Sometimes it seems American soccer fans can’t win. “The problem is your soccer obsessives. By my reckoning, they may be the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet,” wrote Johnathan Clegg in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article. “They refer to the sport as ‘futbol,’ hold long conversations about the finer points of the 4-4-2 formation and proudly drape team scarves around their necks even when the temperature outside is touching 90 degrees.” For Clegg, U.S. fans cheering widely for teams “thousands of miles” away all seems much more like an “elaborate piece of performance art” than any manifestation “of genuine fandom.”
Look up “Eurosnob” in the Urban Dictionary, and you’ll find this: “An American who is a soccer fan but refuses to support either the U.S. National Team or Major League Soccer, instead cheering for European teams they have no personal connections to, based on the perceived superiority of said teams.” One of the running tropes haters like Clegg and others throw at the Eurosnob archetypes is that many of these supporters base their fandom of European national sides or professional leagues on the ever-dubious “summer abroad.” When Daniel from the rarely (read almost never since 2011) updated blog U.S. Premiership watched the 2010 World Cup match between England and the U.S. at a local stateside watering hole, he was dumbfounded to discover Americans rooting for England: “So basically they are supporting a country that they lived in for 3 months over their own country!”
Even less angry, more intrigued observers, like worldsoccertalk.com’s Simon Evans, have noted that sometimes it seems less about the game and more about the aura. Hardcore fans, he admitted, harbored an ideal of soccer, almost an ideology, that highlights its globalized, cosmopolitan and more sophisticated nature when compared with other American sports. “It certainly feels a little more liberal and a reaction to some fratboy college football fan type of the behavior…” concedes an empathetic if bemused Evans. Of course, anyone who has been to a match in any European or British nation knows, classy, wine-and-cheese affairs, matches are not. Try going to an Aberdeen game in the Scottish Premiership, it’s less Atonement/Downton Abbey and more The Full Monty or Trainspotting.
If Clegg and others resent what amounts to appropriation of a working-class sport by middle-class Americans who care more about “its intellectual and cosmopolitan qualities” than the game itself, others believe that American fans of European sides have somehow betrayed a national effort to bring soccer to prominence. In March of 2013, American soccer pundit Alexi Lalas called out the nation’s football supporters, telling them to “think globally and locally,” more or less telling fans that failure to support Major League Soccer amounted to betrayal.
Evans noted that this attitude pervades large swaths of American supporters. Many fans seemed committed to what he calls “The Project”: building the sport through MLS attendance, better TV ratings for the USMNT, and getting celebrities to publicly support the game. Those dedicated to this endeavor, “domestic zealots” by Evans’ lights, have more than a little contempt for Americans who get up early on Saturdays for EPL matches and froth at the mouth over mid-week Bayern Munich–Manchester City matchups in Champion’s League: “The ‘Eurosnobs,’ who for whatever reason aren’t interested in MLS, are considered to be traitors to The Project.”
NPR’s Frank DeFord raised a similar though less accusatory point: “Soccer in America has a curious impediment to its popularity, and the problem is soccer — that is, everybody else’s soccer.” MLS might be celebrating over twenty years of existence with a respectable average of 19,000 spectators per game, but most fans cared about the European variant, which today is readily available on television.
To be fair, as with any debate, grains of truth exist in nearly every argument. Sure, the hipster element that sometimes seems to infiltrate the growing fanbase of American soccer undoubtedly rubs many people the wrong way. Yes, some people root for Arsenal because it seems cool (though as any Arsenal fan will tell you, it’s decidedly not) and undoubtedly, soccer functions like 90s indie rock did for a certain segment of fans: exclusive and outside the mainstream, a marker of a certain international cool.
Yet, the reality of the situation, the fact that so many stateside soccer fans choose to watch the EPL or La Liga over MLS stems from a variety of factors that really rarely get discussed, or often get flattened into far too simple explanations. Moreover, the reality of the division between fans who watch European leagues and those dedicated to MLS is far more porous than most writers convey. While many of the former do prefer La Liga, the Bundesligia, and the EPL to the standard domestic match, as you’ll see many also acknowledge that over the years they’ve increased their amount of MLS engagement. With MLS celebrating two decades of existence and the Euro leagues on international break, why not delve into the nuances and complexities of U.S. soccer fandom?
Television and the Stadium Experience
When MLS started, teams often played in multi-purpose venues or cacophonous stadiums built for college or pro football. This meant that in its early years, those attending games felt almost consumed by the enormous number of empty seats and distance between the field and spectators. Attending a D.C. United game at RFK stadium felt like you were watching them play from the moon. Over the years, MLS vastly improved this situation, getting teams to build soccer-only venues that have truly made the “in game experience” far more worthwhile, though admittedly it still lags behind places like Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge (Editor’s note: ok, ok, Liverpool’s Anfield, would be a far superior example. Apologies), Barca’s Camp Nou, or any other number of historic European venues where generations of fans have poured their lives into teams. This last part just takes time.
Still, televised games could and should be done better. “MLS is something like the third most attended professional sport. Okay it looks like fourth if you add in the CFL. But the TV experience is poor,” former college soccer player and co-founder of the soccer blog Cultfootball.com, Sean Mahoney, told ToM in a recent group discussion. “Compare this to the NFL, where the stadium experience is pretty straightforward but the TV experience is top notch – it’s the gold standard for all sports worldwide I’d assert.” Libero Sports partner and soccer agent Eddie Rock concurs. “[T]he one thing I never question about our country is doing great TV,” he pointed out in his best Donald Trump impersonation, but “there’s still a huge gap between the MLS and EPL viewing experience.”
Admittedly, the prominence of the EPL points to the value of “narrative” and marketing savvy; we’ll return to the former a bit later. In regard to the latter, the EPL has become the biggest and brightest “because it has the most money and, well, Brits have the perfect combination of self-awareness (little) and self-confidence (lot),” Ben Dickey, a former college player and wealth management executive in Madison, WI argued. “Despite how fake it is on so many levels, there is still a terrific amount of passion around the game and especially in the stadiums.” Mahoney agrees; regally “manicured pitches that pop on camera,” fans literally in the ears of players, “every corner of the stadium mic’d to capture the crowd and, cameras at impossible angles,” he points out just convey a sense of excitement even when it’s Crystal City v. Stoke. “Pomp. Circumstance. More things I don’t quite understand the true meaning of but would list here alongside these words.” The EPL might not be the best league regarding skill and tactics, but remains a marketing and visual masterpiece. Purists might prefer Spain or Germany, but the EPL is “fast and glossy” and even U.S. outlets treat it as if it’s superior to other Euro leagues.
The seeming ubiquity of the EPL helps as well. Ever since NBC signed on to broadcast the English league, its popularity has skyrocketed. The recent six year extension, worth approximately one billion dollars promises to spread its popularity further. One can wake up early on Saturday and Sunday morning and catch an entire match before the kids need attending to, which of course further endears it to fans under the duress of parental responsibility. The success of podcasts like the Men in Blazers (MIB), hosted by Roger Bennett and Roger Davies, first on Grantland, it soon moved to NBC thereby symbolizing this growth. Would two bald men talking about English football have garnered as much attention five years ago if games were not so readily available?
Whatever the quality of the TV experience, the new television deal struck between MLS, FOX, ESPN, and Univision will amount to $720 million dollars. Grant Wahl and others have speculated that MLS should pull in roughly $90 million in rights revenue annually, about triple the $27 million the league received in 2014. It doesn’t hurt that Britain’s Sky Sports jumped into the fray as well. It bought the rights to air games in the UK this past February for the next four years. In ensuing months, three other international deals followed, including one with Eurosport. Between the exposure and extra revenue, MLS television presentation should quickly improve much as the stadium experience has. One could even argue the internationalization of the league, when compared to the kind of “protectionist” rhetoric offered up by some domestic fans, appears a bit ironic.
Video gaming, as Roger Bennett of the aforementioned MIB duo has noted, also contributes to the growth of Euro football among U.S. fans. In a 2012 article, Bennett explored how even at places like the University of Alabama, soccer had wormed its way into the hearts of American football-loving frat boys through the Trojan horse of FIFA Soccer. “When we first came to school, most of us used to think soccer was a communist sport,” conceded undergrad Joey Scarborough. “Before we knew it, we were getting over tough breakups by going on nine-hour FIFA binges online.” He eventually adopted Chelsea as his side, but Scarborough went on to describe a campus awash in Euro sports wear: “Our entire campus quickly became littered with guys pairing the traditional Southern garb of camouflage hunting pants with a red-and-black-striped AC Milan Jersey.” Alabama serves as a microcosm of larger developments, Bennett argues. One can see how the intersection of gaming and seemingly endless supply of European matches, particularly the EPL, might conspire to undermine MLS attention spans.
And then there is the power of “narrative.” Several years ago when pro-wrestling seemed indomitable, numerous observers wondered how grown men could be so engaged by a sport that was so obviously fake. However, as one South Park episode demonstrated, wresting’s appeal did not lay in its depiction of competition so much as the operatic drama that unfolded around it. In the EPL especially, “narrative” provides a key. MIB half jokingly discuss scriptwriters for the league and when Jose Murhino says something ridiculous, like calling Chelsea’s early season loss to Manchester City a “fake result,” asserting a referee conspiracy against his side, or gets into a bizarre shoving match with the Professor, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, it only feeds interest in the league. Will John Terry “shag” a teammate’s wife again? Will Wayne Rooney’s hair transplants continue to remain?
Some even argue that “narrative” has displaced the actual football. “Really the ‘following’ [of] the soap operas is much broader than ‘watching’ these days,” suggests Suman Ganguli, former college player, co-founder of cultfootball.com and current Professor of Math at CUNY. “In the modern age all sports are at some level a soap opera,” adds Ben Dickey. “And the EPL is the biggest because it has the most money.”
The Generation X Attitude
Of course, one more factor rarely ever gets discussed in these debates: generational differences. Everyone ToM spoke to for this article (this writer included) grew up in the 1980s and played college soccer in the early to late 1990s. The generation before us had no connection to or in many cases contempt for the sport. In our adolescence, finding soccer on television required great effort and rogue efforts. During college Ben Dickey and I would stay up into the wee hours of the morning watching Serie A and Champion’s League matches on Telemundo and Univision. We watched Ryan Giggs-Eric Cantona highlight tapes on endless loops (did you know Ryan Giggs really dug “flash jackets”? Well, he did back in the 1990s). For several of those interviewed, one of their teammates in college, Italo Zanzi is currently CEO of Roma in the Serie A; so yes, these are ties that bind.
This proved even more true before college. As high school and club players in various parts of the country, we found it even more difficult to find televised games. “If you were lucky enough, you might catch then an almost entirely amateur U.S. Men’s team and an occasional Serie A game on a satellite dish the size of small barn in your backyard that had to physically move to connect to the broadcasting signal,” remembers Dickey. “As Tom Petty said, the waiting (for the dish to move as you desperately hoped that the feed would work) really was the hardest part.”
To be fair, we also played FIFA religiously (along with NHL hockey) and in 1994, we had the World Cup, which of course gave us the now jingoistic Lalas. MLS rolled out soon after with less than stellar play amidst stadiums built more for state fairs than soccer. “Our generation was always going to be difficult to be captured by MLS,” argues Rock. “It became a league during our college experience and limped along as we finalized our identities and habits throughout our 20s.” In other words, it had nothing to do with a summer abroad or a perverse desire for cosmopolitanism.
Yet for all the Eurosnob insults, to an individual, all admit that MLS has improved over the years, and that all watch far more of the league then a decade ago. “Now I actually seek out highlights,” admits Forest Dickey, a respected West Coast furniture designer. “Having just moved to Seattle I am going to see more live games.” Ganguli too watches more MLS. “Actually I think I’ve watched more MLS this season than any other,” due partly to increased visibility on television and “the latest influx of Euro semi-retirees.” League quality, he concurs, “does seem to have improved.” Moreover, as pointed out by Ganguli and recently by the L.A. Galaxy’s Robbie Keane, MLS now draws international players that are perhaps not in their prime but not far off it. “This is THE league,” Keane told reporters. “People are calling me from everywhere to play in this league. Years ago there were other leagues. People wanted to go to Spain. Not anymore. People want to come here.”
Having existed and grown for two decades, undoubtedly, the league has improved in nearly all aspects, a fact not lost on many. That said, Forrest Dickey, though more open to the league, still has his doubts about its followers, suggesting many do not understand the game’s nuances. “Most [MLS fans] have never really played it, been coached or experienced it in any way other than sitting in the stands or at the bar,” he told ToM. “Therefore I don’t think they can really understand my frustration when I see such simple things being done badly … Why should I waste my minimal viewing time on that when I can watch teams that I have much more history with play a superior game at an incredible pace?”
For those of us who had to search the game out in prior decades, slights like Eurosnob bring out a bit of defiance. “In my view, no one can accuse … our generation of being traitors to ANYTHING,” argues Ben Dickey. “I want to watch ManU instead of the [Chicago] Fire with the 30 minutes I have on a Sunday morning before the kids get up.”
Others wonder what it even means to devote themselves to MLS and the sport in America. “I don’t really feel responsible for the state or future of American soccer. It’s my patriotic duty to reallocate my leisure time to perhaps infinitesimally contribute to the development of the sport here? And what does the latter even mean?” asks Ganguli. “The sport is already plenty real for me, there’s plenty of soccer culture that I feel I’m a part of, w/o trekking to NJ or the Bronx and spending way too much [money] to watch some half-decent play–I’ve got more to read and watch and listen to [regarding] soccer than I have responsibly have time for.”
In the end, MLS and its fans stand at an impressive crossroads. More talented international players are seeking out the league, play’s improved, and television contracts seem to be proliferating. Regional rivalries like Seattle and Portland have created impressive stadium scenes and real passion, but these things take time. The EPL skyrocketed to prominence because even though it only became a reality in the early 1990s, it harnessed a network of footballing stretching back to the early twentieth century. Obviously no such foundation existed in the states and that’s exactly the point. Credit to the MLS and its fans for contributing to one, but it took plenty of football supporters to get to this point, and the league wasn’t always around to help. Forgetting that won’t build the brand, but it will turn off a generation of followers with money in their pockets and a clear thirst for the game.