Sunday, August 2, 2009

In Praise of Fair Weather Fans (afterthoughts on Galaxy/Barcelona)

Some Galaxy fans think a lot of us Angelinos are not really committed to soccer. While we turn out by the tens of thousands to see Barça, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter, the fact is, most of us take a pass on making the drive to Carson and few of us really care that much about the whole Beckham/Riot Squad thing.

A number of MLS fans find this annoying. On the morning of the Galaxy/Barcelona match, I spent a good fifteen minutes in a heated discussion about this with one such fan. (We were both getting coffee at the local farmer's market, and he was wearing a souvenir cap from the Galaxy/AC Milan match - I couldn't resist asking him about it.)

He wanted to know where all these people are during MLS games. Some MLS fans call those of us who come out for these exhibition matches suckers (for paying for expensive tickets for off-season friendlies), and question the sincerity of our interest in the sport. The more extreme MLS advocates turn to a nativist logic - arguing that if you are in the U.S., and if you care about soccer, then you should support the U.S. pro league - and your local team - above all others.

This is, for many, the eternal problem - there is something intractably foreign about the game here. Even though it's been played in the U.S. for nearly as long as the game has been played anywhere, its fans, the teams, and the players seem eternally alien - the whole enterprise feels like it comes from somewhere else. The attempt to Americanize the men's game is as fraught as any assimilationist project.

I was one of the nearly 93,000 at the Rose Bowl last night. Barça's blue and red seemed to outnumber the Galaxy's white and black by five to one. This was especially the case among tailgaters - hundreds of camps celebrated the club that is més que un club. Folks brought tents, grills, lawn chairs, tiny pop-up goals - cars were outfitted with Catalan flags, Barça chants boomed from their speakers. I wouldn't say that these were casual fans of either the team or the sport.

This atmosphere had as much to do with the evening's pleasure as did the well-played game. It had me mulling over the morning's conversation about the MLS and its attempt to sell us soccer as a national pastime.

I found myself asking: "What do we want, really, for and from this sport?"

Is making a corporate success of the MLS - and lining the pockets of the dubious executives who run it - the lone measure of the game's success? Is rooting for the Galaxy, and giving our dollars to the creepy monster that is AEG the only way to express one's loyalty? Aren't there other ways to imagine what the passion of fútbol fans looks like?

Perhaps it looks like tens of thousands of people playing the game on nights and weekends in pick-up games, and youth and adult leagues. Maybe it's people congregating in local cantinas to cheer and jeer mythological giants on bootlegged broadcasts. Maybe it's the conversations it lets you strike up with the guy sitting next to you on a bus ride.

Perhaps the game practiced here is migratory and local, massive and low-fi.

Why not imagine that one of the best things about soccer in the U.S. is that it isn't a "national" sport, and that it's most successful here where global capital hasn't quite figured out how to exploit us as either a market or a pool of labor?

Maybe we should work on making the submission of our pleasure to the machinery of corporate greed harder, and not easier.


  1. Wonder why the Know Nothing crowd won't bash Barça fans for not siding with the Americans...

  2. good question! maybe the know-nothings are so not-in-the-know they didn't pay much attention to the game? or can only hold one bit of information (Galaxy/AC Milan/Becks story) in their heads at a time?

    i feel for galaxy fans these days, they really are caught between a rock and a hard place. but they got a great show last night, and i got to watch sweaty, deeply homoerotic shirt exchanges between Beckham & Henry. for $25! what a bargain.

  3. Jennifer, this post is exactly why I read your blog: you give perspectives on football from a totally different place to my background, and as a Grimsby Town fan and strident 'nativist' I find this stuff really thought-provoking and interesting. Thanks.

    The link to global capital is very valid. I was thinking just the other day about FIFA's agenda to take the game to 'emerging markets'; that it's just another form of globalisation. Football culture is bound to be more interesting and rich where it develops organically.

  4. Jennifer, well put as always, and I would agree with you. While there were plenty of Barca fans sitting around me (I was there as a fan of both teams, but rooting for the Galaxy more simply to hope to see a small club in comparison beat a giant like Barca) that seemed to be actual fans of the team (while I'll of course always be happy to say that I saw Messi live, my favorite player is Puyol, and there were some hearty cheers when his name was announced), there were a lot of people that just seemed to be happy to see a big European team.

    I've always been struck by how hard some people want to see soccer "make it" in America, when so many of the things about baseball, football, and basketball surround fans complaining about those sports or the players. It seems to be so much an issue of an inferiority complex--that soccer has to be popular with more people in order for some fans to feel like their passion is the same as fans in soccer countries. I remember cringing reading some people online celebrating when MLS got ads on the front of jerseys, because that's what "real" teams had.

  5. I'm so happy that you ran into the Galaxy fan at the farmers market because I have a feeling that produced the link that brought me to your site, which I love! Thank you for covering so much of what I am interested in from a perspective I appreciate.

    As I read this article my observations were, first, that people are too judgmental in general about how others enjoy their sports and about what constitutes a "real" fan.

    For example, I am a Liverpool supporter in terrible trouble with my family because I find it difficult to root AGAINST Michael Owen. I feel like I've known him since he was a baby and can't but wish him the best (which this season would mean scoring every goal that ManU racks up and that the total fall well short of Liverpool's tally ;-) long as I'm wishing, what the heck).

    Its absurd to think that people in the US who don't follow MLS are not real fans. I'm all for the league growing so that I can continue to enjoy attending live matches on this side of the ocean -- obviously its a sport that doesn't translate well to television and every game is fun to watch in person. But I have no illusions that MLS on or off the TV is anywhere near as engaging or entertaining as other football I can find on the tube on most days of the year.

    It was strange to me that US soccer fans were so rabid about AEG "winning" the corporate battle for Beckham's services this winter, just as they railed against the commercialization those services brought to the sport.

    Beyond my interest in just how creepy sports-business dealings can be (as you note regarding AEG), I found the Galaxy fans' response to Beckham's World Cup goals interesting because of what this post wonderfully describes as "nativist logic." Their fury has gone beyond the club v country argument (and well exceed a reasonable response to the often cited poorly played HALF season last year).

    The outrage comes from a lack of understanding of what exactly the World Cup means to everyone outside of the US (or anyone here who has spent time outside), as well as the misconception that being "committed" to the MLS -- as either fan or player -- means a blind assessment of the quality of play here. There might have been grumbling but no outraged sense of betrayal if Beckham's W.C. aspirations were appreciated as they would be elsewhere and if there was an understanding of what international managers ask of players -- something else also understood elsewhere as fans frequently see players want to go on loan or transfer to higher level teams (in better leagues than MLS) when they are fighting for a place in their national squad.

    A little less judging of other fans and players, and a little more of that time spent lobbying MLS for a reasonable salary cap and more equitable distribution of wages, would better serve both fans and players.

  6. great feedback Diane - thank you, great to have you reading the blog!

  7. Thank you! I'm going to try reading at least some of the archives without losing my job and have passed the link on to family and friends.

  8. I will own up to expressing "nativist logic", though I have to say it's probably been a couple of generations since anyone told the Italians to go back to were they came from, LOL!

    However, I don't think I would every go to the strawperson extreme noted here - that one should support their local MLS team above all others. I do think, though, that if the local AC Milan supporters could have a good time if they came out regularly to MLS matches AND they would be helping build the futbol culture of MLS.

    You noted at the farmer's market that the US already has a futbol culture, but that MLS' approach is a bit... Euro-centric and top-down. Posed in opposition to what had existed before and what continues to exist below the investments of the billionaires. All that resonates. Short of staging a cultural revolution or overthrowing the apparatchiks in League HQ, though, we have MLS. I'm not saying people should feel _obligated_ to support MLS teams. I'm saying - help make it better and help support the development of another layer of futbol culture in the US.

    Or maybe I just don't like AC Milan because they are owned by Berlesconni (sp?) and have a history of questionable political affiliations, while Barcelona has assocations with Spain's Republican past.

    For the record I'm not an Uncle Phil fan either. By rights I should hate the Galaxy in favor of... of... every PDL team? I don't know. It's an internal contradiction, for sure.

    But here's my comment on your conclusion, which I totally agree with philosophically. So, if the best thing about futbol in the US is that its dispersed, community integrated, and resistant to corporate exploitation and domination, does that mean I have to resign myself to watching cable and satellite TV if I want to see good professional futbol games regularly in the country in which I live?

    I can't believe I just spent this entire post writing what could be considered MLS and the LA Galaxy as legal and corporate entities. I think I hear my co-workers shredding my class credentials as I type this.

  9. hi nathan, great to see you here! i think as someone organizing a league, my perspective is somewhat specific. i am just expanding a blog article i wrote here about macarthur park - it's so totally outrageous what the city has done there - i guess i see on the one hand this pressure to support MLS, but on the other hand a city that could give a f* for its own home-grown game. and, i'm not sure the PDL guys are any better!

    whatever. i'll be at the SOL match on the 22nd. annoyed, still, about that Amway sponsorship, but cheering them on regardless!

  10. I don't understand how supporting an MLS club is an example of the "submission of our pleasure to the machinery of corporate greed" but rooting for an overseas superclub isn't.

    Barcelona may be a rare exception, but most of the big clubs that put on big friendlies here are every bit as corporate as MLS clubs, probably more so. Even Barcelona's outsider credibility is in part the result of very deliberate branding.

    Those of us who do support MLS clubs want the sport to grow financially because more money tends to bring with it improved play on the field.

  11. Hi Bob, I think you found me through Big Soccer? My point isn't that rooting for Barça is less suspect. My point is that the pleasure and richness of fútbol culture should not be measured by how financially profitable these teams are, these leagues are - but rather by our access to the pleasures of the game itself, by our own ability to participate in fútbol culture as something other than consumers, bystanders. I wrote this blog after a conversation with a fellow blogger in which the choice was either you buy tickets to MLS, or to these friendlies. That's not really a choice - as others have pointed is out, it's six of one, half dozen of another. (The MLS orchestrates most of these friendlies with big clubs.)

    I'm not saying we should boycott the MLS - but let's not pretend that buying their tickets is the only way to be a fan, or engaged with developing the game in the US.

    My question is: what can we do to support the pleasure of the game itself? What can we do to support unstructured forms of play and amateur leagues? Access to the game for boys and girls who can't afford club teams?

    Loads of people dedicate their time to those sites of play - and when we reduce the conversation about soccer in the US to a discussion of the MLS's corporate health, we leave that world out of the story.

    Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading my blog!

  12. As a sports writer who spent a considerable amount of time in grad school studying cultural identity and so forth, I'm surprised I haven't found this blog before. (Yes, I'm arriving from a link on the blog of my pal Dan Loney at BigSoccer.)

    I think Bob raised an excellent point. Barcelona is the exception that proves the rule. You may dislike the Amway sponsorship on the Sol (and Earthquakes) jerseys, but how about AIG on Manchester United? Gambling sites sponsoring tons of teams, including Real Madrid?

    I also think without a strong domestic league, the USA is more susceptible to being exploited by global capital. European teams are rushing to set up academies in the USA and sign young American players. And they're more than happy to come over, play a few exhibition games and take a few dollars back home.

    I've always thought the most compelling argument in favor of watching a domestic league is that no soccer experience compares to a live game. Sure, watching in a pub can be fun, but the atmosphere of a live event is tough to match.

    Without AEG, love them or hate them, MLS doesn't exist. Anschutz at one time was the owner-operator for more than half the teams in the league. It never would have survived 2002 without the tons of money he has poured into the game. (Shameless plug -- all of which you can read about in my MLS history book in April. :)

    Overall, I think I'm missing your point. If you're choosing between MLS and European visitors through the lens you're suggesting, you're choosing between a company that put up hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to build a firm foundation for the sport and a few companies that have latched onto an already-popular game in Europe and modified it for their purposes.

    That's what I'm reading, but I don't think that's your point. Can you elaborate? I'd be curious to read more.

  13. Thank you for quoting from my blog on your site.

    "MLS or European club" is an illusion of choice. There are much more dramatic differences in how we might engage the sport as fans – like supporting a PDL team. Or top-tier amateur games in your city. Getting on park councils and fighting to build or protect soccer fields. Organizing a team, playing on a team. Sharing what you know. Learning from others.

    Maybe some of us want a beautiful game - and that can be found on a hijaked baseball field in East LA or a borrowed polo field in Pacific Palisades. Soccer culture in this part of the US at least is not dependent on the MLS.

    The MLS in LA seems caught between two impulses - one is to raise the sport's visibility among the anglo/middle-class, to carve out a space for itself in mainstream sports culture. The other is to tap into the huge fanbase for the sport that already exists - mostly Spanish-speaking, largely immigrant and migrant, and folks that generally don't have much money to spend. They are the tougher customer - if they are going to spend $25 or $50 for a seat, they want to see the best players they can.

    One gets the feeling that the audience that is already there is worth less to esp. the Galaxy than the audience it wants.

    Among these "fair weather fans" of Barça are a lot of people that don't matter to companies like AEG, and on some level, we know that - and we don't particular think being "tapped" by them is our aim.

    re: Amway - Amway is different - WPS players (Freedom) have been reported to be selling Amway products to supplement their meager salaries. (Washington Business Journal) Amway functions by selling distributorships, and by requiring distributors to pay $ to attend sales seminars and buy "tools" as well as direct a portion of their sales "upline." It's a shade off Scientology, frankly (as is Herbalife). From "": "In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission requires Amway to label its products with the message that 54% of Amway recruits make nothing and the rest earn on average $65 a month."

    Can the WPS afford to identify itself with a legal pyramid scheme, at a historical moment when people are very aware of the damage such business structures do?

    How creepy is it to have players marketing Amway's products & its philosophy when that company is also one of league's sponsors?

    Women's soccer fans tend to be perhaps a little bit more politicized than the average sports fan. Perhaps that's because we are used to things like the following:

    From Grahame Jones's May 17, 2009 LA Times article:

    "'The small crowds add up to large losses, and the [Sol's] co-owner, AEG, will not put up with that beyond this season.

    'Are we going to lose money the first year? Yes,' Leiweke said. "Is it a million-plus? Yes. Did we expect that? Yes. Will that continue? No.

    'We've made it clear that our job is to get it started, and then we're going to let others step in here and continue this. But we felt we owed it to the women's game to give them a shot.'"

    So, if I'm not a fan of AEG and if I don't trust capitalists when they talk about their support for the game - can you blame me?

  14. Jennifer, had no idea that some Freedom players were selling Amway. Ugh. I find Herbalife much more objectionable than Amway because of the dubious health claims they make for their products, and it makes me sick that Galaxy players are forced to pimp for them. I'll never buy any Galaxy gear with their logo on it. There's just so many ironies around the Galaxy jersey being sponsored by Herbalife for me to wrap my head around--that it's so similar to how Jorge Vergara made his fortune, that the Galaxy is so woeful in reaching out to working class Mexican American fans that likely use Vergara's products or something else like Herbalife...

  15. Oh, Amway sells those 'healthy' products - some fitness water called "nutralite" (!) - which I believe the players actually drink on the bench? There's a make-up line that's also pushed at Sol matches. What's truly weird is that it's "Matrix"-like marketing - where you see these brand names everywhere but it isn't entirely clear what they are selling. To find out more, you are encouraged to contact your local distributor!

    The truly cynical cross: How different, really, is the "dream of owning your own business" from the dream of being scouted by a pro team? As soccer develops into a big, bigger business, are we heading for our own version of Hoop Dreams?

  16. Re: "Thank you for quoting from my blog on your site."

    I did? Where did you see that? I don't recall doing that.

    In any case -- it seems from your comments here and the discussion at BigSoccer that you object to specific corporations -- AEG for Anschutz's politics, Amway for the way it treats employees, etc. I'd say from reading "Soccer Against the Enemy" and "How Soccer Explains the World" that mixing soccer preferences with political preferences can be a bad idea, but to be honest, we all do it to some extent. Some people may prefer Barcelona to Real Madrid because Barca has a more benevolent history. That said, I don't think David Beckham is taking a kick against gay rights when he plays for the Galaxy or taking a kick for mid-20th century fascism when he played for Real Madrid. The organizations are more complex.

    But if you prefer not to support an Amway or AEG team, that's really no different than supporting some small club in England over Manchester United. That seems like a reasonable decision. I'd respectfully suggest, though, that this is a different argument than the one you bring up in the original post.

    The reason you ran into hostility (relatively mild by message board standards, I'd have to say) at BigSoccer is that many readers there are coming at this argument from a different frame. They've been arguing with "Eurosnobs" for years that MLS, while certainly not at the level of Europe's Champions League, deserves support. You've accidentally stumbled into a long-running feud.

    (And some of them find fault with the slippery-slope argument that Anschutz's politics are the first step toward anti-gay violence.)

  17. Jennifer, if you're making Big Soccer posters upset, you're doing something right.

  18. While editing accidentally lopped off a paranthetical "Dan, Thank you..." and the transition to your comments!

    I'm not even talking about supporting a club. I'm talking about playing the game, about unstructured and/or independent forms of play - about casual and promiscuous fandom - about the larger social world of fútbol culture that can't quite be calculated by the algorithms of global capital.

    My points, again, are that you can support soccer in the US without participating in the MLS. Or any for-profit league for that matter.

    Kuper & Foer's books actually tell the story of how sports and politics always go together. Even the fantasy that there is an apolitical sports space is itself a political fantasy. Even our nostalgia for the days when the game seemed more "pure" (England? Before the Premiership and big television?) is political.

    There is a political story to every social transaction, no matter how small or "innocent" it may appear.

    I actually rarely write in to mainstream sites. You wouldn't believe the vile stuff that's been said in response to guest-posts I've written for soccerlens, or that have appeared here when my posts have been circulated by more widely read bloggers. I had to point out to the soccerlens moderator that homophobic rape-fantasies - about me, about women soccer players (no kidding) - should not be published.

    Every now and again, I get comments like that on my blog (which is why it's moderated, and I no longer allow anonymous posts). I write for a feminist, queer, anti-racist and radical reader.

    Pitch Invasion has been terrific. And Big Soccer has been interesting - not at all like what I've gotten from other posts. The tone has been civil more or less. I stopped reading the comments, though - I don't have the energy to explain homophobia & how it works to people who don't really want to know those things. I shouldn't have gotten involved - it was the sarcastic mocking of my professor status, and the suggestion that I'm a liberal that made me see red & write in!

    My surprise has been at the difficulty people have of understanding the point that there are ways of supporting a sport that are not consumerist, or business-oriented.

  19. "My surprise has been at the difficulty people have of understanding the point that there are ways of supporting a sport that are not consumerist, or business-oriented."

    I think the surprise others feel is that you would attempt to make that argument in the context of having just paid a premium to see a meaningless friendly between two giant corporations. "Cognitive dissonance" is the technical term.

  20. Matt - Welcome to my world! Glad to see you here.

    I in fact paid far less to see that game than I've paid for LA Sol tickets ($42 a pop, not counting processing fees - of course that's partly about my need to be as close to the field as I can get)! The Barça/Galaxy tickets were $25 dollars, and my GA seats were upgraded to $50 tickets because of some promo (or glitch? overselling of GA ticekts?). So, the 16 people I was with all sat high up, in one of the corner sections. We saved money by tailgating - we drank our beer & ate our tacos with the crowd outside the stadium and took a pass on the concessions.

    I've never seen tailgating at Carson - but I'm not a regularly Galaxy or Chivas match attendee. I do know AEG went after the hotdog vendors who were working the crowd after games from the parking lot.

    The Rose Bowl is much closer to where I live than Carson, so I saved on gas. Lots of people took mass transit there. Not an option for Carson. More people I knew went to that game, so we carpooled. So, uhm, I'd say it cost half as much as the Sol match (which should by all rights be cheaper).

    Fact is, if Galaxy or Chivas USA played in downtown LA they would enjoy a much, much larger crowd for every game. Carson is almost impossible to get to without a car. I've always thought those teams did pretty well for attendance given the location.

    All of this is beside the point: nowhere do I say "don't go to see Galaxy games." Or, "cancel your season tickets to Chivas." I am not an absolutist.

    All I have said is that maybe we don't have to measure of the "success" of soccer culture in the US by the profit margins of these corporations. That people would find that notion hard to understand does baffle me.

    Cognitive dissonance? Are you trying to diagnose me? That's a psychology term - for hypocrite, no?

    Sure, I hold contradictory ideas in my head. I see it as an openness to complexity - and a willingness to express ambivalence and live with it.

    Hope you read some of the WPS & women's soccer coverage while you are visiting.

    Thank you for your comment.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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