"The Wave" debuts at Husky Stadium in Seattle on October 31, 1981.

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 1/30/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21363
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On October 31, 1981, "The Wave" -- a staple of fan participation at U.S. sporting events since the early 1980s -- makes its unofficial debut at a University of Washington football game in Seattle. As defined by Merriam-Webster, The Wave is "a movement made by a group of people especially in a stadium or arena in which individual people stand up and then sit down again according to where they are sitting in order to create the appearance of an ocean wave" ("Definition of ..."). In subsequent years, the site of the "official" first wave will be hotly debated, and in 2013, an ESPN.com report will conclude that the first video evidence of a wave was captured at a baseball game in Oakland, California, on October 15, 1981 -- two weeks before the wave at Husky Stadium. 

The First Wave, Sort Of

The Wave's Seattle roots run deep. On an autumn day in 1909, a crowd estimated at 25,000 wedged into the Natural Amphitheatre on the grounds of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, not far from the future site of Husky Stadium. On hand was Robert A. Reid, the exposition's official photographer, who snapped photos of the crowd and wrote a postcard caption explaining that "the rising and the sitting caused a wave of the mass of humanity like the rolling waves of the ocean" (Postcard). Thus was born a rudimentary version of The Wave. 

Some 60 years later, Robb Weller, a Tacoma native, enrolled at the University of Washington. "Weller was something of a local celebrity for his role as yell leader, commanding the school's cheering section," wrote Benjamin Cassidy in Seattle Met magazine. "His name made the papers more than many players' did. With a microphone in hand, he'd entertain his classmates before and during games with a quick wit (an 'N-B-C' chant during an ABC broadcast was infamous) and colorful language that rankled some older crowd members. He was perhaps best known, however, for his 'attitude checks.' He'd cue different parts of the student section, via color-coded cards, to stand, shout, and sit in unison -- spurts, not a wave, of enthusiasm" ("Remembering The Wave's Seattle Rise ..."). 

Weller graduated from the UW in 1972 and was working in the television industry when the school invited him back to be a guest yell leader for a 1981 game between the Huskies and Stanford, a formidable opponent led by Port Angeles native John Elway. It was Halloween, and Homecoming weekend for the Huskies, and a crowd of 53,504 turned up at Husky Stadium. "Weller revived the 'attitude check' twice ... Both times the Huskies responded with a touchdown. When band director Bill Bissell urged him to prompt the vertical cheer a third time, Weller thought that might be overdoing it. Go side to side then, Bissell suggested. Weller acquiesced. He ran from the end zone ... to the 50-yeard line and watched as the student section undulated as he passed. To his surprise, the movement didn't stop with the undergrads; alums picked up the cadence and sent it around the rest of the stadium. The wave, as we know it, was born" ("Remembering The Wave's Seattle Rise ..."). 

"Krazy George" Stakes a Claim

But wait. Just 16 days before the Stanford game, "Krazy George" Henderson, a professional cheerleader at Oakland A's baseball games, organized and led a version of The Wave during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. Henderson's wave at the Oakland Coliseum was seen by a national TV audience and captured on film. Henderson said he had been perfecting the new cheer for about a decade, since he was a cheerleader at San Jose State University in the early 1970s. During that same period, Weller was doing his attitude checks at Husky Stadium. Wrote ESPN.com's Doug Williams: 

"Just as Krazy George's ideas evolved leading up to his 1981 Wave, so had Washington's. Even with that, however, Krazy George comes out the chronological winner in the "documented Wave" division. However, The Wave's biggest springboard proved to be the University of Washington. After the game with Stanford, The Wave became a staple at Huskies games and was taken back to campuses across the country by visiting cheerleaders. At the same time, other Seattle teams -- notably the Seahawks and Sounders -- adopted it. After Michigan played at Washington in 1983, Wolverines fans fell in love with The Wave ... At Michigan, fans developed all sorts of twists to it such as slow-motion Waves, reverse Waves and silent Waves" ("It's Settled ..."). 

Henderson didn't have a name for his creation. Nor did Weller, but The Seattle Times later dubbed it "Weller's Wave." Henderson was adamant that he invented The Wave. On the matter of who named it, he was magnanimous, to a point. "There was no name for it," he said in 2013. "In fact, I'll give Seattle credit if they want credit for naming The Wave" ("It's Settled ..."). 

The Mexican Wave, La Ola

While The Wave soon became a popular pastime at U.S. sporting events, it wasn't until the 1986 World Cup soccer tournament in Mexico that The Wave became an international phenomenon, and today in most countries the cheer is commonly known as the Mexican Wave, or La Ola. According to a 2002 CNN report, "Just about every sports spectator in the world knows how to do the 'wave.' No matter the sport, no matter the venue, once a wave gets going in a stadium, excited fans get ready" ("Scientists Eye ..."). 

In 2002, scientists in Hungary undertook a deep dive into the physics of The Wave. Their findings were published in the British journal Nature and reported around the globe. Wrote CNN:

"Tomas Vicsek of the University of Hungary, along with colleagues, analyzed videos of 14 waves at large Mexican soccer stadiums. Using mathematical models initially developed to study the spread of forest fires and the propagation of electrical impulses in heart tissue, Vicsek's team claims to have scientifically figured out the dynamics of the wave. Their analysis indicates that it takes only a few dozen fans leaping to their feet with their arms up to trigger a wave. Once started, it usually rolls in a clockwise direction at a rate of about 40 feet per second, or about 20 seats per second. They say at any given time, it is about 15 seats wide ... The Hungarian team said similar models could be used in the future to study crowd control, to better predict how people react during riots" ("Scientists Eye ..."). 

Despite its wide popularity, The Wave is not universally beloved, nor is it considered appropriate for all sporting events. Fans in San Francisco refuse to do The Wave because it originated in Oakland. "Giants fans sort of think that they're a little different," said Pat Gallagher, the San Francisco Giants' director of marketing for nearly 33 years. "So we would never stoop to something as pedestrian as doing the wave" ("Why do Giants Fans Hate ..."). According to a 2017 post on the Macmillan Dictionary website, "Whatever the precise origin of the Mexican wave, it is now one of the most common forms of crowd participation at sporting events both large and small all over the world. Fans of nearly all spectator sports have been known to perform the Mexican wave. It does tend to be a rather rumbustious way to celebrate, so the Mexican wave is generally not appropriate for sports like tennis or golf, where spectators are encouraged to remain quiet" ("Word of the Day"). 

What is the future of The Wave? A growing backlash has served to diminish its use in recent years. Even at Husky Stadium, The Wave is rarely seen anymore. According to the 2013 ESPN.com report, "there are some fans (and many in the sports media) who despise it, saying it takes away from what's going on in the game and it's often done at the wrong time. There's even a website and campaign against it called StoptheWave.net ... Krazy George, however, just Waves off the no-Wavers. 'Here's my theory,' he says, laughing. 'I love saying this. For The Wave to go and look great, you've got to have 98 percent of the people participating. That means 98 percent of the people like The Wave. They're having fun" ("It's Settled ..."). 


Doug Williams, "It's Settled: Where The Wave First Started," ESPN.com, February 27, 2013, website accessed January 18, 2022 (https://www.espn.com/blog/playbook/fandom/post/_/id/18888/its-settled-where-the-wave-first-started); "Word of the Day: Mexican Wave," Macmillan Dictionary, 2017 blog post, website accessed January 18, 2021 (https://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/mexican-wave); Finlo Rohrer, "Who Invented the Mexican Wave?" BBC News, June 16, 2010, website accessed January 18, 2022 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8742454.stm); Nell Greenfield Boyce, "The Physics and Psychology of 'The Wave' at Sporting Events," National Public Radio, August 15, 2016, NPR website accessed January 18, 2022 (https://www.npr.org/2016/08/15/488285360/the-physics-and-psychology-of-the-wave-at-sporting-events); Bejamin Cassidy, "Remembering The Wave's Seattle Rise, 40 Years Later," Seattle Met magazine, website accessed January 18, 2022 (https://www.newsbreak.com/news/2358532493811/remembering-the-wave-s-seattle-rise-40-years-later); Olivia Allen-Price and Adam Grossberg, "Why do Giants Fans Hate The Wave? Oakland Started It," KQED podcast, April 13, 2017, accessed January 18, 2022 (https://www.kqed.org/news/10608660/the-wave-was-born-in-oakland-and-some-giants-fans-want-it-dead); "Scientists Eye Stadium 'Wave' Dynamics," CNN.com, September 11, 2002, website accessed January 18, 2022 (http://edition.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/09/11/offbeat.wave.explained/).

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