This weekend people across the country are looking forward to settling down in front of the television and watching their favorite teams in action. For more and more fans that means tuning into games on the other side of the Atlantic in the English Premier League (EPL), the richest soccer league in the world.
Last season, both ESPN 2 and Fox Soccer Channel were claiming the highest viewing figures ever for the EPL, easily equivalent to National Hockey League and College basketball numbers. This summer, five English clubs made very profitable tours across the U.S. The appetite for the EPL is large and growing.
A new love affair?
It’s a phenomenon that is only slowly dawning on us English. We are unaware of the growing success of Major League Soccer despite superstar David Beckham’s presence. We are ignorant of the depth and popularity of both Women’s Pro Soccer and the Latino League. The English, for the most part, still believe that Americans either hate or dismiss soccer.
How wrong can we be?
The depth of America’s new love affair became apparent to me at last year’s FIFA (International Football Federation) World Cup in South Africa, where I personally met dozens of American fans who know every bit as much as I do if not more about the players, teams and tactics.
In South Africa, Americans were the biggest overseas buyers of tickets and not just for the USA’s matches. Back home, the Americans’ game against England clocked 17 million viewers; better than any of the first four games in the 2010 NBA finals and the 8.4 million who watched the Stanley Cup final.
We English fans are certainly beginning to take note of Team America’s performance.
But what still appears extraordinary to us is the realization that America has actually bought into the English Premier League on a colossal scale, both financially and emotionally.
America has had a presence in the EPL since its creation in 1992, when US national team players Roy Wegerle and John Harkes turned out for the Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday teams respectively.
Since then, a couple of dozen Americans have played in the league. Some, like goalkeeper Brad Friedel, playing this weekend for Tottenham Hotspur, have become part of the furniture after fifteen seasons at four different clubs.
However, America’s growing presence in the league is not confined to the fortunes of U.S. players.
On the business side, five out of the League’s twenty clubs are now owned by Americans.
The Glazer family, already owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, added Manchester United to their portfolio in 2005. Randy Lerner, owner of the Cleveland Browns bought Birmingham’s biggest side, Aston Villa, in 2006. Texan businessman Ellis Short took control of Sunderland in 2009. John Henry, savior of the Red Sox, bought Liverpool in 2010 from two other Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. This summer, Stan Kroenke, who had already amassed a sporting empire that included the Denver Nuggets and the St. Louis Rams, added Arsenal to his haul.
These are not just any old clubs, but amongst the oldest, most fervently supported and successful.
Comparisons are difficult, but imagine a weekend of MLB where British billionaires owned the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Dodgers and the Tigers. The Americans are not alone.
The flamboyant Egyptian (and former owner of Harrods Department Store) Mohamed Al-Fayed bought Fulham in 1997 and Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, really started the ball rolling with his purchase of Chelsea in 2003. For both, this was part of a wider strategy to ease themselves into elite circles. For the royal family of Abu Dhabi, the purchase of Manchester City was a means to promote their country, the United Arab Emirates. But these don’t seem to be the motivations of the new American owners.
The world’s most open soccer economy
In a globalized economy it is not surprising that U.S. sports investors have looked to put their money into the EPL. There are few barriers in the U.K. other than money to buying a soccer club. It’s the soccer economy that appears to offer the best chance of growth and profit. Though, as the new owners are discovering, in the absence of wage ceilings and revenue sharing mechanisms which are common in America, this is no easy task.
English reactions to these new owners has been very variable.
At one end of the scale Randy Lerner. His generous cash injections are loved by Aston Villa fans. His business acumen is respected and his attachment to the club recognized as authentic as this fan’s homemade tribute attests.
At the other end, Hicks and Gillett and the Glazers have been vilified by fans and subject to extended campaigns of protest and opposition. The former were perceived in Liverpool to be carpetbaggers and asset strippers whose ownership coincided with a collapse of form.
Once bitten, twice shy, the fans are wary but warming to the more measured approach of John W. Henry. One fan web site, reporting a public meeting where Henry met many fans, went as far as to say, “All in all, kudos to John Henry and Fenway Sports Group. The future is bright. The sweet silver song of the lark has begun. The Liverbird will soar high again.”
The Glazers, despite presiding over an era of success on the pitch, appear simply too grasping for many and are widely loathed. Aside from lumbering the club with gigantic interest payments on the loans they took out to purchase it, they have extracted over $30 million from Manchester United in the forms of loans, fees and payments.
The economic and political strategies of the rich and powerful are explicable; but the love and loyalty of fans is a whole different department.
In Southern California last fall, I found myself regularly woken at ungodly hours of the morning while my hosts and their kids were glued to Arsenal’s live games. I taught undergrads in L.A. wearing Chelsea and Liverpool shirts and ate dinner with a guy in San Diego who was finding Tottenham Hotspur’s ( my team) amazing run to the quarter finals in the European Champions’ League to be a more emotionally problematic roller coaster than I was.
English football is obsessed with the ideas of emotional authenticity, being a “real” football fan must entail suffering, irrationality and getting things out of proportion. All of these guys passed those tests with flying colors.
So what is it, I wonder, that English soccer now offers Americans?
Of course, people who like to watch soccer like to watch the best, and the money in the EPL ensures that a big swathe of the world’s leading talent is concentrated there. The fact that the whole thing is conducted in English helps. But something else is going on too.
The word that comes up, again and again, is the “crowd”.
Viewed from an English perspective, American sports arenas appear increasingly to have sought to control their crowds, structure their behavior and drown them out with relentless music and jingles. Something of the old order can still be found at places like Fenway Park, but there is little to compare to the unpredictable vitality of English soccer stadiums, in this clip breaking into anti-Glazer chants.
At its best English soccer offers an unbroken wall of noise that seems to lift the pace and intensity of the game compared to other European leagues.
Sample the anti-Glazer chants at the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester:
The days of hooligan battles and dangerous crushes on antiquated standing terraces are long gone; indeed almost every aspect of stadium design and crowd management has changed. However, what remains is an unrivaled capacity for wit and for spite, for song and for carnival.
Randy Lerner at Aston Villa has been celebrated with stadium wide chants of U-S-A, U-S-A”, and, “there’s only one Randy Lerner,” to the tune of “Guatanamera.”
At Manchester United the mordant 80’s pop-hit by the Smiths “Girlfriend in a Coma” is sung as, “Glazer in a coma, I hope, I hope, it’s serious!” But then this is also the crowd culture than can celebrate American goalkepper Tim Howard’s Tourette Syndrome to the Mary Poppins tune of “Chim Chim Cher-ee”: ”Tim tim min-ee, Tim tim min-ee, Tim Tim Tir -oo, We’ve got Tim Howard and he says **** YOU!!”
For owners and fans alike, winning or not, in good or bad taste, there are bound to be new songs and chants, barbs and gems invented.
This is something that American sport is losing. Perhaps this is why you guys are ready to bring your money and your affections over here?