Soccer Fandom's American Paradox

Chicago Red Stars

Image via Wikipedia

In an interview with Du Nord, Chicago Red Stars GM Peter Wilt sums it up perfectly:

The two most important audiences in American soccer are suburban families, which are traditionally conservative and sensitive to vulgarities and rowdy behavior, and young, urban, male, passionate fans who like and partake in extreme behavior. It’s two extremes that are oftentimes seated side by side. It’s ironic that they have this dichotomy while their end goal is the same: supporting the team they love to victory.

The challenge for MLS and our other domestic leagues has never been the so-called Mainstream Sports Fan. This mythical beast is not relevant to football’s medium-term success, any more than Tom Delay is relevant to current US foreign policy. The challenge, now and for the foreseeable future, is to establish credibility with all the American soccer fans who already exist.

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About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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2 Responses to Soccer Fandom's American Paradox

  1. Bob Cook says:

    Re: establishing credibility. I would think some of the problem is soccer fans knowing that MLS, as leagues go, is low level compared to the European leagues. It’s like pro basketball in England.

  2. Zach Dundas says:

    There is an audience that won’t turn out (at least consistently) because of the quality of play issue. American fans are used to watching the top pro leagues in their respective sports, which is why so many American soccer fans follow the Premier League and other top European leagues instead of MLS.

    That said, American fans tend to have a distorted outlook on just how good the game in other countries is. MLS is no worse than (and is considerably better than) many European leagues outside the top four or five circuits. While the depth of talent does not equal that available to Latin American leagues, MLS sides can be just as good on a game-for-game basis. On a logistical and organizational level, MLS is much better than many leagues in the world—i.e., games tend to take place on time, without crowd trouble, and are not fixed.

    The authenticity issue is just slightly different than the quality issue. If you look at the history of soccer in the US since the NASL era, an authentic approach to the game is just as important as quality. Everyone knew Pele was the real deal, and people turned out to see the Cosmos even after he retired because they enjoyed his imprimatur. World Cups work well in the US because American fans recognize them as authentically important events. European teams have successful summer tours here because people respect their “brand integrity” even when they’re playing exhibition matches.

    On this front, you can’t give MLS 100 years of history it doesn’t have. But every move the league has made to align with global standards has had a positive affect so far. The wave of new franchises with more solid big-city identities (Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, etc.) is going to help the league improve its image. I personally think going to a single-table format, changing the seasonal calendar and working toward some form of promotion and relegation would do the same.

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