The result is a "wave" of standing audience members that travels rapidly through the audience, even though individual audience members never move from their seats. In many large arenas the audience is seated in a circular arrangement all the way around the sport field, and so the wave is able to travel continuously around the arena; in non-circular seating arrangements, the wave can instead reflect back and forth through the audience. When the gap in seating is narrow, the wave can sometimes pass through it. Usually only one wave crest will be present at any given time in an arena.
The exact origin of the wave is unclear. It first gained popularity in the United States in the early 1980s, with the Oakland Athletics baseball team reporting that the first appearance of the wave at a Major League Baseball game was in Oakland, California on October 15, 1981. Others claim that the first wave originated in Seattle at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium on October 31, 1981, at the prompting of cheerleader (later Entertainment Tonight cohost) Robb Weller. The wave was apparently introduced into the soccer community at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, from which the name "Mexican wave" derives.
In 2002, Tamás Vicsek of the Eötvös University, Hungary along with his colleagues analyzed videos of 14 waves at large Mexican soccer stadiums, developing a standard model of audience wave behavior (published in the September issue of Nature). He found that it takes only the actions of a few dozen fans 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. At any given time an audience wave is about 15 seats wide. These observations appear to be applicable across different cultures and sports.