Last week, I wrote a post about choosing a team to follow in the forthcoming MLS season (and in many future seasons). I tried to choose criteria that were important to me in order to eliminate teams, and come the finish I was left with Portland Timbers. First off, I was surprised with the reaction I got; I expected a bit of ribbing but not only did I get a nice welcome from Portland fans, but fans of other teams criticized me for the way in which I chose the team.
I’m not making any apology for the 4 criteria I chose; while they might appear arbitrary, I said at the time that all four speak to what I personally want to experience as a fan of soccer, and whether or not you think I ‘chose wisely’, it’s my prerogative to support and follow whoever I like.
However, I did think it was interesting that people thought I should follow my ‘local’ team – which would be New York Red Bulls. It isn’t that I especially dislike Red Bulls – in truth I don’t really care all that much – but this idea of it being somehow more genuine if you follow your closest side is something that is debated on soccer blogs and forums all around the world.
Soccer is a global game. There really are not any corners of the globe that doesn’t either play or watch soccer, and so, the concept that if you live close to a given team you should blindly follow that team no matter what strikes me as kind of odd. This should be especially true in the US, where 18 (soon to be 19) MLS clubs are spread across such a large geographical area. Let’s just say you live in, Miami. The most local club to that area is DC United, which is nearly 1,000 miles away. I fail to see why somebody living in South Florida would become a supporter of DCU just for this reason. Granted, I’ve taken things to an extreme – and it’s not totally beyond the realms of possibility that Miami gets an MLS franchise one day anyway – but for me there will always be reasons other than locality to choose a team, and as the game becomes even more globalized, the locality argument will become more and more irrelevant.
Does the fact that an individual chooses a team not in his/her neighborhood make that person less of a fan? Some would say “Yes, they are not a true fan of [insert club name here]”. That is ridiculous; aside from the flagrant and pointless adoption of the phrase ‘true fan’ – the use of which I would like to see punishable by flogging – who are the more useful supporters for a team? Those fortunate few who just happen to live close enough to the stadium to get to games, or those who follow from afar, by watching on television at stupid hours of the day, paying for online coverage, purchasing shirts and other merchandise?
It very much depends on what you’re looking for when you come to choose a team. Some are looking for shared experience; a sense of community in a world gone mad, perhaps. For many soccer fans (particularly in Europe) football fandom is genetic; if your father supports a given team (yes, feminists, it could be mother, but it’s generally the male parent) the chances are that he’ll encourage his children to follow the same team. For other people the spark that ignites their passion could be the first game they see, either on television or in person. (I know of a lady who chose Arsenal because she went to a Tottenham game one time and chose their arch rivals out of bloody-mindedness). It is true that locality often is a major factor in an individual’s eventual decision, but it’s no longer the principal factor.
Gone are the times when we spend the majority of our lives in one town. Most people will leave their hometown, possibly to go to college or for a job and it’s unlikely they will return. The sense of community that comes from having generations of the same families living within 5 mile radius of each other has been eroded, and gone with it is the imperative to only follow a local side.
Speaking personally, I really don’t care a great deal where supporters live or how they find a team. I think it’s enough that they become emotionally involved and care about the team. For example, Torquay United has a Norwegian supporter’s club; Norway has traditionally appreciated English football, and the Norway Gulls came about as a sort of protest again the Premier League and its cash-driven culture. The group scoured the leagues for a team that had never really done…well, anything…and eventually chose Torquay. There was a first visit to the town to take a closer look and their experiences that time made them feel that this was a club that they could support.
Once home in Norway, an email was sent to then-owner and chairman Mike Bateson requesting permission to create Torquay United Supporters Norway (aka Norway Gulls). Within minutes they got the reply with the go-ahead. Since then the group have been traveling to Plainmoor at least once a year, as well as a few away matches. The Norway Gulls sponsors the player wearing shirt number 11 every season, and in the 12 years of their existence, they have had more than 400 members. To me this can be construed as a more ‘real’ demonstration of supporter-ship than many of the thousands who drive all of 10 minutes to their nearest team every so often.
So I see no reason to limit fandom of different clubs to what is essentially an accident of geography. As a side note, this leads me to some ambivalent feelings about the English national team, but that’s for another day.
I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of soccer, and through various local outreach initiatives, footballing organizations can become an important part of their community. This, in turn, is likely to engender warm feeling in that community towards the club, and it is likely that a team can gain a few fans that way. However, expecting people to support you simply because they live close by is not the way to go, and I don’t think that fans should expect other people in their neighborhoods to support the teams that we do.
This is all something that MLS clubs can learn from; places like Toronto and Seattle have created an almost rabid fan culture that is a credit to not only the individual cities, but to MLS itself. It’s interesting (to me at least) that the newer franchises market very well locally, while the older clubs seem to trade more on other things, such as headline-grabbing signings. Of course, this a simplification, but for MLS to grow further the teams will have to reach soccer fans outside of their more traditional catchment areas.