Daniel Bryan is not a cable TV subscriber, despite starring on one of its top-rated shows. So it was good fortune that Bryan, one of World Wrestling Entertainment's most popular stars, was on the road in a hotel when Michigan State hosted Ohio State in basketball on Jan. 7.
"All of a sudden I get a text from one of our other Superstars, Titus O'Neil," Bryan told USA TODAY Sports. "It said, 'If you're in your hotel room right now and have ESPN, turn it on.' "
Bryan took O'Neil's advice and saw Travis Jackson, a junior center on Michigan State's football team, standing on the basketball court at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich. Jackson pointed his index fingers to the sky, bent his arms at the elbow and led 14,797 people in a chant that Bryan has implanted in popular culture in the past year.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Bryan says fans have sent him videos through social media of the chant breaking out at rock concerts. Three weeks after Jackson held court at Michigan State, basketball fans at St. Bonaventure broke out the chant with a minute to go in a victory against UMass, and they did it again Feb. 8 against Dayton.
The week after the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks tweeted a graphic of thanks to Bryan, who grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., for his support of their team. It included the words, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" and an image of the Super Bowl trophy.
And a couple days later, fans at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Va., broke it out before tipoff of one of their biggest basketball games of the season.
Bryan can't pinpoint why his slogan has spilled over from sports entertainment to mainstream sports, but he has a theory.
"People like to do it because it's fun and it's interactive," he said. "When you're part of an arena, a whole arena with thousands upon thousands of people doing it, it's very, very surreal.
"I don't know what is going on in my world that this happened," he added. "Now these basketball teams are doing something that I made popular. How this all happened is surreal."
At a time when negative fan behavior and fan-athlete interaction is drawing increased scrutiny and concern, the Yes! chant offers a positive counterbalance. And that is meaningful for the WWE, which in recent years has successfully navigated a shift from the TV-14 era of the 1990s and 2000s to its current PG format that hearkens to its initial rise to prominence in the mid-1980s.
In mainstream sports, the chant is one of exultation over an accomplishment — a long-sought-after goal reached. In the WWE, it is a declaration from fans that yes, this is the person they want to see get a "push", which in wrestling is quantified by television airtime and placement on the card as much as wins and losses. It is a declaration from fans that this is the person — Daniel Bryan — whom they want to see reach his long-sought-after goal of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
"It's kind of a celebration that everyone can do, a unity type of thing," Jackson says. "It's just something that's so cool when you have so many people in a huge stadium doing it all together."
WWE has contributed more than its share of colloquialisms to the English language. It was one of the original forums where area codes were used to identify one's place of origin. In a little more than a decade it piloted the term "smackdown" from a cable television timeslot to a place in Merriam-Webster's dictionary.
"Throughout WWE's history our Superstars and their catchphrases have often become part of the pop-culture lexicon, and Daniel Bryan's 'Yes!' chant is the latest example of this phenomenon," said Stephanie McMahon, WWE's Chief Brand Officer. "WWE is all about having fun, bringing people together and making them smile, and the Yes! Movement accomplishes all of this at WWE events and beyond."
Making people smile was Jackson's goal when he first borrowed Bryan's buzzwords. He decided that in order to lighten the mood during the Spartans' grueling preseason practices in August, he would perform the kind of celebrations normally reserved for big plays in big games. The hope, Jackson said, was that the Michigan State videographers might catch him in a frame that later would be shown during film study and bring a little levity to the drudgery that are two-a-days.
He continued the practice during the season, building a repertoire of celebratory antics. Bryan's Yes! chant and accompanying body movements were a perfect fit. Jackson remembered seeing Bryan do it at the end of an episode of WWE's "Monday Night Raw." "I just thought it was awesome," he said.
Jackson debuted his version for the public Nov. 2 after the Spartans' Connor Cook scored on a quarterback keeper to put Michigan State up 22-6 in its game against archrival Michigan. "I was so excited we scored, I just started doing it," Jackson said. "As I was doing it, the ref came up to me and said, 'Please stop.'"
But it was too late to stop the Yes! Movement in East Lansing. The ending of the Spartans' victory in the 100th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 was punctuated by tens of thousands of Michigan State fans pumping their arms and chanting.
"That was a really cool experience," Jackson said. "We heard this loud roar of Yes! Yes!, and we started doing it with them.
"You feel like Daniel Bryan because you're doing it and the crowd's doing it back to you."
Six days later, at halftime of the Ohio State-Michigan State basketball game, Spartans football coach Mark Dantonio handed Jackson a mic in the middle of the Breslin Center court and told the crowd, "This is a dream come true for Travis."
Jackson then incited the crowd to reprise the chant, a spectacle that went in social media and was later incorporated in promos for ESPN's college basketball coverage. Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said, "They started doing (the chant), and they asked me (if it was OK) after, and I of course said, 'Yes, it reminds me of the Rose Bowl.' "
"People like to do it because it's fun and it's interactive," Bryan said. "Just the movement itself is part of the fun."
When Bryan first began doing the chant in WWE, however, it wasn't meant to be fun. He was wrestling as a heel, or bad guy character, at the time. And he was looking for some new material.
Bryan said he got the idea seeing a UFC fighter named Diego Sanchez repeatedly say the word "yes" to himself under his breath on his way to the ring. Bryan figured if he turned up the volume verbally and physically, he might achieve his desired result. "What better way to be obnoxious?" he said.
But something about his choice and delivery — not to mention the fact in 10 years before joining WWE he had developed a reputation as one of the world's best in-ring performers — appealed to the WWE's most hardcore fans. And when they voiced their endorsement of Bryan by chanting "Yes!" almost constantly throughout the WWE's first episode of "Raw" after WrestleMania 28 in 2012, it also caught on with the company's more casual fans. "It snowballed to the point where they almost had to make me a good guy," Bryan said.
It has continued to snowball since, now infiltrating the mainstream sports world. Part of the reason for that is Bryan's stature and status. At an untanned 5-8, 190 pounds, he has an atypical look for a pro wrestling star, and his ascension to WWE main event status after years on the independent circuit was far from preordained. It is the result of constant vocal pleas of the company's fans.
"I feel like a lot of fans would like to see me with the heavyweight championship," said Bryan, who will compete for a title shot at April's WrestleMania XXX in this week's "Elimination Chamber" pay-per view. "That's part of the reason they chant so strongly, which is really cool. They have the ability effect change."
People may love a winner, but more than that, they love to see an underdog win. And underdog status may be the most common link between the Yes! chant and the mainstream sports teams and audiences that have embraced it.
"That kind of embodies who we are," said Steve Mest, St. Bonaventure's Associate Athletic Director for Communications. We're definitely an underdog story in the (Atlantic 10). We've always been an underdog, so I guess it fits."
Bryan said, "With wrestling, you can't describe how that connection with an audience happens. I can't teach anybody how that happens. The bad things that have happened to me in WWE have made that connection stronger.
"I definitely think that's part of it. I'm definitely an underdog."
Just like Michigan State was in winning its first Rose Bowl in 26 years. Just like St. Bonaventure was in beating a ranked team for the first time since 2000. And just like the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl for the first time in their 38-year playing history.