Sunday, July 29, 2012
Can you imagine the American-based National Football League holding the Superbowl in, say, Italy?
Could you imagine 29 Basketball teams allowing one Argentine team to play with them, and then having the audacity to call their national tournament the “World Series of Basketball?”
Can you imagine a Boston Bruins hockey player falling on the ice, and being immediately helped up by a New York Ranger?
Probably not. But that’s because American Sports are…well…American, and insular. Only during the Olympic season, and during rare, fleeting American media coverage of major global matches such as Soccer’s World Cup, are Americans even aware of sports in other nations.
And yet, in this insular world, the winds of change are blowing. For those not glued to the London games, this past weekend saw a series of sporting events, here in the United States, that indicates a growing challenge to “The Big Four” (American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey) and the insularity of American sports.
Yesterday (Saturday, July 28), France held its Trophée des Champions, the equivalent of France’s Soccer Superbowl….in Harrison, New Jersey.
In spite of threatening weather, 15,000 fans turned came out to the New York Red Bulls Stadium to watch Olympique Lyonnaise battle Montpellier to mark the official start of French soccer season (the cup is played at the beginning of the ‘next’ season, rather than at the ‘end’ of the season).
"New York is a magical place, and we were more motivated to play in New York and for a Cup final," Said Lyon forward Jimmy Briand, who scored the tying goal in the 77th minute and also converted the decisive penalty kick to give Lyon the title.
The game is traditionally played in France, but the last three cups have been settled in other French-speaking foreign nations: in Montréal, Canada; Tunisia; and Morocco. This marks the first time that the French have chosen to pay their ‘soccer superbowl’ in Anglophone America, and is indicative of the winds of change blowing on the international – and American – sports scene. The match was televised in almost 200 nations around the world.
“I think this was a solid first step for the French Federation to grow their brand with the American fan base and with American companies looking to expand even more into soccer,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing Services, the Comcast-owned company that helped with the tour and the French Cup. “The U.S. is becoming more and more soccer savvy, because of the efforts of MLS and the continued marketing prowess of foreign clubs, and it makes great sense for the French to be in the mix as well. Today was a great example of how strong French soccer is, and it played out not just before a crowd in New York but before a global audience online and on TV. It was a great day for their league and for the sport.”
Meanwhile, the NY Red Bull Soccer Team was not on hand to witness the match at their home stadium. The Red Bulls, the top-seeded Soccer club in Major League’s Soccer’s Eastern Conference, was playing the Montréal Impact in their Saputo Stadium.
I openly admit: I have recently become an MLS junkie. We had the Red Bulls-Impact game live-streaming on our laptops last night, while the Western Conference powerhouse LA Galaxy (home to now-famous import David Beckham) match against FC Dallas was on the Flat-screen TV six feet away.
But I also know I am not alone: In 2011, MLS reported an average attendance of almost 18,000 per game, with a total attendance of 5,468,951. Prior to the 2010 season, MLS had never broken 4 million in attendance, and only barely did so in 2010 (4,002,053). That’s a one-year increase of 37 percent, and that’s just stadium attendance; it doesn't include media spectators.
Even more important: At an attendance of nearly 18,000 fans per game, Major League Soccer is now attracting more fans, in the stadium, than 17 NBA teams and 15 NHL teams (*see list at end of post). Last year, the NY Red Bulls averaged 19,700 fans per game; the NY Rangers pulled 18,000; the NJ Nets, 14,000; and the NY Islanders 11,000.
Why the impressive growth in soccer in the U.S.?
Perhaps traditional American sports fans are tired of ego-driven million-dollar salary contracts.
Perhaps they’re tired of having Corporate money shoved in their face at every turn.
With each new NFL or MLB stadium expansion or rehab, from Green Bay to Citi Field to Fenway Park, more space is given to premium suites that are out of the reach of ordinary fans; in contrast, Major League Soccer teams have devoted entire seating sections to independent Fan Clubs that bring drums and chants and banners and passion. The fans-in-the-stands are actually respected and appreciated, and it shows.
As I watched from my chair last night, four times I saw soccer players extend a hand and help up a fallen man from the opposing team. I watched guys on opposing teams exchange shirts with each other at the end of the match in a display of sportsmanship and camaraderie.
And I realized I am part of a growing number of Americans embracing a truly global sport, played the way professional sports used to be played, with a respect for the players, each other, and the fan base that has long gone by the boards in America’s “Big Four.”
(Photo: Bill Gaudette, NY Red Bulls Goaltender)
*NBA teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Clippers, Suns, Nuggets, Wizards, Pistons, Raptors, Rockets, Bobcats, Hawks, Bucks, Timberwolves, 76ers, Hornets, Grizzlies, Nets, Kings and Pacers.
NHL teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Bruins, Sharks, Lightning, Oilers, Hurricanes, Predators, Panthers, Stars, Avalanche, Devils, Ducks, Blue Jackets, Jets, Coyotes, and Islanders.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
I have a similar memory from basketball. I would always allow myself to be blocked, so that there would never be a chance that I would actually catch a pass. But one time it somehow happened (I think the opposing team just gave up on bothering to cover me). I caught the ball. In my panic, rather than pass it or dribble it, I ran with it. Ooops.
There was the wrestling demo in grade school, where the gym coach flipped me around and my neck cracked as it bent backwards and I ended up seeing stars for 30 minutes. And the little league game where the pop-up fly landed not in my glove, but hit my voice box square-on, causing me to black out.
Now, I shouldn’t make it sound like I’m a TOTAL dork...I can play volleyball pretty well, I’ve finished (poorly) in a few 10k foot races, I used to ski fairly well, I can bowl and shoot, and I found some major mojo in the gym once I saw the results in my arms and chest from a lot of hard work while weight training.
Still, it is a little odd that the kid who used to find any excuse in the world to escape gym class; who openly identifies with the gay community; and who only learned at the age of 51 how to throw a football with a spin (thanks to his teenage son) – can actually get excited about the Superbowl.
And that excitement is not just limited to the Superbowl - as an adult, I have enjoyed the World Cup in a gritty pub in Holyhead, Wales; followed the NY Mets during the US Baseball season; and remain fascinated by rugby and the culture surrounding it. Somewhere I decided that my relative incompetance and ignorance in sports skills did not have to last forever. But for the most part, I am still a very ‘late bloomer’ compared to my male counterparts when it comes to sports, so it stretched me to my limits six years ago when I created a college-level course in Sports Economics. When it comes to discussing the media revenue streams to the NFL or the salary structure of pitchers in MLB, I can hold my own – but when my students start throwing around names and statistics and player numbers, I get that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling I got when that football somehow landed in my hands in junior high.
Reading through the threads on Facebook today, many of my gay friends are making funny comments about the Superbowl, and being kind of campy about it…looking forward to Madonna’s half-time show, wondering how well the uniforms will fit, preparing to make Cosmos, and musing about how good-looking the ‘goalies’ will be. All in fun, all acknowledging in a sideways kind of ways that they, too, like me, were the “outsiders” as kids who never “got into” sports, and for whom sports was a dreaded opportunity for humiliation.
But aside from the tongue-in-cheek and campy threads, there are many more that are basic “hurray-for-our-side” or “Who are YOU supporting today?” threads. And therein lies, I think, one of the reasons for the pervasive hold that professional sports has on our society.
In teaching that Sports Economics course, the very first topic we seek to answer is a deceptively simple question:
What is the product that professional sports is selling?
Students who take the course are often sports-a-holics; with the exception of one or two females per class, they are exclusively male; and they are often the kinds of jocks with whom I had *nothing* in common in junior high or high school. As they grapple with this question, they often wrestle with the idea that Professional Sports is ‘selling’ leadership, teamwork, safe expressions of warrior-hood and male aggression, unrealized dreams, superstar brands, and entertainment; and to be honest, there are elements of all of these things at work in sports.
But the conclusion they always reach is that Professional Sports teams are selling something much more elusive in today’s society: Identity.
Both of my grandfathers worked their entire lives in a single company. My dad worked in several capacities for the same government unit his entire life, and my mom worked for one company for the majority of her adult life.
On the other hand, between the ages of 24 and 52, I have worked at nine different jobs.
My mom and dad got married and bought a house that was 3 blocks from where my mom was raised, and one mile from where my dad was raised. When they retired, they moved to smaller condominiums and apartments within two miles from there (They originally moved to Florida for a short time, but realized they wanted to be "home" and they came back to NY). My mom still lives in the same community in which she was raised. My father’s distant relatives remain in the NYC, all within an hour of where his ancestors stepped off the boat 370 years ago.
On the other hand, though I was born and raised in NY, I left there at the age of 30: I have since lived for 8 years in Massachusetts (in three different houses) , and 14 years in New Hampshire (in six different places). Statistically, I’m typical of most Americans: according to the 2010 census, the average American moves 12 times in a lifetime (which explains why I am about ready to ‘retire’ and settle down a bit!)
In this fast-paced century, where people have Facebook ‘friends’ they have never met on the other side of the world, where they move every 8 years, and where they change jobs 10 times before the age of 42 – “where is home?” What is “home?” With a growing integration of ethnicities into the American salad bowl, a growing number of US citizens simply call themselves “Americans” on the US Census rather than holding to older European nationalities (I did this myself on the 2010 Census: it was easier than choosing more than 10 ethnicities).
And so, with global communications and fast-paced mobility, Professional Sports Teams offer a sense of ‘belonging,’ of identifying with a particular location regardless of one’s ‘temporary’ or ‘transient’ station in life. Today’s Facebook threads are full of people emphatically supporting the NY Giants or the New England Patriots – and the strongest fans are precisely those who see one of these teams as their “home team.” Their identity is, in some way, wrapped up in these non-military warriors representing the “homeland.” Native New Yorkers living in California will root for the Giants; native Bostonians in Texas will be cheering for Tom Brady.
And for that reason, this gay man who couldn't throw a football until last year is preparing the guacamole dip, reading the online sports news, spicing the shrimp soup, picking up some more beer, watching his boyfriend wire up the surround sound system, and getting out the ingredients for some kick-ass Hero sandwiches.
And routing passionately for Eli Manning and the New York Giants.