Cherish the Parity

Imagine an NFL where the only teams to have won the Super Bowl in its 44-year history were the New York Giants (16), New York Jets (16), Buffalo Bills (10), and the Green Bay Packers (4). Would you still watch? How about if the Packers hadn't won in 20 years?

Imagine 28 franchises never having tasted victory at the end of the season. Imagine more than half of those never even really getting close. What would your reaction be if you lived in Chicago, Miami, Denver, Atlanta, or anywhere else? Would you continue cheering for your hometown team or would you give up on it all and just start cheering for somebody who was going to win in New York?

The situation I have described is nearly identical to what has faced soccer fans in Turkey.

Even if you are an extremely interested soccer fan, you probably don't know all that much about Turkey and its current predicament. You've heard of Istanbul and you know it used to be called Constantinople (thank you, They Might Be Giants). If you're a Manchester United Fan, perhaps you recall your team being defeated by the Istanbul-based Beşiktaş in Champions League play this fall.

Istanbul is Turkey's largest city with an estimated population of just under 13 million people. Istanbul is most certainly the most famous city in the country. The city borders touch both Europe and Asia divided by the stunning Bosphorus straight, but no, it is not the capital.

The capital city is Ankara. This governmental center is the second largest city, yet it has little tourism despite nearly 5 million people. It is in north-central Turkey, six hours East of Istanbul. It is the city I am currently living in.

Turkey has 18 cities with populations above 400,000 in every corner of the country, and yet the top-tiered Turkish soccer league, which has existed since 1959, had only ever crowned four champions as of 2009.

Three of the four teams that have claimed titles are Istanbul teams known as the Big Three. Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and Beşiktaş have won 45 championships. The others had all gone to a team in Trabzon (Trabzonspor) on the Black Sea. Their last championship was won in 1984.

Only three other teams have even been the runners-up in this league.

There is no such thing as parity in Turkish football and everybody knows it. When I arrived here in the summer of 2009, everybody was interested to know who my team was, so I began to ask everyone who they cheered for and the response was always the same. Over 95% of the people I asked said their favorite team was either Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, or Beşiktaş. Not a single person said an Ankara-based team.

Needless to say, I was shocked. It was as though everybody knew these teams were the equivalent of the New York Yankees, paying for talent instead of growing it themselves and spending twice as much money as every other team in the league, but nobody cared. All they knew was that these teams won and they weren't going to waste their time cheering for teams that were inevitably going to lose.

I asked people repeatedly if they cheered for an Ankara team and they said yes, but everybody in the entire country seemed to choose one of the Big Three, then a home city team to declare allegiance to.

I don't know when this massive breach of sports etiquette was broken, but seems to be completely irreparable.

The Turkish "Super League" recently crowned its newest champion, Bursaspor (Bursa is a city of 2.5 million just South and East of Istanbul) and what happened when they ended up one point ahead of Fenerbahçe in the standings was amazing. Ankara fans turned against Fenerbahçe supporting Bursaspor, making flags and scarves that were half Bursaspor, half their favorite Ankara team. I thought perhaps this unexpected champion would help to move things towards parity in Turkish football. I'm not so sure it will.

Despite Bursaspor's victory, everybody is still claiming the Big Three as their favorite team. It is only Galatasaray and Beşiktaş fans who are on the Bursaspor bandwagon and they'll jump off just as quickly as they jumped on, even if they are from Bursa.

It is such an odd cultural shift that team allegiances are not decided by regional proximity. Where you live is by and large irrelevant to which team a person cheers for in this country. Can you imagine less than 90% the city of Green Bay cheering for any team other than the Packers, ever? No. It is unfathomable. Yet, in Ankara, if a poll were taken, Ankara teams would probably rank fourth and fifth, if not lower of which teams people cheer for. The Big Three would suck up more than 90% of the vote.

I hope for the sake of the fans that this situation and their attitudes change. How boring is it to see a league of 18 teams won by the same three teams over and over again? I don't think I could bear it.

Be thankful for the parity in American sports. Be thankful that teams seldom win more than one championship in a row. And most of all, be thankful that you (hopefully) cheer for the teams labeled with your city's name attached, whether in New York, Chicago, Oklahoma City, or Green Bay.

Comments and Conversation

May 27, 2010

Savas Alp:

Ok, so how come Cubs fans still root for their teams after 102 years? :)

The answer may be “the championship hope”

By the way, people in Ankara are mostly civil servants and their families. They assigned to work there, so their hometown are probably be different. Also, many people also immigrate to Ankara.

But your observations are mostly true.

— Galatasaray and Cubs fan

May 27, 2010

Barış Gerçeker:

The comment above, which mentions that Ankara takes many immigrations reflects things upto a certain point, since Istanbul, the host of the Big Three is the city which takes the most immigration and people tend to form their own local environment in Istanbul from their hometown. Immigration is all over in Turkey and the feeling of regional belonging is most of the time overruled by the team you support. Because of its social background football is mostly an escape from a difficult and stressful daily life, a space where “anyone” can win. If you want to win, you have to support winners, that’s why the Big Three dominate the ratio of fans in probably all cities around Turkey. The lack of competitiveness of the other teams certainly hinder the overall quality of the league but it is beginning to change. However, I really find it unfair to evaluate the Turkish football in terms of American football and its franchises. It really is apples and oranges in many ways.

May 27, 2010


It’s absoloutely true, having a league where only one of only 3 clubs win every year is plain boring (Trabzonspor the 4th team to have ever won the league do not really come close anymore).

I hope Bursaspor’s victory will change things but given that the Istanbul clubs have budgets several fold more than other teams, it seems likely that the old order will be restored next year…

May 28, 2010

Andrew Jones:

Bariş, I agree that the NFL and the Super Lig are apples and oranges. It was simply the closest comparison I could find in terms of length of modern existence.
Savas, I am a Vikings and Timberwolves fan, both of which have never been crowned champions (post Super Bowl). My point isn’t that people shouldn’t cheer for them, but if every team in the league was the Cubs except for three or four teams, the sport would suffer overall from a lack of parity.
Kulah, I agree, it will take time. Let’s hope change is beginning though.

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