For All Suitably Restricted Definitions of ‘World’

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2004

Tim Dunlop encounters U.S. sports commentators at their most excitable:

Over the last few days I’ve heard four radio commentators refer to the Superbowl as the “most important sporting event in the world”. Those exact words.

This is especially true this year with the eagerly-awaited Lingerie Bowl at half-time. Depending on your outlook, the Lingerie Bowl is either (1) A measure of how deeply the Title IX revolution in women’s athletics has penetrated into the football industry, (2) A high-end version of the noble American tradition of powder puff football; or (3) Sadly available only on Pay-Per-View.

Anyway, the most important sporting event in the world is the All Ireland Hurling Final.



WillieStyle 02.01.04 at 12:13 am

You know what, I’ve been here for 10 years now and I still haven’t gotten over how parochial this country is.

I’ll give you a dollar if you stop calling it the “World Series”.


Dan Shannon 02.01.04 at 12:40 am

Or how about (4) an almost valid excuse for everyone else in the world to hate our guts?


Brian Weatherson 02.01.04 at 1:12 am

What’s funny about the comments Tim’s been hearing is that there’s this sporting event in Athens this summer that even by American standards you’d think would be up on the radar screens.

I’ve grown kinda fond of World Series as a term for playoffs. It’s especially neat in derived forms, like “Caribbean World Series” and “College World Series”.


Barry 02.01.04 at 1:25 am

Irish Hurling Championships? I’ve got to admit that American soldiers (I was one) aren’t that good at drinking, on a world scale. But I’ve seen the English soldiers drink, and I can’t believe that anybody could beat them for hurling. Not even the Irish.

And I never got the chance to check out Russian drinking, but I’m sure that vodka chugging must lead to some good hurling. And with all of that borsch, the Russian hurling should be spectacularly red.


Keith M Ellis 02.01.04 at 1:51 am

You know what, I’ve been here for 10 years now and I still haven’t gotten over how parochial this country is.“—williestyle

It is pretty amazing. But in defense of my fellow Americans, circumstances are such that it’s unlikely it would be otherwise. How parochial do you think the average Chinese person is? We’ve nearly got a whole continent to ourselves, there’s a bazillion of us, we’re the economic colossus and we export our culture. It’s nothing like being a European.

That doesn’t make it right.

This is an opportunity for me to tell a favorite story. About ten years ago I was having a long conversation with a conservative friend of mine about international politics and how little Americans are aware. I’ve always been outward looking, I’ve always seen American politics as being (at least partly) in the context of world politics. And my friend’s response to this was: “That’s why I’d never vote for you for President.” I was astonished.

Surely the most “important” (whatever that might mean) sporting event in the world would be the World Cup.

By the way, in its heyday, the Indianopolis 500 was the largest attended single sporting even in the world, with crowds (because of the infield) upwards of 500,000. I don’t know if this is still true.


Keith 02.01.04 at 2:07 am

I think you’d have to extend your definition to “single-day sporting event”. The Tour De France gets over a million spectators.


Keith M Ellis 02.01.04 at 2:15 am

Good point. All such claims should be taken with a big dose of salt, however.

Here’s a page on some of the urban legends that surround the Superbowl.


Invisible Adjunct 02.01.04 at 2:25 am

“Anyway, the most important sporting event in the world is the All Ireland Hurling Final.”

I beg to differ. As a Canadian, I have to insist that the most important sporting event in the world is the Canada Cup of Curling (but don’t look for scantily clad women, because a curling rink is just too darn cold for such shenanigans).


andrew 02.01.04 at 2:43 am

Being without a TV, I just heard of the Lingerie Bowl. Interest in sex and violence being hard-wired is one thing, even the combination of the two is understandable. Do enthusiasts of sexually suggestive “catfights” or mudwrestling, or lingerie football know why they like it? Is it just that domination, pain and humiliation inflicted on girls pushes our buttons, but we have been culturally conditioned to pretend we don’t like it when done by men? I mean, do girls beating on each other allow us to enjoy it, guilt-free?

How much different is this than sexual assault? Rape videos (staged or not) are more than a trivial phenomena on the internet, where men don’t have to be ashamed that they like it.

It’s more than creepy to me that this is nationwide and prime-time.


brayden 02.01.04 at 2:48 am

Sports broadcasters are not expected to be reasonable, globally-aware, intellectually-stimulating analysts. They’re supposed to make you excited about whatever sport it is they’re rambling on about. So when you hear a figure-skating commentator claim that Scott Hamilton was one of the greatest world athletes of his generation, you can be assured that most people outside of the figure-skating “world” don’t really take that kind of talk seriously. Something similar happens when we start making lists of the world’s best authors and then list our favorite authors from our language of choice.


Jeremy Osner 02.01.04 at 3:25 am

When Ellen and I were riding bikes around Co. Clare, one afternoon as we emerged from a pub in Ennis we found that what seemed like the entire population of the town was proceeding past us — we joined the parade not really sure where it was going, the destination turned out to be the local stadium where two local high schools were playing hurling. Never heard of the sport before that night — it was a pleasure to watch, a very graceful game compared to those I am used to watching — mainly football, baseball, soccer.


Walt Pohl 02.01.04 at 4:13 am

It’s not provincialism that makes Americans say things like that: it’s our national propensity for hype. You can go to the most rinky-dink diner in the most rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere, USA, and on the menu you’ll see something like “Try Our World Famous Steak Fries”.


JP 02.01.04 at 5:16 am

You know what, I’ve been here for 10 years now and I still haven’t gotten over how parochial this country is.

Agreed. And I’m from here.

I remember listening to sports talk radio one day during the 1994 World Cup, and to get the discussion rolling, the hosts opened things up with the eternal question: “How come people are always saying soccer’s about to catch on, but never has?” Immediately, the first caller responded, “Everyone’s just afraid to admit it, but we all know that it’s because we already have four superior sports in this country, and we’re not going to pretend soccer’s anywhere near as good a game just because the press tell us too.”

I also saw Marv Albert get asked the same question on Letterman around the same time. His response was something like, “I think it’ll be very difficult for soccer to gain any real popularity here, unless they make some important changes to the game, such as widening the goal.”


cure 02.01.04 at 6:06 am

What’s stranger to me is the complaints about things like the World Series. Look, when it became the World Series, there really were but few non-Americans playing baseball. Today, there still are no teams outside the MLB that would even compete for the World Series; admittedly Japan and Latin America are producing decent ballplayers, but even mediocre ex-MLB players can be very successful in those countries’ local leagues.

As an analogy, no one in America really thinks that LA Galaxy or New England Revolution are close to the top clubs in the world, though they are closer to the European sides than the Japanese baseball teams are to the MLB squads. After all, MLS teams have won 2 of the last 5 FA Americas’ Cups, and the winner of that tournament finished (Nexaca) finished third with a win of Real Madrid in the last FIFA world club championships.

Basketball, of course, is utterly dominated by the NBA and hockey by the NHL, with American football more or less nonexistant outside the States.

I think there may simply be some cultural misunderstanding – England’s sports are not solely England’s, and it would be tough to argue that England’s cricket, rugby or soccer are the tops in the world. Americans describe their sports in such seemingly exaggerated fashion because the American leagues really do dominate the “Big Four”, as they are called here.


Andrew Boucher 02.01.04 at 8:42 am

I remember this story from my Oxford days. A group of us, English except for me (the only Americo-American undergraduate in the college, actually), were in someone’s room. The conversation was centered on being bored or some such, when the host tried to disagree and enthused, “Here at Oxford you have the future leaders of the world!”

I interjected, “Well, maybe the future leaders of Great Britain!”


Nabakov 02.01.04 at 1:30 pm

Meanwhile a billion people in India alone are cursing Brett Lee and Adam Gilcrist.


harry 02.01.04 at 3:08 pm

Haven’t you all heard the great song ‘We are the World’? Explains it all really…


ahem 02.01.04 at 4:21 pm

You can go to the most rinky-dink diner in the most rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere, USA, and on the menu you’ll see something like “Try Our World Famous Steak Fries”.

Yeah, I’ve always wondered what the effect of a US equivalent of the ASA would be on all those ‘World’s Best…’ or ‘World’s Biggest…’ establishments scattered across the land.


Walt Pohl 02.01.04 at 4:57 pm

What’s the ASA?


rsn 02.01.04 at 4:58 pm

Hyperbole in measuring the significance of local institutions on the world stage is not confined to Americans. What about the “International” Criminal Court? It is completely based on European law, not the American Constitution. Come to think of it, it’s not based on Sharia law, either. Nor Chinese law. Hmmmm? Parochialism, anyone?


Phersu 02.01.04 at 5:27 pm

Oh, yes, the International Criminal Court is sooo eurocentric. And that buzzword, “democracy”. It is so Greek it will never work.


Sebastian Holsclaw 02.01.04 at 6:06 pm

I don’t think “Mostly widely watched single-day annual sports event” trips as cleanly off tongue.

Sheesh the generalizations that get whipped around here over a sports commentator.


Brian Weatherson 02.01.04 at 7:13 pm

Sebastian’s principle: If X doesn’t “trip cleanly off the tongue” it’s OK to paraphrase it with Y as long as, er well I’m not sure as long as what because in this case X and Y are not very closely related at all. Maybe “seem to mean roughly the same thing after the first 10 beers”. If the Pats win tonight maybe we’ll get a chance to see whether that is really true.

More seriously, note that the commentators would not have used this expression if they thought the World Series or NBA finals or the Masters or US Open (either tennis or golf) were bigger than the SuperBowl, so ‘single-day’ can hardly be part of the implicit meaning here. There is an implied comparison to these finals, and so one would think given the ordinary meaning of the word there was also a comparison to the Tour and other events. Whether there’s an implied restriction to annual events is harder to tell out of context – the US doesn’t feature many non-annual sporting events. Perhaps that is tacit though, because even parochial sports commentators would (I think) concede the Olympics are bigger than the Superbowl.


Keith M Ellis 02.01.04 at 7:26 pm

Is the damn thing over yet? I so don’t care. I admit that I was a Dallas Cowboys fan when I was younger because it was a family thing and they were good then; but that all ended when whathisname fired Tom Landry on the golf course. If I ever came close to having a sports hero, Landry would have been it.

I had the misfortune of being intellectual type geeky boy in a larger family (my dad and siblings) of rabid sports fans. And it’s not like my dad is some Joe Sixpack, he’s supposed to be like a genius or something.

I mentioned the Indy 500, though, because I like Indycar and, to a lesser extent, F1 racing. My dad raced a little bit and our family knows the Unsers, and I love to drive and sort of wish I had figured out a way to race cars. I don’t really like NASCAR but that’s probably the snob in me. There’s no reason I shouldn’t if I like oval-track racing. I wish we had more rally racing in the US like you folks have in Europe.

I’m rambling. I need to go to bed. I haven’t slept yet. Is the Superbowl over yet? I’d watch the women during halftime if they were nude. Lingerie doesn’t do much for me.


oneangryslav 02.01.04 at 8:30 pm

I remember flying into Logan airport (in Boston, for those who have never been there) shortly after the Patriots had won the Super Bowl two years ago, and I, and all other passengers, were greeted with a giant banner proclaiming the Pats, “World Champions”. The fact that there is only one other counry in the world with a professional league (Canada–NFL Europe is not a domestic league) didn’t seem to bother those making the claim.

By the way, the final of the World Cup in 2002 was watched by almost 3 billion people (almost every second person alive at the time).


Dan S 02.01.04 at 8:50 pm

This doesn’t undermine the general charges of parochialism in the US, but fwiw, the World Series was named after a newspaper that provided the trophy or something like that. I don’t remember exactly, but the name was definitely not a claim to be some international competition.

Am I the only one who enjoys seeing “world famous chicken wings” on the menu?


Andrew Boucher 02.01.04 at 10:17 pm

Apparently the story about the World Series being named after a newspaper is apocryphal. See


Keith M Ellis 02.02.04 at 12:25 am

Yeah. For that matter, I read recently a whole debunking of the Abner Doubleday story (of inventing baseball and that town).

I have to agree with someone above who finds the “World Series” thing oddly quaint and charming. That name is the product of a more innocent time of parochialism, when it was sort of inevitable; there’s not much excuse for the attitudes about the superbowl.

Incidentally, the 3 billion people for the World Cup is almost certainly false. They claim a billion people or something ridiculous for the Superbowl, which is transparently false; but you end up with the same sorts of problems with the World Cup and three billion. That’s too many people. There’s maybe, what?, five billion people alive now. There’s still way too many people in China, India, and Indonesia with no access to televisions for that number to be correct. I’d perhaps believe a billion, though, which is pretty amazing, really.

I was just told that my best friend and roommate’s brother catered the Playboy Superbowl Party last night. He talked to Paris Hilton. My friend is gay, so he wasn’t as excited by his brother’s news as he might have otherwise been. His brother seemed circumspect on how, er, excited he was about it, too. But he has a young wife and child.


JakeV 02.02.04 at 12:41 am

Oneangryslav, if no one else in the world plays the game, it seems reasonable to call its champion the “world champion,” no?

I agree with cure’s point– if your league is clearly the best in the world, why not call its winner the “world champion”? This may be somewhat sensational language, but I can’t see how it’s an example of “parochialism.”


Greg 02.02.04 at 2:17 am

Making Calvin the world champion at Calvinball, I presume?


Walt Pohl 02.02.04 at 4:32 am

Perhaps the Super Bowl is not the world’s most important sport, but I think we can all agree that Adam Vinatieri is the greatest athlete in the history of sport.


JP 02.02.04 at 2:46 pm

I think we can all agree that Adam Vinatieri is the greatest athlete in the history of sport.

Well, he’ll never have to pay for a meal in Boston again for the rest of his life. Unless they go back to the Super Bowl for a third time and he chokes.


Another Damned Medievalist 02.02.04 at 4:58 pm

The World Cup (not the Rugby, Cricket, or any other …) followed by the FA cup. The Olympics are a sham and have been since they allowed in the pros. But I think we really can call the Superbowl “super.”


Aidan Kehoe 02.03.04 at 2:32 pm

Walt Pohl; the ASA, in the UK, is the Advertising Standards Authority. As you’ve already found out from Google, no doubt. In that benighted land, lies in advertising material are viewed as a bad thing.

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