There. I said it. I’m a geek, dork, computer nerd, etc. Always have been. The words your reading were sent to you from a server I built – for fun. But does that have anything to do with my love of the beautiful game?
D and Kinney over at The DCenters, have a couple of interesting posts up related to the types of people who seem to make up a sizable portion of soccer fans, at least in DC. They believe that many soccer fans make up a part of a subculture. It’s an interesting premise:
There were tongues wagging when Slate wrote about soccer becoming the sport of choice of the "intellectual". Of course, they were writing primarily about European soccer, but the point remains. There is something of a geek aesthetic to soccer supporters across these United States (and for which the Barra mocks the Eagles). But, in DC’s loud side at least, it isn’t just the geeks. It’s a hybrid of the geeks, the refugees from DC’s hardcore scene, and the strong ethnic supporters from Europe and the Americas. It’s a strange conglomeration, the kind depicted previously only by a handful of cyberpunk writers.
I think that’s a fairly good take on the situation, but I think it may be a temporary phenomenon. Now I’ll state right away, anything I write isn’t based off of MLS experience. We don’t have a local MLS team and the RailHawks aren’t playing yet (though even when they state, SAS Soccer Park is still a haul through traffic hell). Rather I’m going to try and add to the discussion from a view from the youth level (there’s a shock!) and how that may someday translate to the MLS and beyond in the US. In short, any subculture of soccer fans in this country is probably going to be overwhelmed in the next decade.
As my kids have gotten older and I’ve spent countless hours at our sports complex, I’ve noticed something about the spectators at youth soccer matches compared to other sports – soccer parents are the most energetic and vocal of the bunch, at least around here.
If you happen to overhear a conversation about crazy sports parents, most of the time soccer is mentioned. Sure, all youth sports have psycho parents berating officials, pulling out guns, etc. However, soccer is often linked with ‘crazy sports parents’. Is that fair? Not from a ‘parent got violent’ type of way, though that definitely can happen. Instead, it seems to come from how soccer can become such a huge part of a family’s life AND how vocal soccer parents are on the sidelines. That and the fact that too many parents yell at their kids CONSTANTLY, much to their detriment.
If you’ve ever been to a youth soccer match and then a youth basketball, football, or baseball game – there’s no comparison in the spectators. Sure, parents in ALL sports are cheering, excited, occasionally yelling at the officials, etc. But with soccer, the parents REALLY get into the game. I chuckle when I watch my eldest play basketball from the bleachers. The parents cheer, occasionally tell the ref to get some glasses, etc. But beyond that, it’s very tame unless the game is close late in the 4th quarter. Come to a soccer match and, well, whole different deal. Parents are INTO the game. Mom’s who are normally very quiet and reserved, get very loud and sometimes, er, obnoxious. Parents constantly coach their kids from the sidelines, will often argue calls the referee makes, and generally yell and cheer non stop. This is good and bad. One of my key coaching points for my teams is "Ignore EVERYTHING from the parent sideline". Getting them to tune out the parents helps keep them focused on the match. But I digress.
Part of this comes from soccer being non stop action. Basketball is close to non stop, however, since most youth leagues only allow full court press in the final minutes, much time is spent dribbling up court uncontested. Football and baseball have extended pauses between the action. Probably the sport most like soccer in the non-stop action department is hockey, and well, Canada has an entire advertising campaign dedicated to getting parents to calm down. Soccer never stops unless a player gets hurt. I think this non stop action is part of the reasons the parents get so into the matches. You never have a chance to catch your breath.
It’s that constant tension that makes being a soccer fan so unique. Sure, when a football or basketball game is entering the final minutes and the score is close, everyone is on the edge of their seat. With soccer, unless the score is 4-6 goals apart, which is not very common, all games are close and intense. Anything can happen. Every change of possession can turn into a score in a flash. It’s that tension that gets parents to assume entirely new personalities. And it’s that tension, I think, that contributes to the soccer subculture as you move to the professional leagues in the US.
Watching soccer is a RUSH
It really is. I multi-task. If I’m watching football or basketball, I usually have my laptop and can do stuff online while watching the game for the plays/exciting parts. Not so with soccer – you gotta pay attention. Imagine basketball if teams played full court press the entire game, non-stop, and close scores were the norm. That would be intense and that’s soccer for the most part. Defenders don’t often get to dribble halfway up field without encountering at least token pressure. Combine that with soccer in the US having always been a bastard step child and you see the appeal to certain segments of the population. You have an activity that is a rush AND is looked at by many as, well, wrong or not mainstream. Hmmmmmm. Can you see why this would appeal to certain people? Kind of like extreme sports? Rush.
Which brings me to a paradox. People watch sports for the excitement. Soccer is exciting no matter what braindead sports writers say. With action that never stops, you’d think it would be easier to attract fans. Sure, scoring happens less often (kinda like American football where a score of 14-7 often means 2-1), but the tension of teams on the attack happens much more often, even if they don’t manage to get a shot off. So why is it so hard to get people to figure out that soccer really IS an exciting sport to watch? Sometimes I think it’s because there are no breaks, and well, you gotta be able to hit the can or grab snacks SOMEtime. But that’s a cop out. I think a lot of it revolves around an ignorance of the game. Someone unfamiliar will see the ball passed 5 times and think ‘boring – they’re just playing with it’ while a seasoned fan will tense up because they can see the play pattern forming up across the field. I read all the time about new soccer fans who used to think it was stupid until they watched some games AND learned how the game was played.
I think the next 5-10 years will be interesting to watch in terms of how the US National Teams and the MLS increase their fan base. Youth soccer has been ubiquitous for years, but in the past 5-10 years it has exploded nationwide. With parents getting completely immersed in the sport as well as tens of millions of kids growing up playing it, will that translate into a bigger adult soccer fanbase? Only time will tell, but I think it will. With more and more households able to choose between any number of soccer matches from any number of national and international teams via satellite/cable, more people exposed to soccer as kids or through their own kids can get hooked watching adult matches where before it was very hard to find any on television. So while I agree with D and Kinney that there is a certain indie subculture to the current soccer fanbase, I also think the massive updraft of fans from youth soccer WILL happen sometime in the near future. When it does, will that mean a taming of the soccer fanbase? Far from it. Like I noted above – most parents are intense fans and I expect that will continue because the parent intensity on the sidelines is only in part due to it being their kids. The bulk of it, I think, is simply due to the intensity of the game. Trust me, we youth coaches live in abject fear of the soccer moms. Some of them are bound to become rabid fans of local pro soccer teams.
The next big question is this. When soccer does become a mainstream sport in the US, what will happen to the current fan subculture? Will it melt away in the hordes, move on to other venues, or become the role models all the new fans should look up to? Good Question!
UPDATE: Josh at ThroughBall has a great catch from Conan O’Brien and a recent skit he did on MLS. Watch till the end when Conan says ‘what a bad sport’ and the crowd groans – loudly. Good for them. But remember – you’re still supposed to think soccer is unpopular and ridiculed in the US. It’s a ManLawÂ®