Being a dedicated sports fan living overseas comes with both downsides and upsides, but it remains up to you to which will dominate your experience abroad. I’m a glass half full kind of guy so we’re going to start with the downsides before blindsiding you with some uplifting anecdotes so we can all finish this article happy.
Downside #1: Soccer is on every channel all the time and it makes my face hurt.
Being a true red blooded American male, I don’t give a damn about soccer. And yes I’m calling it soccer, because I’m an American and we earned the right to call it whatever the hell we want when we claimed our second straight World War championship title in 1945. I’m sorry, but I just could never bring myself to take a sport seriously in which games end 0-0. For the sports fan that doesn’t follow soccer, living abroad can be akin to some sick version of the twilight zone. Example: The other day I was flipping through TV channels, during which I counted eleven, yes ELEVEN, different soccer games all being broadcast simultaneously. While I might feel compelled to at least watch of few minutes of Chelsea vs. Manchester United or Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, nobody in their right mind would spend an hour and a half of their afternoon watching the soccer version of UTEP vs. FIU. That’s just cruel. I could rant against the shortcomings of Communist Kickball for an entire article in and of itself, but knowing that a vast majority of Americans are already on my side I will press on with the current topic at hand.
Downside #2: Different time zones
As an expat anywhere outside the western hemisphere you will have to deal with the issue of time differences. Whether you’re six hours ahead or twelve hours ahead, this throws a serious monkey wrench into any sports watching plans you may have. I have really only had to deal with this recently and I’ve got to say, it sucks. Beforehand I lucked out, first being in Bulgaria over the summer after I left the states. Yes this meant I missed the NBA playoffs and a good chunk of regular season baseball, but I also got to watch the Olympics in real time. Granted it was all in Bulgarian, but I didn’t exactly need Bob Costas to tell me who won the 100 meter dash. Then my luck continued as I spent the fall and winter (the best sports months of the year) in Trinidad and Panama, which meant I was in the same time zone as the US East Coast and even got American sports channels! But this soft lifestyle all changed when I moved to the Mid-East. Being seven hours ahead of EST, now eight after daylight savings, has meant I miss pretty most of the big ticket games.
The close of the MLB season and the entirety of the playoffs were dominated by night games I couldn’t watch. Sure I dodged a bullet by having to watch those bearded vagrants from Boston take home the World Series title in real time, but it also meant I missed Mariano Rivera’s last outing of his career. The biggest match ups of the college football season are often night games, meaning I have missed many season defining games like Alabama beating Texas A&M in a downright barnburner, Stanford ending Oregon’s championship hopes for a second straight year, or my beloved South Carolina Gamecocks upending Mizzou in an improbable road win in OT. (Ok that may not be an instant classic, but I’m biased so deal with it). I will forever be sports poor for having missed some of these moments.
All griping aside, being a sports fan living abroad isn’t all misery and disappointment. That special combination of suffering is only reserved for Cubs and Browns fans. I have also learned several ways in which my time overseas and my love of sports have managed to enrich both experiences.
Upside #1: It’s a way to feel connected to home
One of the most important aspects of being a sports fan is the sense of community it brings. This becomes even more important when you’re overseas. Cut off from friends and family and living in a place with different customs, language, environment and food (don’t get me started on how much I miss pork) it is natural to feel disconnected and a bit homesick. Sports can provide that very tangible link to home. Even though I’m on a different continent and living a totally different experience from those back home, I can take comfort in knowing they are watching the same game that I am watching. No matter what, I can call up a friend and we can chat about that absurd Hail Mary catch in the Auburn game, or bitch about the ongoing struggles of the Redskins. I may be out of the loop about the new hit songs on the radio, or the most recent (shockingly) not disappointing SNL sketch, I can always feel I’m not totally out of it thanks to sports.
Upside #2: It legitimizes your fandom
Sure it’s easy to watch every game when you root for the local team whose games are aired on one of the main channels every weekend. But staying up until 3:00am on a work night just so you can watch the end of double digit loss in a relatively meaningless regular season game is a whole different story. Like I said, I’m eight hours ahead of EST so even the afternoon games go late into the night for me. For night games I throw in the towel, instead saying a little prayer before bed and tossing on the relevant team jersey to sleep in for good luck. Waking up for work on Monday morning and waiting while my SportsCenter app loads the score of the Redskins Sunday night game seems a gut wrenching eternity. More often than naught this season, that apprehension leads to a daylong depression as the disappointing score and usually even more disappointing stat line appears. Granted, I was saved from 2+ hours of painful offensive play calling and inept tackling, but getting smacked in the face with that first thing in the morning always ruins your day. However, when the opposite happens I get an elation that negates the need for my morning coffee and keeps me going until lunch time (at which point I don’t care how many TD’s RGIII threw, its noon and daddy needs a sandwich). There’s something satisfying staying up late, watching my team play on my tiny computer screen on a crappy stop and go internet feed that I found on some illegal website. I feel like this is my proverbial 40 years in the desert, and soon I will be rewarded with my return to the promised land where I can watch NFL redzone on a 72” HDTV or feast upon char grilled brats and frosty brews at a tailgate before joining 90,000 other fans to scream my head off. I know this may sound like a downside, but in the same way that completing a challenging workout or acing a difficult test is satisfying so too is managing to keep up with your team even if you’re 7,000 miles away.
Upside #3: Meeting and interacting with fellow sports fans
There’s nothing that strikes a quicker bond than seeing someone wearing the gear of your favorite team and chatting them up. All it takes is a sideways glance at an airport bar to see a Redskins t-shirt, a quick “Go Skins” and the next thing you know you’ve killed a two hour layover having a full on Tony Romo hatefest. Or the time I was in Beirut and I saw a Lebanese guy wearing a South Carolina Gamecocks shirt and selling lotto tickets on the street. Granted, I’m sure he hadn’t a clue about the team (or perhaps even the state), but was happy to greet my drunken excitement with a smile and a high five. In Panama, I got to spend my Sundays watching NFL games on big screens at Hooters, sucking down wings and beer with other Americans and feeling almost like I was home. The multitude of screaming Panamanians also present, incidentally all Dolphins fans, gave it a more Miami than Virginia feel, but close enough for me. Even better was watching the World Series in Panama and discussing base running strategy and pitch selections in a mixture of broken Spanish and English. Getting to connect with people I had initially felt so very different from and realizing that they were as passionate about the perfection that is Andy Pettitte’s pickoff move as I was can all be chalked up to the magic of sports.
However, you also sometimes get caught presuming and feel like a fool, like the time I spotted a guy on my flight sporting a nationals cap and asked him where in the DMV he was from. Turned out he was Czech and had never watched an inning of baseball in his life; he just thought the hat looked cool. Still, I was proud that a Washington sports team’s logo was deemed “cool” enough to be worn for no other reason other than a fashion statement…although I don’t expect to catch some Italian rocking a Wizards jersey any time soon.
So there you have it, the wonderful, weird and often frustrating life of an expat fan. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “Sports finds a way.”