What Are America’s Most Memorable Sports Events?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jason Gay headlined “What Are America’s ‘Bucket List’ Sports Experiences?”:

The U.S. Open tennis tournament is often hailed as “one of the great sporting events in America”—partly because it happens in New York City, and New York City can’t help but be rigorously full of itself, and also because, yes, the U.S. Open is one of the great sporting events in America.

It’s especially fun right now, entering Labor Day weekend, when all of the courts are still humming, you can watch singles and doubles, see tennis present and future, scout practice sessions, sip blithely on a $22 “Honey Deuce” cocktail, and, according to player testimony, take in the cannabis smog said to be merrily wafting into the parkside, suddenly groovy Court 17.

Not every sporting event offers such immersive and fragrant theater. And yet the Open—plus Nebraska’s epic volleyball match on Wednesday, which drew 92,003 and broke a record for the most-attended women’s sporting event ever—have me thinking about a perpetual topic:

What are the most fun U.S. sporting events to attend?

It’s a question I get asked a lot, and I’ll be honest: my answers change all the time. The list below is just how I feel right now, at summer’s end-it isn’t definitive, not even close. Like the Open, I’m limiting it to events in the U.S., so no yelling about the trip you took to Old Trafford, and I’ll omit the Tour de France.

A College Football Rivalry Game

I’m not going to specify which college rivalry game, not even the glory of Wisconsin-Rutgers. Pick the biggest game on a major football school’s calendar, see if you can book a hotel room within 110 miles, and start there. SEC people will tell you to go SEC; there is a case for Army-Navy; Big Ten people tout the Big Ten; and then the Big 12 people will ask you if you like to watch teams actually score touchdowns. Your friends from the Pac-12 will simply hold a glass of California red in one hand and an Oregon Pinot in the other and weep softly to themselves.

I will take a major rivalry game on campus over any bowl game, playoff showdown, or NFL contest not in Green Bay. There is nothing quite like the atmosphere, the pageantry, the student section, the alumni traditions—it’s almost enough to make you forget they changed the start time because of TV, you paid $50 to park in somebody’s front yard, now you’re sitting through a first half which takes 2½ hours. If it’s your alma mater, it’s priceless nostalgia. If it’s your nemesis school, it might be even better. One of these days I’m going to go to Ohio State at Michigan in the Big House, and watch blindfolded inside a glass box, suspended from a crane. I can’t wait.

The Masters

I was thinking I might leave the Masters off the list, just to tweak the fussy golf traditionalists. Alas, I can’t. Augusta stands alone. Stepping through that gate is like time travel, whether it’s the immaculate grounds, the rules barring vulgar modern tics like phones and running, the $1.50 pimento cheese sandwiches, or the $2.50 Georgia Peach Ice Cream Sandwiches, triumphantly returned this year after an expose by Journal ace Andrew Beaton. The golfers are hyped to win, the crowds are knowledgeable, and you’ve never craved a loud green blazer like this in your life. The Masters is perpetually a bucket list ticket (badge, sorry!) in U.S. sports, and the karma of the Golf Gods is real: Take a parent to the Masters, and you lock in favorable tee times in heaven.

The Daytona 500

Readers of this column agree: I know less than a dog does about automobile racing. But I won’t let that stop me from touting the annual spectacle of the Great American Race, a noisy smorgasbord of decibels, tire smoke, gasoline, a tailgate of tailgates, and a seemingly monotonous excess of left turns which becomes quite compelling in person. You may leave with a sunburn, but you’ll also take home a bloodstream full of STP and adrenaline. I took my son a few years ago, and we were so fired up, we very nearly touched 57 MPH in the rental car back to the airport.

The Boston Marathon-Red Sox Double

“Patriots’ Day” honors American revolution battles—and also whatever genius came up with the idea of an 11 a.m. ET Red Sox game leading into the homestretch of the grandest event in U.S. distance running. You can leave Fenway, walk over the Mass Pike, wander your way into Kenmore Square, and find yourself among the throngs cheering spouses and strangers closing in on 26.2 miles from Hopkinton. One of the great sports combination plates—much preferable to mixing a delightful U.S. Open day pass with a sad New York Mets nightcap.

The Women’s College World Series

I’d been told about this one for years, and I finally got to Oklahoma City in June. Lived up to the hype—the exuberant chanting, chatter, and quality of play. Nestled in a stadium that seats 13,000, but feels more like 1,300. Has a heavy favorite in the local Oklahoma Sooners, winners of the last three. What jumps out is the passionate fan base—some of whom go back to the WCWS’s Omaha days—and the talent on the field. You think you can hit that lights-out pitching? Trick question! You can’t.

Lambeau Field

It’s Lambeau Field, what more do you need to know? Just go. Pack your warmest socks, and remember: sausage is a vegetable.

The Final Four (Semifinal Round)

This event can get better—the men’s tournament insists on playing inside gargantuan football stadiums; the women’s tournament needs more resources; there aren’t anywhere near as many students in attendance as there should be. But a semifinal Final Four round—back-to-back games for spots in the championship round—is peerless do-or-die theater. Sometimes you get a pair of classics; usually, there is at least one. Stars are made (last year: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, UConn’s Adama Sanogo). You’ll spend at least a half debating whether or not the elevated floor is cool or terrible, and whether or not your favorite coach will start singing a Sinatra song from that odd courtside stool.

Whatever Game Your Kid Is Playing In

This is the only one I’m certain about. If it’s one of my children, there is nothing better. I’m reliably told the experience is even better as a grandparent. Please know: I’m not one of those sports parents. I sit there with my iced coffee, I keep my composure, I never yell at the refs, and I haven’t gambled on an Under-10 soccer game in months. On a weekend afternoon, there is nowhere I’d rather be, the pride rushing from my heart as I watch my own kids. Unless they decide to play goalie, because I won’t be able to take it, and I’m going to need the glass box, and the crane.

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