Fans enjoy turning their vehicles into moving advertisements for their favorite teams, particularly in southern California. When a local team is faring well, flags fly on antennae and window stickers are seen all over the freeways.
This isn’t just true for the local franchises like the Lakers, Padres, Dodgers and Chargers. I hardly bat an eye seeing Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys, Packers, Bears, Eagles, etc. regalia. It’s different for universities with powerhouse football programs, though.
Every day driving Interstate 5 — or simply “The 5,” if you’re Californian — I enjoy seeing the various license plate frames with ALUMNI emblazoned on them. Area universities like San Diego State, UC San Diego, UCLA and USC are abundant. It’s also not unusual to see various other Pac-12 institutions represented: Oregon and Arizona in particular. The Ivy League even makes appearances, including an apparent Dartmouth grad’s mid-1990s Ford coupe, which would probably cover half-a-day as collateral on those student loans.
Rare is the occasion I see a university license plate frame that surprises me. But today, a late-2000s model Volswagen caught my attention. Around the license plate in silver letters on a crimson background it read, ROLL TIDE.
The plate itself was California. Presumably, this was an Alabama graduate who relocated to the Golden State, though the frame didn’t indicate alumni status. Yet, SEC university alumni frames are rare along The 5 and the lack of clear alum designation made me wonder if perhaps this was simply an Alabama football fan.
Alabama boasts one of the largest contingents of sidewalk alumni — fans with no educational affiliation to the university — but that group is concentrated in the South. USC had a similar base of hangers-on in California during the mid-2000s. This sub-culture of fandom grows regionally, which in and of itself is no different than pro sport front-running. However, pro franchises have successfully extended their reach beyond regions through a variety of channels.
The Dallas Cowboys established a national base from the outset by declaring theirs to be “America’s Team.” It was a stroke of marketing genius that has endured generations.
A more recent example of this phenomenon is the Boston Red Sox organization, which spread its brand well past the borders of New England in the last decade-plus via pop culture. I myself am a Chicago Cubs fan, despite growing up in Arizona. The Cubs were broadcast into my rural, mountain home through WGN, forever dooming my baseball fandom to misery. The role models of my youth were my dad No. 1, with Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Lute Olson and Harry Caray jockeying for that distant No. 2.
Many Cubs fans were spawned through cable television and WGN. Likewise, TBS built a fan base for the Braves outside of Atlanta. While both are now largely relegated to regional networks and no more special than any of the other 28 MLB franchises, their model two decades ago could be the key for college football programs to plant their flags outside their regional influence.
Conference-branded networks are helping to bring teams to a national audience. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have head starts on the SEC, but the SEC Network’s launch in August 2014 has the added draw of its football culture. Big Ten fans love their football, no question. Living my entire life in Pac-12 Country, I can confidently write that the rest of the nation underestimates the West Coast’s passion for their teams.
But it’s just different in the SEC. It’s cliched to call football a religion in the South; still, it’s the most apropos analogy. That unique energy is palpable during a game broadcast, much in the same way the October energy in Fenway or Yankee Stadium attracted new fans to those ball clubs.
Plus, as the old adage goes, everyone loves a winner. Youngsters getting into the college game for the first time and football fans with either no college background or affiliation with small-time programs are more likely to gravitate to a winner. After all, what’s the point in picking up a new sport to follow only to set oneself up for frustration? Reminder: I write the preceding as a Cub fan who, had he waited a few years, could have adopted the Diamondbacks and seen a World Series in his lifetime.
Alabama’s dominance and the added exposure to its traditions the SEC Network will deliver make the Crimson Tide a viable, national program. If Nick Saban continues collecting crystal balls, and the SEC Network reaches as many homes as it can through its ESPN partnership, I suspect ROLL TIDE license plates on The 5 could one day rival Laker flags.