Soccer rivalries and the estrangement of fans from US professional sports

Ever so often there comes a moment that convinces me how utterly removed professional sports in the USA is from the fans. The recent fracas involving Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks shows how sports revolves around players, the coaches, the broadcasting companies, sports agents, and even the announcers. Missing in this equation are the fans. Nobody cares about them.
Watching a professional team sport like basketball, baseball, or NFL is similar to watching a canned product. Excitement is hyped up to recorded chants of “Lets go Knicks” or the music from Jaws. There is nothing organic that happens in the stands with fans developing their own songs or chants. Why would they? Everything is soullessly handed down to them. Everything is perfectly orchestrated. From the flashing lights in the arena before the players are introduced in the best Michael Buffet impersonation of “Lets get ready to rumble” to the 7th inning stretch in baseball.
Soccer is all about the fans. In recent years, with the increasing number of takeovers and escalating ticket prices, we have a more commodified version of soccer, especially in the Premiership but in the rest of the world the devolution of power still lies in the hands of the fans. And nothing is more emblematic of this power than the myriad soccer rivalries or the soccer derbies all over the world. We see fans in their thousands attending Fenerbache play Galtasaray, singing and chanting, unfurling the club banners, with fireworks going off in the stadium, and police being brought to control rioting in the stands and on the field. Fans regularly post video clips of the rioting. In Cairo, the rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek is so fierce, foreign referees are brought in to officiate matches because local referees are often physically assaulted and even issued death threats if they are perceived as biased.
Many of these soccer rivalries are rooted in deeply historical divisions between religious sects, socioeconomic classes, and migrant populations. Sectarianism underlies the celebrated Old Firm rivalry between the Celtics and Rangers. The two teams pit the Protestant population of Glasgow that traditionally support the Rangers and the more recent Catholic immigrants, mostly from Ireland who form the fan base of the Celtics. The rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate, mirrors a power play in Buenos Aires between the city’s indigent blue collared workers who support Boca and the patrician European elites and their preference for River. In Kolkata, India, a crowd of over 100,000 regularly turns out to see Mohun Bagan play East Bengal. This bitterly contested city derby sees the aspirations of the Ghotis, the traditional inhabitants of the state of West Bengal represented by Mohun Bagan against East Bengal, a club formed by the exodus of migrant Bangals from Bangladesh, who came in their hundreds of thousands during India’s independence from England in 1947.
There is nothing that even remotely comes close in the USA. Sectarianism is unheard of. The concept of a meritocratic society obliterates plebian and patrician distinctions. Immigrant populations arrive to get a slice of the American dream, not to create a diversion with a rival soccer club. The concept of a derby in professional sports is unthinkable. It makes no commercial sense. Why would you want to waste money on two versions of the same sport in the same city. Siphon off the TV, advertising, and merchandising money that rightfully belongs to one club? In the rare instance that there are two teams in the same town that play the same sport as in the New York Yankees and the Mets, keep them apart in two different leagues. When they do meet in their six meetings as part of the interleague matches, exploit it as the subway series. The longest and most compelling rivalry in US sports history between the Yankees and the Red Sox, fueled by the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the Sox in 1920 is a genuine one but largely based on the myth of the “Curse of the Bambino”, exorcised only recently when the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. However, the most enduring US rivalry pales in comparison to even the bitterness of a lesser known soccer rivalry as in Portsmouth and Southampton. This is because the Red Sox is assured of meeting the Yankees every season unlike the system of relegation in FA soccer, that gives an added impetus to the rivalries. The most rabid Red Sox fans would shake their head in disbelief if a foreign umpiring crew was brought into officiate a Red Sox and Yankees game.
Professional sports are addicted to made for TV rivalries, an ephemeral phenomenon peculiar to the US. For a brief intense moment in the late 90’s a rivalry sprung up between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. Pat Riley, the Heat coach had been spirited away from the Knicks with promises of virtually unlimited power and resources to shape the Heat franchise. A defection that rankled many Knicks supporters. At the core of the rivalry too, was the personal animus between Larry Johnson of the Knicks and Alonzo Mourning of the Heat. A fallout of the years that both players spent playing together at the Charlotte Hornets, where each considered themselves as the franchise player. The animosity came to a head when during a bench clearing brawl, one was subjected to the ridiculous sight of Jeff Van Gundy strapped around the leg of the scrapping Mourning taking a few wild swings at the Knicks. In all these ingredients the TV sports pundits saw the makings of a classic rivalry, touted as epic battles. As soon as it was proclaimed as such, it disappeared when Larry Johnson retired. Another transient rivalry began with the Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, largely centered around a special fan, Spike Lee and his itinerant trash talking with Reggie Miller. And now we have the Miami Heat vs LA Lakers rivalry that is this year’s Xmas special on ABC which sees Kobe Bryant against his nemesis, former club captain and minimalist speaker Shaq O’Neal. A rivalry very dependent on the well being of Shaq. When Shaq decides that his 4 NBA titles are enough and hangs up his boots, ABC will have to go looking for another hoops rivalry.
In all these instances it was not fans looking through the perspective of historical divisions of class, religion, or migration. It was players, coaches, broadcasting companies, sports pundits, and announcers, taking the lead. An indicator of where fans stand in this hierarchy lies in the 3+ hours of a NFL game that in all reality should take a little over an hour to complete. In order to milk each moment into an economic bonanza for the broadcasting companies, fans are treated to ‘dead time’ when players mill around doing nothing on the field during the game as the TV station takes advertising breaks. The expansion of the game to 3 hours or more gives opportunities to John Madden to indulge his soporific and sententious prattling. Madden is an astute observer of the game and when he says someone is a very under rated running back he probably is spot on. But then comes the Dr Phil moment when he turns to Al Michaels, and says that he is not just a good running back but a great human being. A long winded explanation follows. The deification of a player is complete. A taste of this came when Marcelo Balboa and Dave O’Brien called some of the soccer matches for ABC during the World Cup. Their commentary was a pastiche of a weather report and moral proclamations. Very little of it had to do with the game. In soccer most fans would not know the name of the announcers or even less care what charity Didier Drogba gives his money to. This relative anonymity is what keeps soccer fans relevant.
The estrangement of fans from professional sports in the US is crystallized in the rank bewilderment at the recent failures of the US teams in the international arena. The basketball team did not win this year’s World Championships or the 2004 Olympics at Athens. The US baseball team crashed out in this year’s inaugural Baseball World Classic, not even making the semi-finals. Did not the script say otherwise? After all the meeting of the champions of the American League and the National League is billed as the World Series. The ancillary industries that US professional sports spawn, write the script. In that script the fans form a footnote.

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4 comments on “Soccer rivalries and the estrangement of fans from US professional sports
  1. Some caveats as to what is written here; the exception to the rivalries challenge is the Bronx Bombers/Redsox series.
    The USA was playing baseball for a hunnerd years before these world championships were set up. Did we not do that well? Maybe it’s something like the way, the UEFA Cup and Champions League is seeing England teams continuously or frequently victorious; but how about the World Cup? It’s a parralllell; but I am not positive of what it indicates; but I’d say the business of the sport and the competitiveness.
    Lastly, you didn’t mention the NHL; hockey, I’ve got to think, the organ playing somewhat rivals the singing at soccer games found in many countries. Ice Hockey and the old NHL might be more on par with what you are looking for.
    Still, NFL stadia sell out often; some people in England really love the Superbowl spectacle and following the sport. Maybe people are singing at the games; but often it is probably no less emotional.
    Your points are valid; maybe it is just a cultural thing; and a lot of people rooting for some of the soccer teams in England say for over a hundred years; that gave root to the singing vs. different forms of celebration in the USA.
    You bring up issues that could fill whole articles or even books.

  2. Interesting article, but to be nit-picky, it’s Pat Riley, Shaq’s last name is O’Neal, and the game is being televised on ABC.

  3. Absolutely true. For fan power in the US, you have to go to college football or basketball. A game in the swamp between the Gators and the Noles with 90,000 screaming fans will convince you that something gets horribly lost in translation.

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