Life As a Soccer Fan

I’m pleased to have Richard Farley of World Soccer Reader, Mad About Futbol, Russian Football Now, The Kartik Report and the San Diego Examiner join me for some Q & A about life as a soccer fan in the U.S.

(Aren’t you impressed by that resume?  I know I am.)

One of the topics I will pursue with this blog is the joys and struggles of being a soccer fan in the U.S.

I invited Richard to join me to talk about this topic.  Here’s what transpired:

Q:  Do you personally find it difficult to be a soccer fan in the U.S.?

A:  Not really, though I do get envious of how easy it is for football, basketball and baseball fans to access information and other fans; however, the struggle to compensate for those drawbacks make the rewards sweeter.  When you watch an epic match (like the second leg of last year’s Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Chelsea) you have these brilliant “this is why I follow this sport” moments that make the relative isolation worthwhile.

In a lot of ways, the United States is the best place in the world to be a soccer fans.  Once you break through the obstructions and are finally a soccer fan, you don’t have a lot of tradition that surround fandom in more mature soccer cultures.  We are free to enjoy all leagues, styles, cultures and countries without having to justify ourselves.  If you were growing up in Sheffield, England and wanted to wear Paraguay national team jerseys around, your Sheffield Wednesday loving father might ask a question or two.

Q:  How does that vary (if so) looking at where you live compared to the rest of the U.S.?  As in is it easy or harder to be a fan in San Diego than the rest of the U.S.?

A:  I don’t think I can understate how big the three-hour time difference between east and west coast.  Were I living in Boston, every match from every league I follow would start at a respectable time (6 a.m. or later).  From San Diego, if I want to watch a Russian league match, sometimes I’m out of bed at 2:30 a.m. to make tea for a 3 a.m. start.

The logical solution to this would be to shift my schedule – go to bed earlier on Fridays and Saturdays – but we all know life doesn’t work like that.

By the time Monday comes around, I’m a bit of a zombie, but it’s a sacrifice I can readily justify making.

Q:  For a non-soccer or average sports fan, is it difficult to pick up the game and become more than just an average fan?

A:  Putting aside the biases inherent in U.S. sporting culture?

There is absolutely no game in the world that’s easier to understand and love than soccer.  The rules are easy to understand.  Player actions make sense.  The athleticism required to play the game at the highest levels is evident.  The energy from a good crowd provides reinforcement, and the transition is easy.  In seconds, you can go from watching a match, being inspired, to playing the game by rolling up a sock and kicking it around in your living room.

For people who are open-minded, soccer is an easy sell.  Just show them an HD version of the first 10 minutes of any match from one of the major European Leagues.  You’ll have  a beautiful stadium, an immaculate playing surface, and the energy that comes with the hope of over 40,000 fans cheering.

That sounds like a formula that can sell anybody on a sport, be it soccer or not.  With soccer, that’s happening three or four times per weekend, per country, all over the world.  It’s not too much to suggest each of these events is like a World Series game or an NBA Final match (which might say more about those events than the soccer matches).

Now, if I were to considering the strange anti-soccer bias of the U.S.?

Soccer is an incredibly hard sell.  The more a person loves U.S. sports, the harder sell it becomes.

All fans of the big three sports are being fed information by sports media personalities who know nothing about soccer.  If soccer became popular, these pundits become less influential.  If you have every watched one episode of The Sports Reporters, Around the Horn, Sportscenter, Pardon the Interruption – or if you’ve ever listened to sports-talk radio – you can not doubt that sports media personalities have a lot invested in themselves.  A pundit potentially losing influence is more than a big deal.  It’s threatening.

Q:  Looking at the U.S. men’s national team specifically, should it be difficult to follow our countries national team?  Consider 1. the issues surrounding viewing the Mexico match and what is happening now with the Honduras match next month.  2. How much more other countries take pride in their nations teams.  Cities will practically shut down on match day, besides bars, hotels, and other related businesses.

A:  It should not be that difficult, no, but it goes back to sports media, and unfortunately, soccer fans in the United States do not make up the demographics about whom media outlets care.

Soccer fans in the United States have traditionally been more likely to be impoverished, very young or leaning toward being liberal.  None of these groups are the targets for television advertisers.  Poor people have no money, liberal people watch less television, and very young, while impressionable (see toy commercials) can’t sell soccer to their parents.  There’s no money in it, right now.

Advertisers want the coveted 18-35 demographic, and amongst them they only want people who are consuming.  Unfortunately, compared to other sports, soccer has few representatives amongst that group, which is why truly fringe sports like golf, tennis, and auto racing get more coverage.

Q:  With the effort to increase soccer interest in a (American) football world, do you see things getting better, worse, or staying the pretty much the same?

A:  Much better.  I was the last of a generation of soccer fan who had no access to the European leagues while I grew up.  The English First Division was on late at night, on cable, one a week, and I only got to see four matches per year.  Now, I watch at least four matches each day, and thinking how I spend my time when I was 8-12 years old, I would have been downloading games, streaming videos, and watching matches constantly.  In fact, I hope I never run into the ten year old, 2009 version of me, because that would be the most annoy, soccer-stat-spouting kid you’d ever meet.

That generation that’s watching all those matches are going to eventually be the demographic that advertisers care about.  It’s already happening.  The generation right behind me – the one that’s in high school and college right now – are much more likely to watch soccer.  As a response, we have Fox Soccer Channel.  We have GolTV.  We have various outlets via satellite.  None of these things were available when I first accumulated disposable income, and that wasn’t that long ago.

The next year of graduates from Towson will spend more of their disposable income on soccer, and we’ll be able to repeat that statement every year, for the foreseeable future.  That’s why ESPN is buying up rights to major soccer leagues, and that’s why major European clubs make it a point to tour the states and develop web sites and promotion feeds targeting young, male (another topic) soccer fans.

This is the golden age of football in this country.  The only question is whether we are approaching or have already passed the tipping point.

_ _ _ _ _

Along with the numerous sites where Richard’s work can be read or heard, most of his work originates at RFFootball.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter.com/richardfarley.

Again, I’m very thankful to have Richard, one of my World Soccer Reader colleagues join me here.  I will try to have other soccer journalists join in me here in the future.

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