When 2015 power forward Craig Victor casually referred to Kentucky as "America's Team"
on Friday night at an NBPA Top 100 camp, I didn't think much of it. The quote seemed like the type of thing an excited young high schooler might say when talking about the possibility of playing for one of college basketball's hottest basketball programs at the moment. Although his quote added some context and detail when he further explained with "That's the dream to play at Kentucky (for all high school players)."
Of course many of our Louisville fan friends (and I use that term loosely) across the state were quick to jump on Kentucky as "America's Team" being a completely false and moronic idea. While I can probably agree that most fans from other schools, especially rival schools, would not label Kentucky this way... I got to thinking... Does "America's Team" exist in college basketball?
I'm not sure it does. The Dallas Cowboys have been the one professional sports team to really carry the nickname for years now. While I'm not sure the Cowboys recent on-field success has lived up to the history, past success and popularity of some of the teams and players who helped start the notion of "America's Team," the fact is that the label still at least loosely exists. Does the concept translate at all though to college basketball?
The key criteria for being "America's Team":
- Exposure, exposure, exposure!
The nickname "America's Team" for the Dallas Cowboys originated in a 1978 highlight film when the narrator opened with the following introduction:
"They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars. They are the Dallas Cowboys, 'America's Team.'"
In order to be America's Team, America has to be able to watch you play on a regular basis. The teams that are featured the most on ESPN, CBS, etc. have a major advantage here. Many teams have games that are just shown regionally and in the local market. The national exposure on a weekly basis is what sets some teams apart.
- A large built in fan base
Not only must the rest of the country have exposure to the team, but the team must have a very loyal and large/intense built-in fan base to begin with. The bandwagon fans will always hop on, especially when the team is having a successful season. But the core of the fan base must always be in tact and faithful.
- Popular Players/Good Players
People tend to like guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, etc. Why? Because they are good. Those are 3 of the most popular players in the NBA. Sure, some people hate them... but for every person who hates them, at least 1 or 2 more love them because they are just flat out good at what they do. If you have a favorite team, you will always make it a point to catch that game on television. If you are looking for another game to catch later on that day, you are likely to turn to whichever game has the stars and popular players. If you can't watch your own team, why not watch the best players?
- Popular coaches
Perhaps more so than any other sport, college basketball coaches are often the face and most well-known entity in their program. Due to players graduating or leaving early for the NBA or transferring, the turnover rate for players is fairly high. The coaches tend to last longer in many cases, often times becoming synonymous with the program.
- The "cool" factor
Much of the "cool" factor comes from marketing strategies. Take a team like Oregon football for example. Oregon football has the corner on the market for cool and unique uniforms. Some other teams have started to enter the playing field, but Oregon was doing it before anyone else was doing it.
- A mixture of hate and likability
Have you ever heard the line "Haters Make Me Famous?" No? Well, you clearly haven't seen the bedazzled t-shirt that Wal-Mart sells then. Anyway, the only thing that makes you more of a subject of conversation than when people like you is when people hate you. If you can't be loved, the next best thing as far as being in the news/popular is for people to hate you. Haven't you ever watched a Duke game or a Louisville game just with the hopes that they might lose?
- An exciting brand/style of play
The more casual fan who does not have a clear-cut or established connection to one team in particular might choose to latch on to a team simply because the style of play is exciting. It has not only worked in college basketball, but in other sports as well. For example, Matthew Mitchell's "40 minutes of Hell" defense has won over a lot of casual viewers and Kentucky fans who normally didn't pay particularly close attention to women's basketball. If you are looking for a team to follow somewhat closely during the season, you probably aren't going to pick a style of play that isn't very exciting. How many people are dying to catch a Wisconsin basketball game? As consistent as they are...it's just not exciting.
Everyone likes to watch a winner. It's just more fun when the team who you are cheering for is winning. This may result in fans who are ultimately nothing more than bandwagon fans, but they still latch on to teams who are doing well.
Simply based off the criteria listed above, Kentucky actually hits the mark in virtually every category. Exposure, popular/good players, a mixture of hate and likability, and success are all areas in which Kentucky excels. In all honesty though, you could make an argument for Kentucky meeting all of the above criteria. The perception of John Calipari among many across the country, which is often times fueled by the media, might be the one thing that holds Kentucky back in some instances.
I still think in college basketball that it is hard to peg a team as "America's Team." Those who are fairly serious college basketball fans tend to be fiercely loyal to one school while almost disregarding all others. Those who are not huge college basketball fans often don't necessarily tune in or take much of a rooting interest. Some people are more interested in professional sports or college football for most of the year until March Madness.
If there were to be a list of candidates for "America's Team," here are a few that might make the cut based on the criteria (the main one being exposure in my mind):
(In no particular order):
I actually think the underdog often becomes "America's Team."
The entire country never pays more attention to college basketball than during the NCAA tournament. An unexpected team or two always seems to capture the attention and hearts of the country for a week or two (think Butler, Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast).
So while I'm not necessarily ready to anoint Kentucky basketball as "America's Team," I will say that the idea is far from outrageous.