According to a recent newspaper article, Syracuse University is now marketing itself on a Manhattan billboard as “New York’s College Team,” for football at least. The idea is that since there’s no major college-football team in New York City, its residents will adopt the Orangemen as their own. One potential problem with this plan is that Syracuse is 250 miles away. Rutgers, a mere 30-odd miles distant, would seem to have a much better claim, except that they’re in New Jersey, which is equivalent to having cooties for most New Yorkers. So it’s a question of which place New York City feels less of a connection to: New Jersey or Upstate.
It’s a conundrum, because New York probably has the least unifying identity of any state. That’s been true at least since the fierce struggle, ultimately successful, to move the capital from New York City to Albany in 1799. It means something to be a Texan or a Californian, despite those states’ great diversity, geographic and demographic. But New York State doesn’t conjure up any sort of image in most people’s minds. And while I don’t know whether this is cause or effect, the difference is even reflected in the states’ flags. The main element of Texas’s flag is a Lone Star—strong, simple, direct. California’s has a picture of a bear—again, straightforward and to the point. New York’s flag, by contrast, looks like a garage sale, with two women carrying things, a globe, an eagle, mountains, Mr. Sunshine, and some ships on a body of water. With all those contrasting visual elements, the flag is as busy as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
It seems unlikely that Syracuse will gain much traction in New York City’s sports affections (except among its alumni, all of whom seem to live here). On the other hand, Rutgers has even less of a shot, not least because their team is so lousy. In the end, maybe New York City just doesn’t care about college football, any more than it cares about auto racing. New Yorkers like to think that they’re first-class in everything, and in football that means the NFL. The fact that the Jets and Giants play their games in New Jersey is, of course, a mere technicality.
P.S. The token historical note here is that 50 or 75 years ago, New York did have a major-college football team with widespread and fervent support: Notre Dame. That’s much less true today, because the city has a lot fewer Catholics and most of them are Hispanic, which in many cases means they are more interested in soccer or baseball than in football.