Fandom Sets Eugene Apart

We don’t do sport differently than other towns. Each sport follows rules that standardize competition across locations. What Eugene does differently is fandom. Our reputation has grown in sports where our style of fandom can make a difference to the sport.

First-time competitors in Eugene’s Butte to Butte road race never fail to notice. “The atmosphere around here is awesome,” Jenn Randall said after winning this week’s women’s 10K race. “People cheering along the way was almost parade-like. You don’t get that everywhere.”

The winner of the men’s 1oK race, Tony Clement, agreed. “This is one of the best places to race in the country.” The men’s runner-up (no pun intended), Craig Leon, appreciated the new configuration of the 10K course, winding through neighborhoods. “People don’t have to come to the race. [We] can bring the race to the people.”

Eugene excels where the competition and the cheers mix and feed each other. Mac Court was always fearsome for opposing teams because the balconies were raked so steeply that every fan was on top of the action. Noise made the rafters literally shake. That empowerment flows both ways.

Only in Eugene could a racing competitor proudly wear the T-shirt distributed outside the stadium to those hoping he could be defeated. Those “Stop PRE” shirts did nothing of the sort — quite the opposite, in fact.

Tuesday morning, Eugene fans lined up to offer competitors high-fives — mid-race! Fans stood by the curb with specific signs, sending a single message to one special person. If no one has ever proposed marriage in the middle of a Eugene road race, it’s just a matter of time until somebody does.

Sportscasters talk often about college teams with poise. Our most successful players and teams display just the opposite. They allow themselves to be affected by their fans. They can learn that dispassionate professionalism later; we revel in their displays of childlike joy.

I was seated behind the plate for the last softball game of this season at the new Jane Sanders Stadium. The Ducks were behind until the final inning, when they rallied to take the lead. But because the Ducks were technically the “visiting team,” they had to hold that lead for three more outs to win the game.

Exactly none of the fans seated just a few yards away from the batter’s box didn’t believe they were making a difference. Most knew each player’s history and strengths. The cheers were not generic. It was easy to remember that a third of the players were in high school a year earlier, where parents’ voices are often the loudest ones.

Are those cheers coming from family or fans? In our town, that can be a distinction without a difference. We make noise for our own because that noise is an important part of what makes them our own. Professional athletes who come to Hayward Field talk often about their street corner encounters with knowledgeable fans.

We focus our attention on the details, so the athletes can bring their best performances. Local organizers deploy an army of volunteers. One year at the Pre Classic, I found myself fixating on a young woman whose only job was to place and remove a plastic orange cone near the front of the high jump.

Her attention never wavered. Meanwhile, our eyes were darting all around a perfectly orchestrated three-ring circus. Eugene requires scores of “cone ladies” for each event — plus a few extra, just in case.

“How do I avoid this mess?” pleaded a frustrated motorist Tuesday morning. A policeman controlling traffic asked her where she wanted to go. “I have to get to I-5. I want to go hiking!” He calmly gave her directions to the Jefferson Street Bridge, but she wasn’t settling down.

“I hate Eugene!” she fumed.

Unperturbed, the officer pointed to the parade-like crowd of runners and fans behind him. “Look at it this way,” he offered. “None of these people will be out on the trails today.” The woman turned her car around, satisfied with a “more-for-me” message.

I’m guessing she wasn’t from around here.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.