12 July 2008

Atlanta Soccer Commentary: MLS in Atlanta. Is a Double Too Stiff a Drink?

FxB of So Many Balls and I have sparked up a well reasoned debate on the subject of MLS expansion and something I'll call, fan commitment. Because well reasoned debates are so rare on the internet, I'd like to keep it on the front pages rather than the comments for now...and of course encourage others to weigh in.

I put an idea on the table a couple of days ago suggesting that what Atlanta could use to knock its sports fans out of their normal apathetic stupor, is a good old fashioned dose of cross town rivalry.

FxB brought up some excellent points regarding the not exactly faltering but certainly not skyrocketing experiment in Los Angeles - a football city of millions - between Chivas and LA Galaxy. The point he makes is excellent - if LA can't properly support two teams, then how could Atlanta (or any other large city for that matter)?

So that got me thinking about my original point, which may have been lost in the economic unlikelihood of an Atlanta cross town derby. My vision would be to encourage future franchise owners to think about building soccer in the US using a grassroots model rather than the classic NFL "big city" model.

What does that mean? Because the game never took hold in the United States like it did the rest of the world, nouveau owners are trying to "retrofit" America with teams using the same formula that works very well for the slick, expensive, yet antiseptic NFL business model. NFL is an event you attend like a concert or a show, not a - dare I say it - religion that you follow.

Maybe it's too late for this in America, but I like to look at the history books and ask the question, what made football work so well everywhere else. I think a key, at least in Europe, was that clubs were built essentially around neighborhoods (Highbury, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, etc.) as opposed to hulking single metropolis'.

The result, and sometimes not a pretty result, was the development of a more tribal and passionate fan base. Fans identified with the Bridge, not with London...and come hell or high water, when the Spurs or the Gooners were coming to your neighborhood, it was going to be serious.

As Franklin Foer paraphrases in his book "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization ", there's no hate like neighbor hate. So of course I'm not endorsing the kind of historic hooliganism that has plagued the game all over the world, but without that kind of passion for your team, that support for something you personally connect with, I think we'll continue to see soccer treated with the same moderate, arms-length interest that defines most American sports fans.


FxB said...

That's just the thing, in LA you do have the ethnic/class/cultural divide that makes European derbies so venomous. Imagine the stereotypical LA Galaxy fan: suburban, white, well to do, pampered, new to the game, in love with celebrity, Beckham and Landycakes. Whether this is true or not is beyond the point, of course, it is the conception of the "other" that matters. And now imagine the stereotypical Chivas USA fan.

There's a clear cultural/ethnic divide there, and that's part of what makes the derby between the two so heated.

That would be possible elsewhere -- it could certainly work in Atlanta -- but as you said, Americans don't do tribal, at least not with their sports. There are exceptions of course -- Chicago and New York baseball, New York football, and hockey in NY to name a few -- but by and large a professional team in the States unifies rather than divides. Consider Atlanta itself. Aside from the highways that physically connect the various parts of the metro area, what do these places have in common? Marietta and Union City? Buckhead and Little Five Points? Sandy Springs and College Park? The Braves, the Falcons and the Hawks are the glue that keep metro Atlanta together.

We could do tribal, but we'd have to have owners, like Chivas, who have a reason for targeting a specific market or who carry grudges or are class warriors. If I had a spare $200 million, for example, I'd put a club in Brooklyn because I dislike the Red Bull corporate machine. I'd make it clear that my dislike motivated my investment, and the club would then have an "identity". But only because I gave it one.

In fact, re-reading what I just wrote, I'm struck by my use of "market". Chivas exists, that rivalry was created, because Chivas thought there was market share to capture. When Celtic and Rangers play, on the other hand, such things are far from anyone's mind.

I've added a few other points in a post on my blog.

Anonymous said...

No one cares about soccer in Atlanta. The local TV sports casters didn't even bother announcing the games with Pachuca, Independiente and Olympia and the Silverbacks. They do not realize how famous these teams are. Media indifference of soccer in this area will kill the sport here. Maybe they are just afraid of the redneck backlash if they talk about soccer.

Gruffgoat said...

Patience is definitely something that we football fans in the States have to have; irrespective of how MLS proceeds. The upside of course is, American fans are now more than ever technologically connected to the great leagues in Europe; but I sincerely hope that MLS can continue to make inroads in to the US sports scene.

As for the Atlanta's funny anon mentioned it - I just told the guys trying to sell me the AJC the other day that I'd be happy to subscribe if they could show me five decent soccer articles over the last month; the Euro's had just concluded, Silverbacks are in full swing, MLS is in full swing, etc. They got the same amount of money from me that I felt their soccer coverage is worth - zero!

But rather than bitch about it and do nothing, I created this little ditty to fill the gap. So maybe I should be thanking those guys – without them, Gruffgoat may not have ever been created!