Learning to do ‘the Wave’: Being a Sports Spectator in the Late Twentieth-Century United States

Learning to do ‘the Wave’: Being a Sports Spectator in the Late Twentieth-Century United States
25 Sep 2017, 17:15 to 25 Sep 2017, 19:15
IHR Past and Present Room, N202, Second Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Dr Andrew Fearnley , University of Manchester

In the summer of 1984, a new ritual took root among US sports spectators. Involving what columnist George Vecsey described as ‘a general waving of arms by standing customers, spreading section to section,’ the ritual became known in the United States as ‘the Wave’. The Wave emerged, and then quickly became a culturally legible part of American sports spectatorship at a moment when stadiums were being reimagined as leisure spaces, and when a lavish culture of mascots, merchandising, half-time entertainment programmes, and new types of cheerleaders, had already begun to reshape the experience of attending a game.

This paper tracks the emergence of this new cultural gesture and asks how it was that sports spectators learned to do “the Wave”. That is: how did this ritual become a commonplace mass gesture, widely recognized by US sports fans? and, secondly, how were potentially tens of thousands of spectators able to choreograph themselves to perform such a movement? The paper proposes that we think of the sports spectator as an historical figure, whose comportment, modes of viewing, and sense of themselves have changed over time, and it prompts us to think of sports spectatorship as a certain type of viewing, one increasingly defined by a heightened awareness of watching and being present at a live event. It uncovers some of the ways in which sports spectators in the modern US have been trained and how their sense of what to celebrate, when to cheer, and how to respond to the action in front of them has been honed through specific institutions and technologies, from printed manuals and cheerleaders to television graphics and electronic message boards.

It relates the Wave’s emergence in the early- and mid-1980s to the broader transformation in stadium operations, particularly the shift in the technology used to prompt cheers and coordinate crowds, which, after July 1980, expanded to giant video screens. By the mid-1980s, some fourteen North American stadiums—including the Oakland Alameda County Stadium, the site of the alleged first ‘Wave’—had installed a Mitsubishi Diamond Vision or Sony Jumbotron, many in attempts to bring what one stadium executive called “‘the Disney format”’ to the experience of attending a game. In recovering this history, the paper aims to extend discussion of body-technology interactions to the realms of leisure and sport, and also to demonstrate that one valuable strand of inquiry for historians of gesture and movement lies in the study of the apparatus by which mass physical movements have been cultivated and choreographed in such contexts.

Dr Andrew Fearnley is a Lecturer in 20th Century American History in the Department of American Studies at the University of Manchester. His research has been published in journals including International Journal in the History of Sport, Modern Intellectual History and Reviews in American History.


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