when it came time to go to college, the best choice for me wasn't Ohio State. That didn't really affect my fan support of OSU football, though just so everyone knows, in the rare times that KSU does play OSU in any sport, I ALWAYS root for my hometown school and alma mater, even in football (and yes, KSU beating OSU in football would be an upset of mammoth proportions).

That said, GO BUCKS! and GO FLASHES!