The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament makes its return to Buffalo this week and I couldn't possibly be more stoked. I have perhaps an unhealthy obsession with March Madness to begin with, but when you bring the tournament to my hometown and give me the opportunity to purchase tickets (which I did, in November), you put a school-boy giddiness into me (that sounds weirder than it is, I think).
I made the road trip to Cleveland for the NCAA Tournament three years ago with some friends and enjoyed one of the most fun-filled excursions of my life. Yes the fact that it was St. Patrick's Day weekend and 70 degrees outside added greatly to the fun, but the tournament itself is enough to put an extra spring in my step. You get to see four opening round games in person, followed by the two games on the weekend to decide who advances to the Sweet 16. Add in all the fans and alums that come to the city from out of town and mix them all together in the restaurants and bars around the arena and you have a sports party for four days.
All that returns to Buffalo this week. What Buffalo will also see is an influx of orange on its streets and inside its watering holes. Syracuse, the third seed in the South region, has been sent to Buffalo for the opening rounds and will face Western Michigan on Thursday afternoon. It's a 152-mile drive from the Carrier Dome to the First Niagara Center, (about 2 hours and 20 minutes if you travel the speed limit), which means a traveling caravan of orange-clad, Jim Boeheim-loving Syracuse fans will make their way into Buffalo to see their team. For those in Buffalo, some will welcome them with open arms to join them in rooting on the Orange. For many others, though, the thought of more Syracuse fans in Buffalo will be meet with groans and eye rolls normally reserved for a Russ Brandon press conference.
The question about whether or not Syracuse is "Buffalo's team" has been posed to me several times by outsiders. Geographically it makes sense. There are no other major Division I schools near Buffalo (sorry UB) and Syracuse's football and basketball games are all broadcasted here, either on one of the ESPN networks or Time Warner. Syracuse branded themselves as "New York's College Team" (sorry again UB) and has continued to maintain a huge following in this town. Syracuse fans meet up at several local bars to watch games and it's not difficult at all to walk into any mall in Western New York and find Syracuse apparel in the stores.
That said, there are many sports fans in this town that can't stand the Orange. I know several of them. Many of them either root for other schools or get annoyed by the Syracuse-fan posts that pop up on Twitter and Facebook when the team is doing well. It's easy to develop a dislike for something you're following from the outside.
With Syracuse's close proximity to Buffalo and the huge following here, especially from alums that moved west down the Thruway, does that mean that Syracuse is truly Buffalo's team? That's tough to define, really.
I think Buffalo is a Syracuse town in much the same way it's a Yankees town. Sure, a large number of Western New Yorkers root for the most popular team in the state, but that doesn't necessarily go for everyone. Buffalonians are required to root for the Bills and Sabres almost by birthright. How can you not root for your hometown team that you grew up with? I don't think the same goes for the Yankees or the Orange. Those teams aren't from Buffalo; they're from someplace else in the state. Sure, their games are on TV here, but that doesn't mean Buffalonians HAVE to root for them. Those teams are not part of the town's culture the way the Bills and Sabres are. As many fans as there are that root for those teams, there's just as many that root against them.
That doesn't mean Buffalo claims some other school as its top college team. Sure, we have UB, but I think seven out of ten Buffalo sports fans would not recognize Khalil Mack if he walked passed them on the street. There are also fans of Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure on the local scene. I've seen St. Bonaventure fans take over Alumni Arena before (I was one of them). Then you have those insufferable people who root for Duke (just go away).
There are some statistics to back up the notion that Buffalo is a Syracuse town. Last March, Facebook used a map of the entire country and found which places had the most "likes" for which teams in the tournament. Take a look at the map you will see that Buffalo was clearly orange for Syracuse, as was nearly the entire state.
I can tell you that Syracuse is not really a "Buffalo" town. Drive through Syracuse and you will see more advertisements and apparel for the Jets and Giants than you will for the Bills. The Sabres? Forget it. Recently, Siena College conducted a study that showed that upstate New York residents were bigger fans of the Giants or Jets than the Bills and just 3 percent of upstate New Yorkers named the Sabres as their favorite team. (Also, only 2 percent of people between the ages of 18-34 said the Bills were their favorite team. Looking good, Russ Brandon). The point is that Buffalo and Syracuse for the most part have different allegiances when it comes to their sports teams.
I’m not telling you that you should or shouldn’t root for Syracuse. That’s up to you. I will admit that I myself probably feel a little bit more connection to Syracuse basketball than many Western New Yorkers. I grew up watching Syracuse games and consider the 2003 National Championship Game, Gerry McNamara’s incredible run in the 2006 Big East Tournament and the six-overtime game in the 2009 Big East Tournament against Connecticut as some of my favorite memories as a sports fan. Yes, I’ll be rooting for Syracuse in person this weekend.
Let’s be honest, as Buffalonians, we haven’t had much to cheer for not just this year, but for much of the past 15 years. It will be nice to feel some excitement for a sporting event inside the First Niagara Center again. I’m not asking you to jump on the bandwagon or anything, but it would be nice for Western New York sports fans to have something to feel good about. Syracuse may not exactly be Western New York, but it’s at least upstate, and we should feel at least a little bit of a bond with our upstate brethren who are forgotten about just like we are because we’re not New York City.
Yes, I think it would be safe to say Syracuse basketball is the most popular major college sports team in Buffalo and the First Niagara Center will be Carrier Dome West for the Orange this week. But, in no way are the Orange a part of the identity of the Buffalo sports scene. Much like the Yankees, some people here love them and some people hate them. Now, who wants to meet up downtown before the game Thursday?