What a fun Super Bowl that was. Well, except for most of the commercials and a halftime show that reminded everyone just how old Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey really are, but the football itself was great. Thrilled for everyone in New Orleans screaming “Who Dat” at the top of their lungs as their Super Bowl celebration will serve as a fortnight long pre-game for Mardi Gras. I know a couple from New York that went to school in Tulane, whose matriculation was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. In Saints, as everyone knows by now, played a tremendous role in the mental and spiritual recovery of that city, and anyone who lived there during that time became instant Saints fans. When Tracy Porter picked off Manning and ran it all the way back to seal the deal, it capped off a great story and put an exclamation point on the NFL season.
So now that football is over, what do we do now? Right now my Islanders and Knicks are well into yet another playoff less season. I’m more excited for the NFL draft and how the Jets improve in the off-season than anything the Mets are doing to prepare for 2010. March Madness is still over a month away. Olympic Hockey will provide a nice interlude, but will it be enough?
The next big sporting event on the calendar is coming up on Sunday, the Daytona 500. It is NASCAR’s biggest race of the year, and as a New Yorker, that’s the one NASCAR fact I’m allowed to know. OK, I know a little more than that. Here are the NASCAR drivers I can name off the top of my head: Jimmie Johnson (the four-time champ), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, and David Ragan. I’ve interviewed a few of these aforementioned drivers, and most of them were very nice (my favorite interview of all of them was Kurt Busch, couldn’t have been nicer to a reporter who knows practically nothing about his sports writing for a small website) and want to try and get more into the sport.
One of my best friends works in PR for NASCAR and I always ask him the same question: Why is the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, the first race of the season? If it really is the biggest than why not end the season with it? The Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, Gold Medal game, they all take place at the very end. Why not make the Daytona 500 the final race with the most championship points on the line? My friend doesn’t know the answer to that. But I’m sure whoever in NASCAR decides these things has a good reason.
But I’ve come to realize that while staging the Daytona 500 in February may not make much sense for the league itself, it plays in perfectly with the rest of the sports world. In major American sports, the Daytona 500 is the New Years Day of the sports calendar.
Hear me out. For many, New Years Day is a day of recovery after the longest party night of the year (especially if you have kids or are a kid) as you prepare to re-enter the real world. New Years Day culminates a long string of holidays, vacations, and parties. The Daytona 500 comes on the heels of the end of football season (more on that later) and is an event you can leisurely tune in-and-out of until the final laps.
The Daytona 500 naturally leads into the rest of the sports calendar. Around the same time as the race are the NBA and NHL All-Star Games and Pro Bowl, and every four years the Winter Olympics (as is the case in 2010). This is the Martin Luther King day of the sports world. Next up is the NCAA basketball conference tournaments, which is akin to Valentine’s Day. It can be an all-or-nothing point for many college basketball teams, and for plenty of relationships as well. Baseball spring training is like President’s Day, you’re not really sure why it matters anymore, but you’ll use it as a reason to start talking baseball again and take advantage of the day off. March Madness is like St. Patrick’s Day. Loud, crazy, raucous, and often unpredictable. Someone is going home lucky beyond their wildest dreams, and others are going home with feeling doused in vomit. You’re either going to have fond memories (like picking all the right upsets and the champion, claiming the prize in your pool) or end in tremendous sorrow (your championship pick and favorite team gets knocked off in the second round in a fluky game you never saw coming). For many involved the whole event blurs together, and no matter what happens, you can’t wait for next year.
The Masters is like the first day of Spring. The weather always changes at different times of the year, put it will never feel like Spring until you’re watching the Masters. The start of the baseball season and the hockey and basketball playoffs is like Easter and Passover. They are two of the most important religious holidays on the calendar and a time for many family reunions. The start of baseball brings new hope for many fans (OK, some fans of a few big market teams) and the start of two of the four major sports playoffs brings some of the most memorable moments on the sports calendar. The NFL Draft is also like Earth Day. You can feel good about the bottles you recycled, the hybrid you drive and just how earth friendly you are, but what you do the rest of the year matters more. And you may love your new draft pick, and believe his hype in April, but it doesn’t impact his odds of being a dud in September.
Over the next months, the holidays and major events start to get fewer and further apart. The US Open (golf) and French Open (tennis) are Memorial Day. The NBA Championship and Stanley Cup are the 4th of July. Wimbledon and the British Open are like Mother’s and Father’s Day. The NBA Draft is like Flag Day (again the draft is a symbolic holiday that could lead to nothing in the end). The MLB All-Star game is the first day of Summer.
When autumn rolls around The US Open (Tennis) is Labor Day. The start of the new NBA and college basketball seasons and NHL season are like the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The start of the baseball playoff and World Series is like Halloween. The start of the NFL and college football seasons are like Thanksgiving, because we’re all giving thanks the football is back (I know I’m playing around with the dates of the holidays and the start of the season, but it’s more about the impact and celebration of the holidays).
As the sports year winds down, the college bowl season is like Chanukah. It always spreads out over many days, some days you get better gifts than others. And the big games always take place on different days each year. The first couple round of the NFL playoffs is like Christmas, always fun whether your team is in it or not, and whether your Christian or not (going to the movie and getting Chinese food is one of the best 1-2 combos in creation). Finally, you have the Super Bowl, the New Year’s Eve of the sports world. Even if you don’t care about football, you watch because everyone else does. And even if you don’t go out much or stay up late, you go out on New Year’s Eve and stay up well past midnight. That all leads back to the Daytona 500, and the start of the new sports year.
So it may seem to many of us NASCAR novices that holding your league’s biggest event to start the season instead of to finish it would be counterintuitive to a season’s narrative. But the way the sports year unfolds, the Daytona 500 right in the middle of February in the wake of the NFL season is the perfect spot for the historic race, and the perfect way to start the new sports year.