Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hey, who hit the snooze button?

It was display rarely seen at Gillette Stadium for soccer, or any sport: large groups of fans bouncing, chanting, drumming and whistling in unison. This was the scene after the Canada-Guatemala quarterfinal match two weeks ago, and perhaps more astonishing was the fact that it was the Guatemalan crowd - whose team just lost, yet found the energy and passion to celebrate their beloved national team thereafter.

By now, you may have read Jim Dow's piece on the passion exhibited by the Latin American fans in relation to Revolution (and by extension, American soccer) fans.

The difference between the two is quite striking, of course; while a sizeable Revolution fan contingent do stand, cheer and chant throughout an entire Revs match (in the Fort, of course) the large majority of Revs fans are a rather passive bunch, and at times, curiously quiet, even during critical junctures of a match. So what prevents the complacent Revolution crowd from taking a cue from the Latin American crowd and begin a new era of boisterous, passionate celebrations? Two hypotheses come to mind: culture and marketing.

The Latin American culture is that is passionate about its soccer. There's absolutely no question about it. Drive through the ethnic neighborhoods of Providence on a summer weekend, and you're bound to stumble across an organized game taking place at a park or field. However, you're going to find something else there that soccer is more than just a game. You'll discover the smell of grilled foods, the sight of families sitting together, and the sound of spectators passionately rooting for friends, co-workers, and family members playing out on dusty and downtrodden pitches. And therein lies one key difference between the American and Central American perspective - soccer is not just a place to entertain the kids for a couple of hours. It's an all-day event. It absorbs an entire weekend. Soccer is a form of family bonding; kids asking dads about players, children kicking soccer balls, and a mix of English and Spanish conversation being exchanged between fans.

In contrast, the American culture is one that adheres to its own traditional way of cheering its sports teams. Clap, whistle, and cheer when appropriate, but not during the entire game. Once the game is over, time to pack up and go home. This is the way American sports fans are raised, and far be it for them to change their ways anytime soon. The countries in which soccer dominates the sports scene - where soccer is the only sport - raises and nurtures their fans to sing, dance, cheer and chant for ninety minutes, and thus, they are already conditioned to do the same when watching the very same game here in the States.

When it comes to marketing, there is no doubt that MLS clubs cater to the traditional suburban American soccer family, so to speak, where the kids play on the weekends, and the parents take their little strikers to the nearby professional club. To them, soccer’s merely the fun and inexpensive alternative to the high prices of MLB, NFL, and NBA games. In an attempt to attract the “family of four” demographic, the marketing departments have instituted a plethora of family-oriented events, and in the process, have squashed the notion that standing for ninety minutes cheering is somehow attractive. And it isn't - to the family of four that just wants to entertain the kids for a couple of hours. They want something else. In no other sport is there such a striking difference between to very different groups of fans for the same sport.

Taking note of the booming popularity of minor league baseball, which in the past 10-15 years alone has successfully campaigned to the same American family of four, MLS has tried to attract the same demographic by making its matches family friendly - i.e. sit back, relax, and watch the local XI while Jimmy and Katie throw popcorn at each other. In minor league baseball, the large majority of fans are families who continually find the entertainment affordable and extremely kid-friendly, and therefore, sit back and relax while taking in the game. There is no considerable section of fans in any minor league park that stand and cheer continuously through the entire game. Even in the wildly popular NFL, the most passionate of fans do not stand for all four quarters, but rather, during a handful of crucial two-three minute intervals.

This is where soccer becomes a very different kind of animal in relation to its sporting counterparts. The disparity between the two groups of fans becomes strikingly apparent when the masses of foreign fans dissipate after international matches, prior to kick off of the following Revolution match, thereby dismissing the MLS brand of futbol. These same fans know it - the energy level, the passion exhibited for the Revs, is nowhere near the amount shown for the Latin American sides.

Therein lies another unfortunate circumstance – the fans that could change the culture of Revolution crowd often desert the stadium before it can transmit its highly contagious energy. So some fault must be given to these fans for not giving the Revolution the same kind of energy they do for their national teams.
In the end, it all boils down to culture. It’s a clear-cut difference between traditional Americans, who “root, root, root” for their teams, while foreign fans cheer, chant, whistle, drum, bounce, jump and sing during an entire game. It's impossible to change an entire culture overnight, or even during the course of a generation - which is approximately how long it will take, bare minimum, to get the majority of the American soccer crowd celebrating in unison with their fellow Latin American fans. However, as long as traditional Americans view soccer as simple entertainment, and Latin Americans view it as an event, the gap between the two perspectives will not be bridged anytime soon.

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