Saturday, January 30, 2010

Supporters Groups And Sports Culture

I watch a lot of soccer. The game itself is pretty entertaining, but what really intrigues me when I watch a match from Europe or Latin America is what goes on in the stands.

Soccer fans are nuts. One almost never sees this kind of hardcore dedication in the United States (and there is a fine line between dedication and punching a fan from the opposing side in the face). Here's a good example of what I mean:

1. FC Union Berlin is a club with a lot of history. During its years in the East German soccer leagues, it was supported by the local Berlin trade unions. It carried on a bitter rivalry with Dynamo Berlin, which was supported by the Stasi, or the secret police. Union fans, whenever they played Dynamo, would sing thinly veiled anti-Soviet songs in the stands as police with dogs patrolled up and down the aisles.

Skip ahead to 2008. Union Berlin's stadium, the Stadion An der Alten F├Âresterei (Stadium Near the Old Forester's House), is crumbling. The cinderblock terracing can barely support the weight of the 15,000 or so fans that show up to Union's games. The club decides to renovate the stadium. Rather than pay construction companies money to do the job, the club instead uses approximately 2000 fan volunteers to carry out most of the necessary renovation.

Could you ever imagine something like this happening with an American sports team? It can't be done. And there's a reason for this. In Germany, sports teams are actual clubs that people can join, and in fact many teams require that a person purchase a club membership before he can purchase game tickets. Fans are treated as partners and stakeholders by the clubs because they actually are partners and stakeholders. American sports teams operate differently. Sports executives in America treat sporting events like a commodity to be consumed passively. This is so ingrained in their thinking that in recent years it has resulted in a marketing tactic called "sensory overload," wherein noisy music is pumped into the stadium through the PA system because it literally never occurs to the executives that it is the fans that should be making all of the noise themselves. Spectators in the United States are expected to be passive consumers. If you tried to do the things they do in Europe and Latin America, like hoist banners, light flares, stand or sing songs throughout the entire game, you would probably be kicked out. Take your free bobblehead, maybe buy a t-shirt, get a hotdog, whatever. Just don't do anything unexpected or spontaneous.

Fortunately, there are germs of a better sports culture in the North America. Fans of MLS clubs, for example, tend to imitate their European cousins and stand and sing the entire game, raise banners, and occasionally light flares. Fans of Toronto FC in particular have gained notoriety for their drunken, often ill-advised revelry. But this is all good, in my mind. If the growth of soccer in the United States means introducing soccer traditions such as tifos and ultras, then I am all for the growth of the sport here. It would inject some vitality in our moribund sporting culture.

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