One score and five years ago, the founders of SportsTravel brought forth a publication conceived from a passion for sports and dedicated to the proposition that sports-related travel is a worthy endeavor. As if I needed confirmation of that, the 25th anniversary of SportsTravel — which is also my 16th anniversary as a columnist — coincided with the first full-blown March Madness in three years. As I raised a Sazerac glass at the Men’s Final Four in New Orleans to commemorate those anniversaries, I was struck by the realization of what we missed during the pandemic and how the re-emergence of sports-related travel is as welcome as the publication celebrating it.
The tribalism we see in our politics and in other areas of societal discourse has become toxic, but the fan base of the four storied basketball programs that played in New Orleans showed that good-natured partisanship need not tear us apart.
The presence of both Duke and North Carolina was instructive. There are few rivalries in American sports that match that one, but when you get them beyond the eight miles of road that separate them, aided by the number of “blended” families arriving on the scene where one family member is in a Duke T-shirt and another is in a UNC T-shirt, the rivalry becomes more of a celebration of sport. To be sure, there were plenty of “I Still Hate Christian Laettner” shirts to be seen. But it perhaps helped the positive engagement between the two camps that Duke fans found willing takers for tickets to the Final in their nearby rivals. I myself helped facilitate a transaction between Duke ticket holders and a pair of childhood friends – one supporting UNC and one supporting Kansas – for tickets to the Final, and watched the streets of New Orleans on Monday turn a paler shade of blue.
Like many events that this publication has heralded over 25 years, the Final Four provides an excuse for annual reunions of classmates, friends and assorted sports travelers, such as the trio of Villanova alums I came across who started their careers in the same office in New York in the 1980s and have since scattered to different parts of the country, but make the Final Four their annual gathering point. Those gatherings have not happened in three years, and the presence of fans supporting other teams does not diminish their experience but rather enhances it. Indeed, I encountered the Villanova trio in a designated “Kansas” bar.
The pandemic has not only given us new appreciation for the ability to have these experiences once again, but also has engendered a renewed commitment to support local economies and those in the hospitality industry who have struggled over the last couple of years. These were all the precepts upon which SportsTravel was founded, and it is apparent 25 years later that the world can learn a lot from the passion and goodwill of sports tourists and their hosts.
I began this column with a shout-out to Abraham Lincoln, so I will close with a quote from the Abraham Lincoln character in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” that can serve as a motto for sports-related travel for the next 25 years: “Be excellent to each other. And party on, dude!”
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.