Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why Soccer Can Save Professional Sports in the United States (Or At Least Indy)

This rather chatty Brit I know once told me an old English saying that goes “there are two things you don't get to choose in life: your family, and your football club.” For many Americans, that phrase rings true. But for a good portion of them, it doesn't. We love a winner as much as we love to hate a winner. But we all unanimously hate a loser. The fan bases of so many American teams rise and fall based on their success on the field of play. Sure, the hardcore fans will always remain, even if they couldn't imagine you winning in their wildest dreams. I'm a Cubs fan, I know better than anyone.

"And then they just started levitating over home plate. It was a wild dream."

But if you've traveled the country a lot, you've surely noticed a trend. No matter where you are, you'll see someone wearing a Yankees hat or a Lakers jersey. Or whatever team is recently hot and not from that area. People that can't even point out where those teams are located on a map consider themselves “fans.” Especially if their hometown team is a regular bust. Of course, if the local franchise does turn it around, they say they've been “fans” all along. You know what we call them. “Bandwagon” or “fair-weather” fans. And we have a lot of them. The fact is, aside from the hardcores, fans in the states tend to have little identity with their local club.

This guy is from Cleveland.

And it's not entirely their fault. The clubs often don't have much identity with the city. Franchises relocate in this country like they're playing musical chairs. Indianapolis should be plenty familiar with that. We've been reminded for decades by owners, managers, players, and sportscasters that this sporting thing “is a business, after all.” To the point where we've grown completely numb to it. We're jaded and cynical and expect the worst in the front office of whatever team we support. We know they're greedy and apathetic towards the fans, and we're basically powerless to stop them. It's just a part of our culture we've all decided to collectively accept.

Like we did with bacon.

But the culture in soccer is different. Sure, teams fold and sometimes have to relocate. And across the globe, you'll find plenty of corrupt and greedy management. But by and large, the game is still about the fans at its core. But more importantly than that, its supporters are often a big part of the identity of the club. Look at a city like Portland, who calls itself “Soccer City, USA.” The Timbers impressive number of sellouts make a strong argument for that moniker. But their rivals to the north have plenty to brag about as well, as they boast by far the highest average attendance in MLS. These teams have gained international recognition. And not for their play. For their fan base.

And also for their angsty rock music.

Those teams were smart and understood the culture of the game. Instead of focusing on marketing the game to the casual fans, or worse, trying to "Americanize" their marketing, they targeted the supporters groups. As our Commander-in-Chief Peter Wilt clearly understands, your fan base grows strongest when the branches stem from your existing fan base. Seattle and Portland both embraced the history of the team. The city. The culture of the supporters groups. They embraced the people. And the people embraced them back.

Yes. Exactly like that.

You see, the thing the unfamiliar American fan doesn't immediately understand about the beautiful game is that it's about so much more than the game itself. It's about feeling a sense of loyalty and belonging among thousands of people from all different walks of life. It's about singing and chanting and screaming your head off for two hours straight. It's about having a few beers with your friends and neighbors and shedding the stress of a long work week. It's about camaraderie. Family. Community. It's about your community's identity. This game isn't just 22 guys kicking around and chasing a ball. And it isn't just breathtaking golazo's and heart-stopping saves. It really isn't even about the chanting and singing. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself. And having a purpose. It's about representing your city. Your home. And if you don't have any pride in that, maybe you should come to Carroll Stadium next season. We'll have plenty to spare.

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