How the Oregon Ducks Became America’s Team

This Christmas, I found a green-and-yellow Oregon Ducks scarf under the tree. My mom was able to go to the local Kohl’s in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC and pick it up. She didn’t have to order it online, get a friend to mail it across the country, or knit it herself.

This wasn’t always the case.

As an Oregonian ex-pat living on the East Coast since 2004, I’ve seen the attention surrounding the team increase exponentially. When I first moved back East, whenever I mentioned that I was a Ducks fan, people either a) hadn’t heard of them, b) remarked on their flashy uniforms, or c) thought it was cute I rooted for a fictional hockey team from a Disney movie.

Of course, the reason for the Ducks’ surge in popularity is well-documented. With millions of dollars and a strong influence from Uncle Phil and Nike leading to everything from fresh duds and a Funyun-esque logo to a new arena and shiny facilities, the Oregon athletics program is proof that money can buy sustained success, even in college football.

But the money leading to the success is not what I want to write about. As a poor college student, I don’t know much about money, and I when I think about the finances that go into running a college sports program, I get very confused and a little angry. What’s surprised me is the rise of the brand and the impact that has had on me, a fan from the pre-Chip Kelly era. A lot has happened since Kelly landed in Eugene and changed Ducks football entirely.

Over the past 25 years, there have been plenty of teams that had a good year or a good few years. Remember when Matt Grothe and South Florida were #2 in the BCS? Boise State had several good years and is still really good (did you guys see the Fiesta Bowl?!). Colorado even won a national title. But there aren’t many Buffs fans outside of Colorado, Boise State fans are generally still just in Idaho, and I really have no way of knowing if USF still has a football program. Even a team like Auburn hasn’t picked up many fans outside of its home state.

But, as this map shows, Oregon is everywhere. A team that just a few years ago that was mispronounced by media and needed a New York City billboard to get into the Heisman conversation has a serious contingent of fans across the West. Even well into the Bay Area, people consider the Ducks to be their team (insofar as this metric can tell us that.) Oregon’s been able to promote itself as the “it” brand in college sports. Wins on big stages, a once-revolutionary spread offense, and dynamic players like Jonathan Stewart and Marcus Mariota have made Oregon a great team to watch and even a better team to root for. The program has been able to market itself to recruits through its great uniforms and gorgeous facilities, and those recruits have used their on-field talent to sell Oregon to the country.

My job has put me on the National Mall here in DC for the last two summers. I’d say I saw Ducks gear on average three to four times a week, after seeing it once or twice a year in 2004 and 2005. Whenever I see someone in Ducks attire on the Metro, I usually strike up a conversation. More and more often, these people are from places like San Francisco or Idaho and do not have any connection to the state of Oregon. The Ducks are a fun team, a flashy team, so they draw fans whose local teams are in lower divisions (think Montana) or terrible (think Colorado.) But as a Duck fan with connections to the state, how does this make me feel? Is my Oregon fandom cheapened by bandwagoners from Denver or Missoula? Does caring about this make me a sports snob the way some people are music snobs? These are the questions I’ve been wrangling with these questions for the last few years.

Just like when a little-known band you like gets big, your first reaction is a mix of pride and anger: “I heard them first, and all of you are late to this party.” But then you remember that the band put in lots of work making good music and promoting itself to build the wider audience it has. The artists are not playing music just for your enjoyment and their enjoyment; they’re trying to make money and be famous and win awards and take over the world as well. It’s the hard work of Mike Bellotti and Craig Pintens and so many on- and off-the-field contributors that has made the Ducks what they are. Some fans find themselves alienated by this push to the top, feeling left behind as Autzen Stadium becomes a college football Mecca (with ticket prices to match.)

For me, the feelings of alienation are not directed at the team. I don’t live in Eugene, and I’m not a season-ticket holder, so my qualms are more about how different the team feels now than it did in 2006 or 2007. Just as it must feel weird and a little wrong for early Lorde adopters to hear “Royals” on the radio ad nauseam, it’s a bit jarring to see this year’s Rose Bowl coverage favoring Oregon over the tradition-rich Florida State Seminoles.

As strange as it sometimes feels that Oregon is considered an elite program, I hope, like Ohio State or Notre Dame, like Alabama or even the much-maligned Michigan, that the team will become a permanent fixture in the college-football firmament, a team that is always talked about, and one with a strong, national fanbase. But if the team drops off after Mariota and the bandwagon fans get behind some new non-California West Coast team, I know I’ll still be there wearing my Ducks scarf, cheering them on. And that knowledge alone is enough to make me comfortable with having a few more fans around this bowl season, and for many to come.