The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Sport and Empire

Posted by steigs on February 5, 2008

Simon Kuper is the pioneer of writing about soccer as an international game and how it interacts with politics, economics, culture.  If you haven’t read his ground-breaking Football Against the Enemy — also known as Soccer Against the Enemy — then you really should just go straight to Amazon and order it now.

These days Kuper has a column in the Financial Times and this past Friday he had a doozy, an exploration of the way a British game (soccer) leads the world long after the sun has set on the British empire while American games (outside of basketball and a few spots of baseball interest) have little traction outside America.  There’s a host of ideas tossed off in the course of the piece — it could easily be expanded to be a New Yorker article or even a book.

As Kuper puts it:

This is a struggle between two very different types of empire: the British (which, contrary to popular opinion, still exists) and the American (which, contrary to popular opinion, may not exist). Emerging from the struggle is a new breed of sports fan.

As best I can tell, Kuper thinks that fan is one who watches sports on television, the spread of which represented a “second wave” of globalization in sports.  The simpler the game, the better it translates.  (Tough luck, American football or cricket!) 

It also means, he argues, that the EPL benefits from its heritage, that century of tradition that makes a team from struggling post-industrial cities like Liverpool or Newcastle globally known.  With the advent of cable television and niche broadcasting:

A century-old model of fandom – the man who supports the home-town team he inherited from his father – is collapsing. In the US, China and even Argentina, people increasingly watch Manchester United on TV. Chinese and American soccer fans mostly came of age during the second wave of sporting globalisation. They prefer the real thing to their obscure local teams. For the same reason, the NFL closed its offshoot NFL Europe last year after 16 fairly anonymous seasons. In future, American NFL teams will visit Europe instead.

Global fans want global leagues, above all the NBA or the Premiership. It’s therefore wrong to think that Beckham will save American soccer by playing for the LA Galaxy. American soccer is alive and well and watching Manchester United on Fox Soccer Channel. This is a posthumous victory for the British empire.

This is at the heart of the struggle MLS faces.  The more World Cup and EPL soccer becomes a mainstream sport in the US, the more MLS looks second-rate.  One answer is to, of course, import David Beckham and a few others to bring glamour and international track records to the league. 

But here’s another point.  If I were at MLS HQ, I’d be paying attention to the fan experience and encouraging fan culture.  The enthusaistic fans of Toronto FC or DC United make attending an MLS game a more enjoyable thing to do — and it’s something that an American can’t get watching a game from Europe.  Get that passion in the stadiums and also try to convey it on television.  This is something that moving to soccer-only stadiums will help with.  There’s only so much that can be done to convey excitement in a mostly empty Giants Stadium or Arrowhead Stadium.  Then Americans can watch Man U or Arsenal and then try to replicate what they see here at home. 

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One Response to “Sport and Empire”

  1. Stan said

    When MLS’s only problem is that a great number of people are watching soccer, but are watching European leagues because they perceive MLS to be second rate, then MLS’s problems are essentially over, since the league has an inexaustible supply of money to throw at the problem–if only they could be certain enough people were watching.

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