ON MY FIRST Metro ride to the French Open last week, the man seated to my right, no doubt having glanced at my media credential, started a conversation. What did I think of Doonuld Starlean?
Excusez-moi, parl—oh, wait, What did I think of Donald Sterling? In his broken English and my irreparably broken French, we spoke amiably for the next few stops about the Clippers and the NBA's recent cause cél√®bre. (He is hopeful Duke Rivas returns as coach.)
This was my first indication of what would become unmistakable over the next week: Paris has been colonized by the Republic of Sports. Walk down even the most precious swaths of the Left Bank and you'll see patrons in cafés and bars riveted to TVs tuned to soccer, basketball, tennis and boxing. One of the most popular Parisian radio shows is a drive-time sports talk format on the news station, RMC. (Bon jour, Pascal from Bordeaux....) The City of Light has become the City of Highlights, with nightly newscasts devoted to sports news and recaps. Even in the newspapers stories about World Cup corruption merited far more coverage than, say, the Spanish king abdicating his throne.
As a tennis ball the size of a small planet dangled from the Eiffel Tower last week, it was more than a little symbolic. Paris has come to resemble a sprawling sports bar—with a few nice museums, churches and parks tacked on.
This is a recent cultural movement. The old joke was that Parisians didn't stoop to cheer for athletes; they simply congratulated them. In the 1990s, The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik recounted the story of a government committee established to name a massive new stadium built in a Paris suburb. The committee eventually announced that the venue would be called ... Le Stade de France. The French Stadium. "The French are prepared to be formally enthusiastic about American-style stadiums and American-style sports," Gopnik wrote. "But they are not going to be carried away by it all."
What changed? Locals point to France's hosting of the 1998 World Cup when Paris, in particular, fell into the thrall of hosting a global sports event. Then Les Bleus won. France also began minting stars in other sports, like the NBA's Tony Parker. Paris Saint-German has become a Champions League contender. "Loving sports," says L'Equipe's Philippe Bouin, "is the new chic."
But mostly Paris has been subject to the forces that have triggered the sports growth spurt in the U.S. Technology has made it easier for Parisians to follow the NBA and NFL. Sports are "DVR-proof" in Paris, just as they are in the U.S. So it is that more networks—in particular, beIN Sports and Canal+—have entered the rights game, paying fat fees and televising more games than ever.
Parisians have gotten hip to some of the shenanigans too. Recently French Open organizers complained that their growth prospects were limited by their old venue. In a pas de deux familiar to fans in most every American market, the organizers threatened to move to a new location unless granted approvals and funding. After many debates plans are afoot for a $500 million upgrade to Roland Garros, some of it covered by public funds.
It all makes for a slightly jarring experience. You don't come to Paris—cradle of culture, focus of fashion, magnet to intellectuals—and expect to be handed flyers for NBA Finals viewing parties. The critics in the salon might call this new obsession gauche, but the trend is only going to accelerate. And it helps illustrate the almost limitless growth of sports, the reason a man paid $2 billion to purchase a team from that dastardly Doonuld Starlean.