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US Major League Soccer Fans

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

The struggle for bigger crowds
 
"We have the most diverse ethnic audience of any sport in the USA," says Don Garber, the man in charge of America's Major League Soccer. There was pride in his voice, but Garber is well aware of the problems of trying to face in different directions at the same time.
 
The Major League was founded in 1996, and with attendances averaging 17,000, the first season was judged a success. Five years on the picture is not so rosy. Crowds are stagnant at around 15,000, and football still awaits its great American breakthrough.
 
A survey revealed that 40% of MLS fans come from America's large and growing Hispanic community. The figure could be far higher. Born into the culture of the game, the Hispanics flock to the stadium whenever a Latin American national team is visiting.
 
But rather than base itself on the Hispanics, the MLS was more interested in attracting a more affluent following - the middle class college scene where the game has made some inroads, or, better still, new wealthy converts to the sport.
 
An expensive marketing campaign treated the players like boxers; the likes of John 'the Juggler' Harkes and Roy 'Lights Out' Lassiter were given nicknames in a bid to broaden their box-office appeal. The MLS was part of the entertainment industry. And the entertainment was incomplete without a winner. So a shoot-out was introduced to decide matters if scores were level.
 
But for the Hispanics football is more than mere razzmatazz. In a hostile land, football is revenge - where the stocky Latin can run rings round the giants who dominate traditional American sports. Football is national pride. In a region of such disappointment and unfulfilled potential, football is a fundamental source of Latin American self-esteem. When Colombian striker Asprillla moved to Newcastle he was struck by the English fans' excitement whenever the team won a corner. What Hispanics most appreciate is a shimmy or sleight of foot that leaves the opponent off-balance and on the floor, even if it serves no objective purpose. It is understood that the adversary has suffered a public humiliation, even if he is instantly back on his feet and challenging for the ball.
 
The power of these moments comes from the importance of shame in Latin societies. And there is no greater shame than losing - the ultimate public humiliation. For this reason the draw is the perfect result for Hispanics. No one has lost face.
 
In 1999 when Garber was appointed he quickly saw that the error of the MLS had been to ignore the Hispanics. "We by-passed and under-estimated this market," he admitted, "thinking that our future was based on the future fans. Our strategy now is to go back and shore up our relationship with the core soccer fans and build our base from there."
 
The 'It's Your Game' campaign was launched, and the shoot-out was scrapped. Now if scores are still level after 10 minutes extra time then the draw stands. "We spoke to the fans," said Garber. "We listened when they told us they wanted to play the same game as the rest of the world, and now we've acted."
 
It changed little. The Hispanics are still reluctant to see the MLS as their game. It does not help that nearly all teams play on pitches borrowed from American Football, which are too narrow for Latin ball-playing.
 
An attempt has been made to import Latin stars. But not nearly enough has been done to groom America's home-grown Hispanics. The youth development scheme has been criticised for focusing on the middle class colleges, and ignoring the potential stars in the 'barrios.'
 
Without the full participation of Hispanics on the field, in the stands and in the boardrooms it will not be easy to establish the sport in the USA. Only when it really is their game will football become a genuine American activity.

 

Tim Vickery, June 2001

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