Relax - this post is nice and short.*
The "Summer of Soccer" was bullshit. But, it was important bullshit.
Take a look at the attendances from the big international summer friendlies MLS played these past couple of months. The numbers are damning. Take the statistics closest to me (and therefore, the most important) - high-priced sell-out for AC Milan, 81,000 for Chelsea-Inter, another 90,000 to see Barcelona, plenty of great seats available for Galaxy-Chivas USA.
What do these numbers say about the sport in America? What does it say about we as fans?
A little context would help. And if a little context would help, a LOT of context would help more. I've assigned you some reading.
Yes, I know. You hate clicking on links. And I'll try to quote the important parts of them. But I don't put these links up just to show off my mad HTML skeelz, y'know. There's a lot to disagree with in each individual excerpt, but take them together and it paints a picture.
We're going to skip around a bit. This is something Jennifer Doyle wrote about Barcelona fans and the soul of soccer in the United States. I swear to God I didn't write the Eurosnob diatribe in response to it. Sure, it seems like it, but I didn't.
My immediate reaction was that Doyle was wrong, offensively wrong, blindingly wrong, destructively wrong.
Why shouldn't Americans one day dream of having their own heroes? Why should they settle for distant heroes? Why can't we enjoy the professional game on our shores? Why do Americans have to settle for a kind of fandom that has roughly the impact of trying to salt the ocean by pissing off a pier?
Why would we assume that the game isn't "low-fi" in other nations? Do we think they don't have pickup games in Africa and South America and Europe? If we're trying to shun creepy capitalist greed, isn't following world soccer just about the dumbest thing we could possibly do?
And these are all very good questions, and Professor Doyle is still blindingly wrong. But she's a lot closer to the truth of our future as soccer fans than a lot of us, including Professor Doyle, would admit.
Many of you have heard Bill Veeck's famous line, "If you depend solely on those who know and love the game, you'll be out of business by Mother's Day." Through the miracle of Google, two seconds of research can put the quote into context, and it's utterly fascinating. Let me quote in length, hopefully this side of copyright violation.
Quick aside. Veeck wrote that in 1962.
I'm going to take it as read that American fans as described in this segment are English fans on steroids, when it comes to rootlessness, lack of class identity, fickleness of team identification, and overcompensation because of that fickleness. (Two seconds of research didn't find an apple-to-apple comparison of US rootlessness, but according to Pew Social Trends, while nearly 40% of Americans have never left their home community, the remaining 60% or so tend to move around a lot.)
The big difference I can think of off the top of my head is the franchise system that is a fact of life in the United States, and is a feared pariah abroad. People puke in England when you say "MK Dons"; they should puke in the US when you say "St. Louis Rams," but they don't. I think that just exacerbates the helpless distance of the average American big-time sports fan.
Peter Wilt just started a series for Pitch Invasion. He is pretty much soccer's Bill Veeck, without the carnival crassness. (It's impossible to see the Red Stars fielding a midget, for one thing.)
You probably read this one already - Mark Purdy in the San Jose Mercury News. Boy, I gotta reset the Bill Veeck stuff when I get around to talking about the Earthquakes' stadium problems. Anyhooligan, Purdy took a little stick from we sensitive MLS partisans, but just like with Professor Doyle's opinion, it's good to take another look at what he said in the broader context:
Oh, okay, well, Purdy got stick for his attitude, and the NASL folded because it was run with all the foresight of Evel Knievel jumping Snake River Canyon. But I don't think we can argue the gap between the attendances of the friendlies and the allegedly important games.
So who went to those games, and why? And what does it all mean, anyway? Let's try to draw some conclusions.
Fans may BE lackadaisical, results-oriented, fickle pickles. But they SEE themselves as, and want to be TREATED as, hardcore diehard diecore hardhards. Not in spite of that they may only see one game a year live. Precisely because they may only one game a year live. Or one every two years. Or maybe, depending on the team they love most, one game ever. If it's that big an occasion for them, they're going to invest a lot of themselves into that event. Especially if the ticket cost is, in the words of Donald Trump, yooge.
But when it comes to these friendlies, and when it comes to big names, it's about the event. American soccer has found a way to make money without building a winner. The Galaxy are now infamous for trotting out David Beckham against his will. By definition, nothing was at stake between Milan and the Galaxy, Real and Toronto, Seattle and Chelsea.
So those fans supporting the international team absolutely saw themselves as the soul of soccer. They felt it, for those two hours, bedecked in red or blue or whichever.
Are the international fans reachable? No. I agree with Purdy - they made up their minds.
But they are useable. And that's just what MLS is doing. They may never come back for an MLS regular season game. But they'll come back for another big-money friendly next year. If not them, someone very much like them. Three or four G-14 teams coming over, playing three or four friendlies each...plus the midcard teams who will play the All-Star game...don't forget America, Chivas, and a few of the other FMF sides...and we haven't touched TV rights for those games yet.
I'm not sure about my math, and I sleep comfortably knowing MLS will swim in blood sooner than tell me whether I'm right. But those friendlies may be enough to subsidize the rest of the league. If not, it's pretty close. Otherwise, why would they do it every year?
Think about what that means. MLS has found a way to make money from people who hate MLS.
This is where ChampionsWorld went wrong a few years ago, apart from being run by a couple of yahoos like Stillitano and Chinaglia. Two big teams, one game, two high fees for one gate. With SUM? One big name team, one high fee, one bunch of jobbers. Same big gate, half the expense.
So...where does that leave us, the diehard American soccer fan? Veeck never said how long a team would last without those who know and love the game, but in MLS, the answer is "a lot longer than you'd think." (Better than the NFL, at least, where the answer is "forever.")
Well, geez, we're still useful. Even though we're not as important as the lowliest sponsor, we can still show up and make MLS teams look sort of popular. Take me, for instance. Right now, I'm on the banner at the official Galaxy site with a bunch of my pals. I'm the rilly rilly pale one, seemingly returning a fascist salute to Eddie Lewis. I look like I'm having a ball! I'd pay to have that good a time, and I did already, apparently!
But there are limits. And speaking of Dallas, how are they responding to the doldrums?
Says it all, really. Plenty of sizzle for sale.
It's admirable that MLS is exploring ways to sell a pig's squeal, and at short notice - who the hell knew anyone was going to care about the US national team at the Cornfed Cup? And where did MLS get the brass to take credit for it? - but it shows a commitment to profitable shortsightedness.
Take the whole "Summer of Soccer" thing. First of all, MLS games are still going on. Allegedly important games. What happens when some wiseass calls the playoff season the "Fall of Soccer"?
Hey, the fans for several years now have responded to the latest shiny object. Freddy Adu, David Beckham, shiny new expansion teams, the occasional Nats triumph - can MLS just keep hopping on the latest soccer fad?
Probably. I have a 20th century viewpoint, of local teams as civic institutions supported by diehard fans who demanded a winner. If that ever really was true in sports, it ain't true now.
"Hey, what about Seattle? Hey, what about Toronto? Hey, Philadelphia will be traditional diehard fans! We don't need gimmicks!" Maybe. Check back with me when the novelty wears off. In a few years, your team may be running tripleheaders with Chivas and the state fair, too.
And either you'll love it, or someone nothing at all like you will.
Now, MLS is in a new world. Winning is nearly irrelevant, the big money comes from games where the result doesn't matter, from fans who despise the teams. I'm not prepared for that world. Are you? Is anybody?
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot kicking a ball in a meaningless friendly - forever."
*I know! I just straight up lied to you! How about that?